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Fighting Cancer Against All Odds

With faith and a positive attitude, Edie Sundby continues to outsmart stage IV cancer

En español | Just four days before undergoing a life-or-death surgery to remove the cancer that has spread to her lungs, Edith Littlefield Sundby (Edie to friends) is doing her very favorite things. She attends a 7:30 a.m. service at St. James by-the-Sea Episcopal Church, down the street from her home north of San Diego. There, she sits in the same place as always, next to the stained-glass window portraying Jesus in the olive garden. Afterward, she walks to the yoga center nearby, where she's studied for 24 years. Later, for the 30th time, she listens to Belleruth Naparstek's Successful Surgery CD. "It's very hypnotic, with guided imagery and affirmations," says Edie. "Every time I listen, I get more relaxed and accepting. Where I am now is, I'm actually looking forward to the surgery."

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Edie taking a hike with her husband a few weeks before surgery

Just weeks before her surgery, Edie and Dale take a favorite Torrey Pines coastal hike. — Brad Swonetz

It is likely that Edie's thoracic surgeon will have to remove her entire right lung, vastly diminishing her breathing capacity and her ability to tolerate vigorous exercise. As a result, the 61-year-old, who has lived five years longer than doctors predicted when they told her she had stage IV cancer in 2007, decides she will end her day with what could be a final hike.

Wearing a turquoise T-shirt, leggings and hiking boots, Edie sets off on a mile-long stretch of seaweed-strewn beach beneath the majestic coral-colored cliffs and canyons of Torrey Pines state park. Her iPod earbuds tucked in beneath the tendrils of her pixie cut, she seems to glide over the sand. Her husband of 37 years, Dale Sundby, a technology entrepreneur, reaches out and takes her hand, keeping up with her brisk clip. "Edie's natural rhythm is always go, always energetic," he explains later. "She doesn't know any other way."

Her doctors use words like outlier, statistical anomaly, even miracle, to describe Edie, although they admit they are seeing more people with advanced cancer survive much longer than predicted. Throughout her disease, Edie has refused to give up, pushing herself and her medical team to fight, both uncommonly and aggressively. When Joseph Shrager, M.D., warned her that there was a 5 percent chance she wouldn't survive the removal of her lung — and that she'd subsequently be lucky to walk a flat mile — she told him to just go for it. "The risk for me is not going for it," she says. "And who knows? Maybe with the right music or with a different attitude or by just sauntering instead of bounding up the canyon, I'll still be able to do this afterward."

It wouldn't be the first time Edie has proved the doubters wrong. With Elvis Presley's "Only Believe" blaring in her ears, she hustles up the rocky stairway leading from the beach into the park above. At the top she turns and scans the horizon, an orange fireball of a sun diving toward the water. "Gosh, what a glorious day!" Edie exclaims. "I've been doing this hike a dozen years, and it's still a magical ritual for me. The minute I hit the sand, I feel bliss. This is how I heal."

Her voice dips to a whisper. "Ever since I came down with this catastrophic disease, I talk faster and much more," she says. "The reason is, I've got a lot to say — a lot of feelings." Her eyes moisten. "Cancer has heightened everything."

Edie, who had always described herself as "arrogantly healthy," attributed her lower-back discomfort and diarrhea to a parasite. It was March 2007, and she'd just returned to Southern California from Chennai, India, where she and one of her identical-twin daughters, Stefanie, then 18, had spent five weeks volunteering at an elementary school.

She paid a visit to a doctor, who, confirming she had a parasite, also checked to see if there was anything else. Ten days and several tests later, he summoned Edie back to his office. She was alone: Stefanie was at work; her other daughter, Whitney, was in college at Stanford University; and Dale was in Ukraine launching a new business. "You have some things going on in your abdominal area," the doctor began, "and it looks like cancer."

Next: Edie gets the news that she has three months to live. »

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