Against All Odds

Making the best out of any situation has become a way of life for Debbie Hobbs. Those skills came in handy when she became a wife and mother to four children…

Making the best out of any situation has become a way of life for Debbie Hobbs. Those skills came in handy when she became a wife and mother to four children. They came in handy when she became a successful real estate agent at a time when the field was dominated by men. But years after becoming a wife, mother and successful business woman those skills were tested when her husband was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Then 5 years after his diagnosis at just 55 years old her husband, Eddie Hobbs, died from complications brought on by Alzheimer’s. It wasn’t until 6 months after Eddie’s death that Debbie’s positive attitude was put to the ultimate test. “I found a lump in my left breast during Thanksgiving. I had a friend who’s a nurse come over and she said I shouldn’t worry because I had just had a mammogram 6 months prior, but to be safe I should make an appointment with my doctor.”

The following week after going through a mammogram and an ultrasound, Debbie was informed that the mass she had discovered was indeed breast cancer. The day after hearing the news Debbie was sent to see oncologist Dr. Nancy Peacock at Baptist Hospital. Dr. Peacock explained that in order to determine what stage her cancer was in and what treatment was necessary she would have to perform a needle biopsy. Results of the biopsy showed Debbie’s official diagnosis was stage III ductal carcinoma. “I broke. I cried with the nurse and my gynecologist, Kathy Deppen. My youngest was 12 years old. All of my children had just lost their father. I was worried about them and knew that I was going to fight with everything I had in me. This diagnosis was not going to beat me.” Her doctors explained that her diagnosis meant the cancer had not spread but she would have to undergo a double mastectomy-a procedure where surgeons remove both breasts- and chemotherapy to kill any additional cells that may have spread. Debbie credits a strong support system as well as an amazing team of physicians and caregivers with helping keep her attitude in check. “You have to be sad. It’s normal to feel sad, mad and scared but you have to feel those emotions then move on to the next stage like ‘how am I going to beat this?’”

While it was hard losing the patriarch of their family at such a young age when her older children heard of their mother’s diagnosis they wanted her to take immediate action. “I found out the week after Thanksgiving and I wanted to wait until after Christmas to have surgery and begin treatments. But my children would not hear of it. They said ‘mom we will not be able to enjoy the holidays if we know that cancer is still in your body.’ They were worried about it being in my system any longer.” She took the advice of her children and scheduled her surgery. On December 20, 2004 Debbie underwent a double mastectomy and the first stage of reconstruction. She arrived home on Christmas Eve in more pain than she imagined. “It was really bad. No one can prepare you for how your body will take a surgery like that but fortunately I had my sister Susan Thomas and my 12 year old daughter, Jenny, to care for me round the clock.” After undergoing six rounds of chemotherapy, Debbie began the process of healing mind and soul. 

In just a few weeks she will celebrate a milestone. On December 20, 2009 she will be cancer free for the fifth year. Debbie says that when a cancer patient reaches the five year mark chances of recurrence go down significantly. A lot has changed since her original diagnosis. The most significant, she met and married a wonderful man, Dennis Little, whom she credits with keeping her positive. When she’s not busy selling real estate, being a mom, grandmother and wife, Debbie thrives on helping others faced with breast cancer understand the disease and get through it.  “When you’re going through chemo your immune system is compromised and you should not have any visitors. But there are things you can do. I can’t tell you how much a simple gesture like sending a card or phone call means to someone going through cancer. Just being able to talk about how I was feeling in one of the scariest times of my life made me feel more peaceful. As someone who has survived breast cancer I can tell you the best thing you can do is be informed. I read everything I could.”

To celebrate her 5 year mark Debbie has adorned an artificial tree with pink ribbons and ornaments along with bright, white lights. “I call it my cancer tree. I wanted to set it up this year because it means so much to be closing in on my 5th year being cancer free. I thought people would think I’m crazy for putting up my Christmas tree and calling it my cancer tree but when you’ve been through Stage 3 breast cancer you just don’t care what people think.”

The scary days of first being diagnosed are gone as well as the physically ill days of chemotherapy. Debbie still remembers the day she watched chunks of her hair hitting the floor as beautician, Angela Young, tenderly shaved the bits of blonde locks left after the ravages of chemo had taken the rest. “That was harder than losing my breasts. It was nice not to worry about styling my hair anymore but I know that things could have turned out so much worse. I have been given more time. So in a way this cancer was a blessing. I don’t ever take anything for granted. And if that’s all I learned from this awful disease that’s fine by me.”
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A Survivor’s Story

He wasn’t supposed to be here today. In fact, Johnny Keel has defied the logic of practically all conventional medicine. But it’s clear when you talk to him about his nine year battle with colon cancer he’s anything but conventional. Originally diagnosed with Stage I Colon Cancer in June of 2000, Keel was given a clean bill of health after having a portion of his colon removed and tests revealed that the cancer had not spread to his lymph nodes. “They [Doctors] thought I was good to go and so did I.” Because additional tests revealed the cancer had not spread, Johnny didn’t have to go through chemotherapy or radiation.

The very fact that Johnny had cancer proves that it doesn’t matter how healthy you live, you are not immune to it. For over thirty years Johnny has been in the business of health, opening his first health and fitness center in Texas in 1979. The Texas native met Peggy- who had already established a name in fitness by opening Sports Village in Lebanon, Tennessee in 1987- and with all they had in common, sparks flew. They were married in 1993. Shortly after saying “I do” Johnny moved to Lebanon and began running Sports Village with Peggy. It’s his commitment to health that he credits with helping him cope with news that tested the perseverance he’s known for, not long after his first diagnosis of colon cancer.

