Goodbye Charlie – a cancer survivor’s story

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Cancer research has come a long way in the last 20 years.

A UNMC professor asked his first-year med students to tell why they wanted to be doctors. This was last fall, on the first day of school. All the stories were good.

But none was better than Sarah Synovec’s.

Sarah, a UNL graduate, is the daughter of a doctor and a nurse. She’s dreamed of being a doctor all of her life. As a sixth-grader, she volunteered at the hospital in her hometown of Topeka, Kan. One day she came in early and, by mistake, witnessed doctors and nurses trying to save a man who’d been shot in the head. She saw the entrance and exit wounds. She saw the blood. The man looked like something out of a horror film.

Instead of turning her stomach, this fascinated her. She wanted more than ever to be a doctor and try to save people like him. He died. But the picture of him stayed with her.

Sarah told her UNMC classmates and professor on that first day of med school that she herself had just been someone who had been saved, that she recently had survived Hodgkin’s lymphoma and a 13-centimeter mass in her chest (“Charlie,” she’d named the mass, joking that only a man can cause such agony).

Some classmates knew what she’d been through because they knew her from UNL, when she was fatigued from chemo at times and wore a wig. But the others were shocked. Sarah, blond and beautiful, looked like the poster child of health.

The professor spoke.

“You know,” he said, “you wouldn’t even be sitting here 20 years ago. You wouldn’t be alive. That’s how far we’ve come in cancer research.”

Sarah already knew that. She knew she had a cancer that’s highly curable now – 95 percent survival rate, even in advanced stages. She knew she’s alive because cancer researchers worked hard to find effective treatments.

And because people cared enough to give money to cancer research.

“Those people who gave that funding 20 years ago are so generous,” Sarah says. “They’re why I’m here today, too – why I’m getting to live the rest of my life. I don’t even think the people who donated money to cancer research 20 years ago have any idea what they did for me. Not just for me, but for so many people.

“I would tell them thanks – thanks for giving however much money you did so that people had the resources they needed to find the cure for my cancer.”

She’s amazed how far treatment for Hodgkin’s has come in such a short time.

“Sometimes I think about all the things I would have missed out on. I got engaged, graduated from college, my brother graduated from high school, I turned 21. I’ll get to have children and get to see them grow.”

She’ll get to be a doctor.

The “top dog” doctor for Hodgkin’s lymphoma treated her at UNMC – James Armitage.

Sarah’s dad went to med school at UNMC and did his residency there. Her mom worked at UNMC, too. She was a nurse in the bone-marrow transplant unit. When they learned Sarah had cancer, they took her to UNMC and to Armitage – another UNMC grad.

“Dr. Armitage was a little terrifying to me actually,” Sarah says. “I had always heard about him because my mom worked for him back in the ’80s. And here I am, 19 years old, wanting to be a doctor and then meeting one of the world’s most renowned physicians. It was really intimidating.

“But my parents were like, on the drive all the way up, ‘If anyone can fix it, he can.'”

She didn’t expect Armitage, with his massive background, to be as caring as he was or to explain things as well as he did. He impressed her with the way he connected with her entire family. In some ways, she says, it was like she had started med school long before that first day of class.

“Charlie” taught her what it’s like to be a patient with a life-threatening illness. Armitage taught her how to be a doctor with a heart.

“The first time he sat down with my family, my mom was of course crying. I’m not a crier. But my mom is crying and I kind of look over like, ‘Mom, really? We’ve known about this for days now.’ And Dr. Armitage says, ‘You know, this probably is going to be harder on your parents than it is on you.’ He made me realize that this would be a family thing, a team effort for patient care – yourself, your family, the doctors, the nurses, everybody.”

When she was at UNL, Sarah helped a chemistry professor do pancreatic cancer research. He collaborated with researchers at UNMC’s Eppley Cancer Institute. She attended conferences.

“It was cool to see the amazing people doing this amazing research,” she says. “It gave me a better appreciation of the types of things being done at that center.

“The cancer center and the quality of care that I got there was truly remarkable. One reason I chose to apply to medical school at Nebraska was that I knew that after having gone through treatment here, after having worked with the physicians and nurses, that there was no other place to be. I knew they turned out fantastic doctors. I knew they were heading into the right place for cancer research.

“I knew that to get the best education, you had to go to the best place.”

Someday she will be a doctor – an oncologist. She will be a donor. She will be an advocate for cancer research. She will tell the story of her journey to her patients and anyone else because it’s one with hope.

And a happy ending.

Cancer research is a top priority of the Campaign for Nebraska. To learn more or to give, visit or contact the foundation’s Tom Thompson at 402-502-4116.

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