Joan Martis moved to Fort Myers Beach for the same reason many do, to escape the cold harsh winters and to enjoy life on an Island. When she bought her home on Indian Bayou Drive just before Hurricane Charley in 2004, she was all set to begin life as an Islander. She never expected that, just a couple of short years into her new life, she would embark on entirely different path – that of a cancer survivor. What this serene and normal looking woman did when faced with a diagnosis that would have brought most people to their knees is both inspiring and uplifting – as well as giving a whole new meaning to the word ‘survivor’.
“I grew up in Massachusetts and I always wanted to live on an island off the coast of Maine, but the winters were too hard, so I came to this island and fell in love with it,” Joan began, as we sat sipping iced tea Monday afternoon at the Sole Café. A beautiful summer day painted the courtyard different colors, providing a perfect backdrop for Joan’s story. “At first, it was all I dreamed of, then I started getting sick.”
“Thursday is the two year anniversary of when I was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia,” Joan said, her voice changing as she looks past us like she was staring back through time. “I had no idea that I might have cancer. I thought I had a sinus infection, and I was feeling tired, so I got antibiotics but they didn’t help. Finally I went to a doctor who drew blood and then recommended me to a hematologist.” Joan said the hematologist’s office was in Bonita Springs, and she’ll never forget the feeling she got as she drove to the address and saw the sign on the building. “I thought I was in the wrong place because the sign said ‘Florida Cancer Specialists’, and then my stomach kind of dropped out as all the pieces suddenly came together,” she told us. “I had looked my symptoms up online, and was fairly convinced I might have mononucleosis, but when I saw that sign it all made sense.”
Joan was hospitalized that day. Having no family here, she depended on her friends and neighbors to feed her cats as she spent the following 30 days at Lee Memorial Hospital, undergoing intense chemotherapy. The type of cancer she was diagnosed with is rare – affecting only 9,000 adults in the United States last year – and deadly, with only 20% to 30% of patients experiencing long-term remissions. Immediate and aggressive chemotherapy was her only hope for survival.
“They would administer the chemo for 12 hours at a time,” she said. “I had a plug in my chest, much like a computer plug, and they would plug stuff in there – the chemo or an IV, while I tried to watch TV or read,” she explained. “Even though the doctors said I had an ‘easy time’ with the therapy, it was absolutely no fun because while they’re killing the cancer, they’re also killing the good parts, too. I was very, very sick.”
Joan was let out of the hospital after 30 days, but only to allow time for her to recover from the effects of the chemotherapy enough to face another treatment. She told me that her treatment, called induction and consolidation therapy, is standard for treating her type of cancer.
“They gave me a bone marrow biopsy – which means they stuck a pencil-sized needle in my hip and sucked out the juicy parts – after the first chemo treatment, and said I was in remission,” she explained, “But my doctors told me that without the following treatments, I was unlikely to remain that way.” She would eventually receive four more chemotherapy sessions over the course of the next seven months.
“I had the best doctor and the best nurses in the world,” Joan said of her lengthy experience on Floor 6 North at Lee Memorial. “I was really, really, lucky. There were a lot of others on my floor who either didn’t go into remission or didn’t…do as good,” she said, sadly. “I want to thank Dr. Dunbar and his personal assistant (PA) Danielle for helping me through all of that.”
In May of last year, following another bone marrow biopsy, she was determined to be in complete remission and was given the green light to continue with her life.
“After all the treatments, I was pretty weak, I couldn’t even walk from my house to the beach – which is only 300 steps,” Joan said. “So I would get in my car and drive to the beach access and sit for awhile, watching the water. My biggest goals for that summer were to be able to walk to the beach and to see B.B. King in concert.” She would eventually do both, getting stronger and stronger, but then found herself with a case of survivor’s guilt.
“It’s hard to explain, going through something like this – it’s almost like a near-death experience,” she said. “I found myself asking ‘Why me? What is the reason I’m still here and others aren’t?’ So I went to my doctor and said ‘What now?’”
The answer would surprise Joan, a self-described ‘former couch potato’, nearly as much as her remission did.