After three years of good health, Johnny’s world was rocked when he went back for a routine follow up exam in July of 2003. He was told the devastating news that not only had the cancer returned but this time his prognosis was much more bleak than before. His new diagnosis was Stage III inoperable colon cancer. Doctors explained that there was very little they could do to help him since the cancer was considered inoperable. “That’s when I decided to go to MD Anderson Medical Center in Texas. I wanted to see if there was anything they could do for me. There was no way I was giving up.” After arriving at MD Anderson and going through a battery of tests doctors there told him that even if the surgery to remove the cancer went perfectly and they were able to take out all of the cancer, he only had a 30-40% chance of surviving 5 years. “You want to talk about the wind being knocked out of you? My whole body went numb. You’re standing there in front of this big surgeon who has just handed you a death sentence and all I can think is ‘5 years is not long enough.’ That was 6 years ago and I’m still here.”

While Johnny and Peggy respect the benefits of conventional medicine, its limitations forced them to try alternative therapies. Peggy is a fixer by nature and when it comes to her family, she was not willing to simply take someone’s word for it that there was little hope to expect her husband to live past 5 years. She did what anyone else would do when faced with an obstacle that seems overwhelming, she went online. “You have to be careful because there is so much misinformation out there. I didn’t know what to believe and what not to believe. All I knew to do was pray.” Through a series of interviews and heavy research Peggy found a program called CAAT [Controlled Amino Acids Treatment]. CAAT is an amino acid and carbohydrate deprivation protocol using scientifically formulated amino acids. It is based on the fact that the needs of normal cells and cancer cells are quite different. By manipulating the diet of a cancer patient and supplying a proprietary blend of amino acids (the building blocks of protein in the body), cancer cells may be literally starved to death. The program consists of: (1) a strict diet; (2) a special amino acid blend, which contains high doses of certain amino acids and low doses of others—the exact blend depends to some extent on the type of cancer being treated; (3) certain nutritional supplements and the avoidance of others. Because CAAT was not conventional Johnny’s oncologists at MD Anderson were not supportive of the treatment but Peggy is quick to point out that without CAAT Johnny may not have survived. “I think that program contributed to Johnny making it through that first year after the second diagnosis. Your body has to be strong. Chemo beats your body down and your body needs to be strong enough to fight.”

One year later, physicians at MD Anderson sent Johnny back to Vanderbilt. Doctors there wanted him to quit his special diet and begin eating whatever he wanted because they said it would keep him strong through chemotherapy treatments. Johnny refused and adds, “I knew the success rate with using only chemotherapy to treat colon cancer was not very high and how could eating healthy be bad for you while you are getting chemo?” 

Because the CAAT program worked so well for Johnny, Peggy felt that she needed to find something else that would help with treatments. Through more heavy research she found a doctor in Evanston, Illinois. Peggy refers to Dr. Keith Block as one of a handful of geniuses who live in the United States. While Block offers traditional therapies for cancer treatment like chemotherapy and radiation, he also recommends vitamin supplementation in conjunction with these treatments. Peggy explains, “Because he was an out of the box thinker like we were, we knew that we had to give him a try. When you’re faced with dying, you need to consider all options not just conventional treatments. I have nothing against physicians who don’t make a habit of using holistic or alternative treatments. In fact, conventional treatments have helped Johnny too. But when the doctor tells you there’s nothing else they can do, you can’t just give up. At least I wasn’t giving up.”  Dr. Block uses the highest level of conventional medicine and integrates those conventional protocols with advanced complementary therapies that address the physical, nutritional, psychosocial, and spiritual aspects of healing and recovery. Peggy was impressed by what she witnessed during the first treatment. “When Johnny would get his chemo treatments they would also give him a bag of vitamin supplements to build his body up after the chemo had broken it down. It made sense. You are putting chemo, which is a poison in your body to kill cancer, but it can also destroy healthy cells. By putting these vitamins in it gives your body the strength to fight.”

Johnny has returned to Nashville to receive treatments but he still continues his eating plan and supplementation. Treatments like the CAAT program and some others he’s used can be very expensive and since some of these therapies are not FDA approved they are rarely covered by insurance. However, Johnny insists that there is one treatment that anyone can do. “It costs very little to eat right. You would be surprised how much your life will change if you stop eating red meat, white flour and too many preservatives and start eating fresh fruits and vegetables. If you fill your body with junk you can’t expect it to fight if you have a disease like cancer.”

Here we are almost exactly 6 years after a diagnosis that predicted Johnny wouldn’t be alive beyond 2008. The cancer that was predicted to take his life is still in his body and as of press time has spread to his tail bone. He’s still very active, helping with the day to day operation at Sports Village. On any given day you will see him talking to members and encouraging them as they reach their fitness and personal goals.

Living beyond the five year marker he was given in 2003 is not the only reason the Keels’ are celebrating. “In 2003 after we found out the cancer was back he looked at me and said ‘I won’t make it to my 60th birthday’ and his 60th birthday was in August! I knew he would make it but he was afraid he wouldn’t.”

To commemorate a day that Johnny wasn’t supposed to see, Peggy arranged a surprise birthday party for him. On July 31, 2009, one day before his 60th birthday, he arrived at Five Oaks Country Club in Lebanon and was greeted by more than 100 friends and family, including 18 of his closest friends from Texas who had never been to Tennessee, waiting outside. And as he made his way around the crowd tears filled his eyes as 60 balloons were released. He made it. Even though he reached his 60th birthday Johnny’s not giving up. “Now my goal is to make it 62 and after that 65. No matter what happens, no matter when God decides that my time here is done, I’ll know I gave life my best and I’ll always be thankful that I had Peggy and the rest of our family and friends helping me live that way.”

If anyone is interested in learning more about the alternative therapies that the Keels’ have tried, Peggy encourages you to contact her at 615-449-0031.

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