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Fighting Cancer Against All Odds

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

But because the liver tumor was wrapped around vital blood vessels, it ultimately turned out that surgical intervention was too dangerous. Edie didn't cry upon hearing the news; she resumed researching options.

"Whenever my mom gets bad news, she analyzes it to see how bad it truly is, then figures out the best course of action," says Stefanie. "She takes everything one step at a time."

Edie and her medical team decided to try different chemotherapy drugs and a new targeted radiation tool — the TrueBeam linear accelerator — to kill the cancer in her lungs and liver. In 2012, Edie traveled twice to MD Anderson Cancer Center to seek a second opinion from Steven Curley, M.D., a surgical oncologist specializing in liver cancer. In early August, comparing scans and seeing little change in the size of the liver tumor, he determined it was highly possible the chemo and radiation had killed the cancer there. Those findings gave Shrager, at Stanford, the green light to operate on the lung, and he scheduled Edie's surgery for a few weeks later.

Edie at the hospital before surgery with her husband and one of her daughters.

Edie at the hospital before surgery with her husband and one of her daughters. — Brad Swonetz

On August 28, a day before the operation, Edie and Dale fly to Palo Alto and settle into an apartment provided by Stanford. In the predawn darkness the next morning, with Stefanie in tow, they arrive at the hospital's inpatient waiting room and cuddle in adjacent hardback chairs. Edie wears a cream-colored top, yoga pants and hiking boots. Looking at her iPhone, she giggles at a text that she and Dale sent to Shrager the day before that read: "Lung today, gone tomorrow!"

Soon, after Edie is moved onto a gurney, Dale and Stefanie gather round her and call Whitney, who is working on a project in Chicago. They pray together, and Edie says, "If I don't make it, keep each other close." She turns to Dale: "Tell Dr. Shrager that I want all this stuff removed. I know that he's concerned about taking the whole lung, but I take responsibility. I've had a full life. Tell him to just get it out, because if he doesn't, this is for nothing."

Edie is the first to say that there is no one path to turning the odds in your favor when battling cancer. "It's not just yoga, prayer, chemotherapy, the doctor, nor thinking positive thoughts," she says. She knows this partly because her doctors have told her they've witnessed some of the best-intentioned individuals succumb, while others — pessimists among them — survive.

Still, members of Edie's medical team agree on a few aspects of her case that have allowed her to do as well as she has. Fisher cites improvements in chemotherapy drugs. "The therapies of the past were so nasty that patients invariably had to stop them because there was no quality of life on them," he says. "The newer chemotherapies allow patients to stay in the game long enough — with a reasonably good quality of life — to round third base."

And because Edie had such a good response to chemo, her doctors were able to try to surgically remove residual cancer. "That doesn't happen very often in patients with metastatic disease," says Fisher. He concedes that positive thinking "is always a good thing, if only in that it helps you to get through the treatment. But I wouldn't fault someone who is prone to crying."

Still, the experts admit that Edie continues to surprise and inspire them. "She's one of the most dynamic, intelligent, well-informed patients I've ever had," Shrager says.

The surgery takes nearly six hours. When Shrager emerges from the OR, he is all smiles. He didn't, as it turned out, need to take the whole lung, just the upper lobe and areas of the middle and lower lobes. The pathology report on the removed tissues and lymph nodes came back negative for active cancer. "When I first saw Edie, my thought was that she was going to sprout disease everywhere," Shrager admits. "When that didn't happen, I still thought there was a 50-50 chance that I'd have to remove her entire right lung. But the chemo had wiped out the cancer. That's very, very rare."

Next: What are the odds of surviving gallbladder cancer? »

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