“He told me about one of his patients who ran marathons to raise money for leukemia and lymphoma research,” Joan told me. “I thought ‘That’s crazy! I could never do anything like that’, but six months later I met him and he told me about a group called Team in Training. I picked up a mailer from them that was addressed to someone else and, after reading about it, thought ‘I can do this’.”
Team in Training (TNT), is the world’s largest endurance sports training and fundraising program. According to Joan, it was started by a man in New York who, to honor his daughter’s survival of leukemia, ran the New York City marathon with a group of friends. The group of 38, calling themselves ‘A Team in Training’, raised over $300,000 for cancer research during that race and hasn’t stopped since. “They hope to reach 1 billion this year,” said Joan.
The group provides training to run or walk in marathons, half marathons, 100-mile bike rides or triathlons, with the participants raising money for leukemia, lymphoma and myeloma research and patient services. According to the website,
since 1988, more than 360,000 volunteer participants have helped raise more than $850 million for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.
For Joan, it was the answer she was looking for.
“I started by going to an information meeting, then I chose the event I wanted to train for,” she said. “I decided to train for the Nike Women’s Half-Marathon, because all the proceeds from the marathon go to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.” The event will be held in San Francisco on October 19 of this year.
Joan trains with other members of the Southwest Florida chapter, some of which are training for her event and some for other events like the Disney World Marathon, the Rock and Roll Marathon and the Sarasota Marathon.
“At my event, we get a Tiffany’s necklace for finishing, and Ghirardelli’s chocolates throughout the race,” she said, grinning.
Joan will be race-walking though her marathon, and trains every day of the week by herself and on Saturdays with her group. “I walk 5 days a week, usually on three or six mile routes, and strength train the other days,” she told me. “The race is 13.1 miles long, about the distance from one end of the island to the other.” She told us that when she trains with her group, they sometimes try to adjust for the hills they will be climbing by walking back and forth over Matanzas Bridge. “Want to know how many times it takes to make 10 miles going back and forth over that bridge?” she asks with a mischievous smile.
Joan also works to raise money for her race. “My goal is $4800, and I write letters and ask people to sponsor me for $2 a mile, plus our group does fundraising events. I’ve raised $2800 so far,” she told me.
One such fundraising event will occur as this paper goes to press – The Wine Tasting and Silent Auction at Vino 100 in Fort Myers – ironically coinciding with the two-year anniversary of her diagnosis. Joan says that the support she’s received from her adopted hometown of Fort Myers Beach has been amazing. “A lot of local businesses have donated to the silent auction, including Lorri Wolf Florist, Beach Theater, Key West Express, the Outrigger, Captain Tony’s Fishing Adventure, Getaway Marina, and the Gullwing Resort,” she said.
Her story has inspired other locals, too. Marsha Gardener, who works at the Beach Library where Joan volunteers on Thursday mornings, is the person who brought this story to my attention.
“I met Joan when she started working here, then I didn’t see her for awhile. When she came back, she told us about what she went through,” said Marsha. “It’s so amazing to think she’s going to be in a marathon after all that!” Marsha told me that Joan “has been a great friend and a real inspiration in my life, and she’s got a great sense of humor, too!”
“She probably thinks that because she saw me with no hair,” quipped Joan.
It is undoubtedly that sense of humor that has seen Joan through her ordeal. According to a fundraising letter she sends, every 5 minutes someone is diagnosed with blood cancer and every 10 minutes someone dies from it.
“I’ll be honest,” she told me. “When I was a little girl and I used to watch the Boston Marathon runners pass my house, never once did I think, ‘Oh! I wish that were me! But I’m doing this for a cure. I don’t want anyone else to have to go through months of cancer treatments. How bad can 5 months of race walking and a 13.1 mile race be compared to that?”
Her outlook for the future is equally positive. “Even though I’m in remission, there’s no guarantee I’ll stay that way, but I feel like we’re making big strides to raise money for cancer research and hopefully, if I do go out of remission, they’ll have found something to help,” she said.
“I just keep thinking, ‘One mile at a time’.”
For more information about donating to Joan’s race, go to her website – called ‘Joan runs like girl’ – at http://pages.teamintraining.org/swfl/nikesf08/jmartis, or you can email her at email@example.com.
Keri Hendry – originally published in the Island Sand Paper, August 1, 2008