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Cancer Survivor Series: Barbara Phelps


It was in April of 2006 when Crown Point resident Barbara Phelps started her day feeling under the weather and soon got a headache like one she had never felt before. After calling twin daughters Kathleen and Elizabeth Brown and asking that they return home from their dad’s a few blocks away to feed the dogs, Barb quickly started showing uncharacteristic behavior that raised concern in the sisters.

Advised by their aunt for safe measure, the young ladies took Phelps to the Emergency Room for a diagnosis – it was just a migraine, and Phelps was directed to schedule an appointment with her primary doctor to get her current situation checked.

On the day of the appointment, shortly before it was time to leave, Kathleen Brown went into her bedroom to wake her up only to find that Phelps couldn’t get out of bed. Kathleen described that moment. “I went to get her, and I said, ‘Mom – get up. It’s time to go,’ and she’s like ‘Okay,’ and I said, ‘No, Ma – seriously, get up,’ and she’s like, ‘Okay,’ and she just kept saying ‘okay.’”

Worried, Kathleen went straight to the living room to inform her aunt that Phelps was stuck in bed and they both returned to the bedroom at once. Kathleen and her aunt attempted lifting Phelps up themselves, but she kept falling over. They immediately called for an ambulance, thinking that Phelps was possibly having a stroke.

The conclusions of any diagnosis drawn at this point were anything from a migraine to a stroke. Nobody suspected what it really was – three B-cell Central Nervous System lymphoma tumors on Phelps’ brain – which Phelps and her family found out after a specialist took a biopsy from an incision in her head.

Although the official diagnosis came as a devastating shock, the family found hope in Sonali M. Smith, MD of the University of Chicago, where Phelps underwent chemotherapy and a stem cell transplant. It was a success! Phelps was in remission, back at work and going about her life.

It hadn’t even been a couple of years in remission before the cancer came back in March of 2009 in the form of one tumor. Phelps recalled, “I was driving the car and I kept going off the road and my sister kept saying, ‘You’re going off the road,’ then she made me stop, and I don’t know what happened after that.”

The biggest difference this time around was that the single tumor threatened Phelps with a 6-month life expectancy, which any relapse of this specific cancer has. Knowing that radiation was not the quality of life that she wanted in what time she had left, Phelps was not going to take that route.

Since she harvested her own stem cells in the first procedure and was able to do so again, the decision was made to attempt the same protocol that was done on the three previous tumors, and again, Phelps beat cancer and survived.

“I feel every day is a blessing and I keep asking God what it is I’m supposed to be doing because I’ve survived – I don’t know why I survived. I wake up and I think, ‘Wow. It’s another day,’” expressed Phelps.

Phelps has been officially cancer free and has gone on to volunteer at organizations like Daughters of the American Revolution, Tri Kappa, and Power Paws for Kids, which she loved doing when she was still able to drive.

Phelps has been through the ring twice now. There’s no doubt that the support system which carried her through that battle impacted her advice on the experience, “Have faith that it’ll work. Just smile.”

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