Faces of Cancer: Kennewick couple faced cancer together

By Andy Perdue, Tri-City HeraldOctober 27, 2011 

KENNEWICK — After spending more than five years battling two kinds of cancer between them, one Kennewick couple not only is happy to be on the other side but also views life quite differently.

Matt Long, 50, was diagnosed in 2004 with non-Hodgkins lymphoma and went through about 30 chemotherapy treatments during more than three years. Just months after he was declared free of the cancer, his wife, Debbie, was diagnosed with colon cancer -- and was just a matter of weeks from being terminal.

"It was a journey," said Debbie, 50. "You can choose to make it a positive journey or sit back and say, 'Pity on me.' We didn't have time for that. We have kids and grandkids."

Matt's lymphoma was discovered when he passed a kidney stone. He soon went into treatment, and it was rough for the entire family. The couple have four children, and three of them still were living at home at the time.

"My son thought his dad was going to die," Matt said. "That's pretty hard when you're 12 or 13."

Debbie sat with Matt through every chemo treatment and helped him through the myriad side effects.

"She was my savior. I had pretty amazing support."

He took off seven months from his job with Hanford Patrol, where he has worked since the mid-1980s. Working 12-hour shifts after the energy-draining treatments nearly was impossible, he said. The chemo drugs also caused some memory losses, and he passed out a few times.

"I don't even remember one Christmas," he said.

Then, just when the family thought cancer was in the rear-view mirror, it struck Debbie, who works at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. She began to feel some aches that she attributed to being in her mid-40s, then she noticed a change in her stool that prompted her to see her doctor and have a colonoscopy. She credits her husband's cancer with saving her life.

"If Matt hadn't been sick, I probably wouldn't have gone in. I felt great, not sick. I just had a hitch in my right hip that came and went."

The colonoscopy revealed five tumors, four of which were removed. But the fifth was so close to breaking through to another part of her body, another few weeks might well have been deadly, her doctor later told her. Just days after the colonoscopy, Debbie was on an operating table having 9 inches of her colon removed, along with the cancer.

Through her treatment, Debbie never flinched. Instead, she focused on getting well and moving on.

"We've been married for 31 years," she said. "We want to grow old together. We learned to be strong and to keep our chins up."

Their cancers taught the Longs to appreciate simple pleasures.

"It's no longer about the materialistic things in life," Debbie said. "It's about sunsets."

Matt agreed, "I have a lot better attitude about life. I look at every day as something extra. Cancer helped me mellow out and made me take things not quite so seriously. It's good to take something positive out of a bad experience."

They also know that early detection is the key to surviving cancer.

"Listen to your body," Debbie said. "Watch for signs. It's not going to hurt to go to the doctor and have something checked out. It's better than ignoring it.

"I'm no longer shy about talking about my colon," she said with a laugh. "A lot of people don't want to get a colonoscopy, but it's nothing to be afraid of. In fact, it might just save your life."

When she considers how she might have lived only a few more months if she had put off that visit to the doctor, Debbie realizes just how precious time with her family truly is.

"We both got a second chance at life," she said. "We're taking it to the fullest."

-- The lavender ribbon we are using in this series represents awareness of all cancers.

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