Cancer patients share survivorship story, celebrate strength and self-care

To survive in his struggle against an aggressive form of prostate cancer, Bin McLaurin didn't only have to overcome the disease attacking his body. He said he also had to toss out his long-held image of masculinity.

For years, even after he came to work for Cedars-Sinai in 2011, McLaurin accepted the notion that real men didn't go to the doctor unless it was a clearcut emergency. He finally relented after moving into a research assistant job at the Smidt Heart Institute. As McLaurin, 51, explained, he felt hypocritical about encouraging people to take care of their health while he hadn't gone for a physical in years.

Then, after getting a checkup, McLaurin's doctor spotted a problem that eventually led to his cancer diagnosis five years ago. The discovery spurred a personal journey that, among other things, changed his views on manhood and life in general. "To really find a way to survive, or a way to be resilient in the face of a severe, traumatic diagnosis like cancer, you have to learn to step out of your comfort zone," McLaurin said.

The need to stretch personally to deal with tough medical circumstances was highlighted at the 33rd Annual Cancer Survivors Day Luncheon at the Skirball Cultural Center. McLaurin and fellow guest speaker and cancer survivor Cyndi Tomlinson, 48, shared stories at the Cedars-Sinai event of how they fought their illnesses and channeled much of their energy into helping others suffering from malignancies.

Their approach squares with increasing research on the qualities patients need to fight cancer.

Attitude is huge. Our patients have taught us that it is possible to experience gratitude," Asher said, even while suffering from cancer. He pointed to "feeling grateful for having access to the care that they have or the people that they have in their life, or for the opportunity to learn something that they may not have had a chance to learn otherwise, or for maybe even reprioritizing values."

Arash Asher, MD, director of Cancer Rehabilitation and Survivorship for Cedars-Sinai

That describes Tomlinson's outlook-even though she has coped with one cancer fight after another involving herself or loved ones. At age 6, she lost her father to throat cancer. At age 22, she was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma. Three years ago to the month, she learned she had stage 0 breast cancer. And two months after that, her husband, Bert Ramirez, found out he had stage 4 follicular lymphoma. "What are the odds of that?!" she exclaimed, before an audience that included about 320 cancer survivors and their guests at the Skirball.

Today, Tomlinson said, both she and her husband are cancer-free. She said during her battle with disease, "the superficial things really got swept away."

"In life you grow up and you try to figure out what's important, who's important, how to set boundaries for yourself, and I think when you're faced with a life-or-death kind of situation, those things really come clear quickly."

Now Tomlinson is focusing on other cancer patients and their families and caretakers. By day, she works as the Southern California regional manager of an optical store chain. But, "every minute I have free" after work, Tomlinson said, she devotes to her role as executive director of Bolster & Bridge, a nonprofit that provides yoga therapy, mindfulness meditation and other practices.

For McLaurin, who in April celebrated a year of being cancer-free, a key early step toward recovery was accepting the advice of a Cedars-Sinai social worker who recommended trying an art therapy program. After a few classes, McLaurin said, he learned to express his feelings about the disease and its effects, which included temporary erectile dysfunction, incontinence and self-image issues. It gave him a sense of relief that helped him fight on.

"Not everybody is skilled in knowing how to care for themselves when it comes to cancer. But, sometimes as guys, we're tripped up even more because we don't share our emotions, or we're not sharing our feelings," McLaurin said.

McLaurin's new outlook led him to his current job as a coordinator of cancer survivorship programs at Cedars-Sinai. "That's the real beauty of this story. Not only am I cancer-free, but I now get to help other cancer survivors rebuild their lives."

He launched a men's cancer breakfast club and a men's health and cancer support foundation called Men Actively Creating Healthy Outcomes, or MACHO.

The reason for that name for his foundation? "Macho is not just being able to lift heavy weights and run the fastest on the track or having the fattest paycheck of all your male friends-the kind of posturing things that we do as guys to prove how strong we are. True strength, for me, true macho, is how well you take care of yourself."

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