*Editor’s Note: We are saddened to share that Barbara Mohler passed away on January 19, 2018. Her story of 38 years of breast cancer survivorship remains an inspiration.
Barbara Mohler has been fighting breast cancer for 37 years. First diagnosed in 1980, she has battled many recurrences. “For a long time, I felt like I was just one of many,” she says. Unsatisfied with that feeling, in 2002, she placed a call to Johns Hopkins, hoping to find a different path for her care.
“They said there was a new oncologist I could get an appointment with—Dr. Stearns—and she and I have been together ever since,” Mohler says, laughing. “I tell Dr. Stearns that when she gets a new office, I want my name on the door too. I got her this far!”
Vered Stearns is director of the Kimmel Cancer Center’s Breast Cancer Program and she has treated Mohler’s metastatic breast cancer for 15 years. Mohler, who describes herself as “picky,” says the long relationship is indicative of her trust in Stearns. “If I feel that a doctor is not the doctor for me, I won’t go back,” she says.
At the Kimmel Cancer Center, Mohler says, she has been able to find doctors and nurses who have worked with her over the years to treat her as an individual and work with her to find the treatment plan that works best for her. “No two cancers are the same. I’m not the same as the person next to me with metastatic breast cancer,” she says. “Dr. Stearns, her nurse Maureen Berg and everyone involved in my treatment at the Kimmel Cancer Center have recognized that, and that’s important. It’s made all the difference.”
The 79-year-old has undergone a lumpectomy, a mastectomy, radiation and several types of chemotherapy since August 1980, when a doctor told her she had a few months to live. “I told that doctor I couldn’t die because I had people depending on me.”
Mohler is the mother of six boys—her oldest son was a freshman in high school and her youngest was in first grade when she was first diagnosed. “The kids knew what I had, but we didn’t make it anything sad,” she says. “I believe that when you have cancer, you need to find the most positive reaction to everything you have to deal with. I wasn’t going to give in to anything. I was going to fight and do what I had to do.”
Mohler has lived in the small, close-knit town of La Plata, Maryland, for almost 50 years. “Everyone here knows my attitude,” she says. Throughout her life she has looked for ways to share her positive approach, including her time as a junior high teacher. Her cancer treatments have spanned most of her career, and this meant there were times she had to improvise and make alternative lesson plans. When she wasn’t feeling well, her students pitched in. “And we all learned something. I would always ask them, ‘What will we do that’s fun today?’ And then say, ‘Whatever we’ll do, we’re going to laugh.’”
During her treatment, she has volunteered in hospice and in a La Plata cancer group that visits cancer patients referred from local hospitals and doctors’ offices. Mohler carries her positive outlook into these visits. “I just like to talk to people, ask them what they’re going through, ask them about their treatment. I wanted them to know that I understood what they were going through and encourage them. I’d tell them, ‘If I can do it, you can do it.’”
Mohler says she is grateful for the help she and her husband, Ed, who is legally blind, receive from their sons and grandchildren who live nearby. Her granddaughter and other family members take Barbara and Ed to doctors’ appointments—including trips to Baltimore for her appointments with Stearns. When Mohler needed injections to prevent blood clots during a recent treatment, her oldest son came daily to give her the shots, and a longtime family friend who Mohler calls her “daughter” often flies in from Florida to help with driving and housework.
“It has been difficult to depend on them, but they have been wonderful,” Mohler says. “And my husband does so much, he has been wonderful, and he helps keep the house immaculate.”
Until recently, when her instructor moved away, Mohler was attending a yoga class three times a week, “and I loved every bit of it,” she says. “I need to find something else like that. I also love outside work, and I planted some flowers this spring, but I just don’t always have the energy for it.”
She also keeps in touch with a group of sorority sisters, some of whom she has known since grade school. They meet once a month, usually at Mohler’s house, to say the rosary. They have also traveled together. “We have the best time. We act like kids ourselves. Sometimes we embarrass our own kids,” Mohler says. “But life is to be enjoyed.”
This spirit, and what she considers the best cancer care anywhere, has carried her through this lengthy battle with breast cancer. Barbara and Ed recently celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary, surrounded by their family and friends.
“I want people to know you can live with cancer,” says Mohler. “Look at me. I’ve been fighting breast cancer for almost half of my life, but here I am.”