Survivor Since: February 2010

Diagnosis: Hodgkins Lymphoma

Missouri Cancer Care Team:
Chemotherapy Care Team:
  • Amy Boyle, RN
  • Danielle Kleithermes, RN
  • Denise Huff, RN
  • Erin Swift, RN
  • Johanna Joes, RN
  • Mung Chin, RN
  • Amber Taylor
  • Rhonda Henstorf
  • Julie Maledy

Treatment: Chemotherapy

Faith and Medicine

After three years of struggling through symptoms and incorrect diagnoses, Belinda Hunter found the answer she was looking for at Missouri Cancer Associates.

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When Belinda Hunter was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, relief was one of her first reactions, followed by determination.

“I was so happy to find out what was wrong — I wasn’t panicky,” she says. “I had been miserable for so long, I thought: ‘Hey, let’s go. I want to get this done and feel better.’”

Her diagnosis in February 2010 was a long time coming. In 2007, the Edina, Missouri, native noticed knots in her neck but had no other problems. Her doctor thought a tick bite was the cause and prescribed rounds of antibiotics. When the antibiotics didn’t help, Belinda continued to seek answers, and she suffered through additional symptoms: rash, fatigue, night sweats. She says her heart rate would accelerate “super fast.”

She turned to a dermatologist, who looked at her rash and diagnosed her with scabies. “He prescribed a horrible cream that I used for six months,” she says. “It burned. I would lie on the floor and cry.”

Exhausted from the symptoms and the struggle to find relief, Belinda returned to her primary doctor for bloodwork on Feb. 11, 2010. The next day, a Friday, her doctor called and gave her an address for a doctor in Columbia with directions to go that day. When Belinda asked if they could wait until Monday, he emphatically said no.

Belinda, her husband, Billy, and their daughter, Lyndsey, made the trip to Columbia together. When they pulled up to the address they had been given — Missouri Cancer Associates (MCA) — they thought it must be a mistake.

As they walked in, they saw patients undergoing chemo in the chemo room. Billy called the doctor. “I think you sent us to the wrong place,” he said.

But for the first time since Belinda’s symptoms had emerged nearly three years prior, they were exactly where they needed to be.

The Diagnosis

“Belinda came in with fairly advanced Hodgkin’s lymphoma,” says MCA’s Dr. Mark Tungesvik.

After meeting with Belinda and reviewing her blood work, Dr. Tungesvik immediately requested a bone marrow test and PET scan.

The PET scan came back black. The heavy load of lymphoma in Belinda’s body covered her “like a T-shirt,” Billy says.

When the nurse took Belinda’s vitals, her heart rate was three times as high it should have been.

“The nurse was panicky that my heart rate was so high,” Belinda remembers. “She thought she was doing something wrong.”

Belinda was admitted to Boone Hospital that same day.

“I felt a peace from God that it was going to work out,” she says.

At Missouri Cancer Associates, Dr. Tungesvik says they are seeing a “stage shift” in diagnoses, with more and more patients coming in with advanced stages of disease. In Belinda’s case, her primary care team had followed appropriate protocol and made reasonable assumptions but had been unable to pinpoint the cause of her ailment early on.

“Belinda’s predominant symptom was night sweats,” Dr. Tungesvik says. “Other irregular symptoms were persistent but not well-explained, so tick-borne disease, that was a rational thing to assume. Primary doctors don’t see an overwhelming volume of cases of Hodgkin’s disease every day like we do at Missouri Cancer Associates.”

Although Belinda had been seeking medical care, that isn’t always the case, and Dr. Tungesvik attributes the stage shift to a lack of primary medical care for many people in the population.

“Late-stage diagnosis happens more often now than it used to,” he says.

Dr. Tungesvik points out that, a few years ago, more people saw a primary doctor on a regular basis, which gave more opportunity to mention symptoms that were bothering them.

“Now, a lot of people don’t have primary care, or they may have trouble with access to health care,” he says. “They don’t go to the doctor until something big happens and they need a doctor to take a look.”

Prognosis, Treatment and the Power of Prayer

The five-year overall survival rate for Belinda’s Hodgkin’s Lymphoma is 80 to 85 percent, Dr. Tungesvik says. For Belinda, with the right diagnosis and a good prognosis, the time had come to get to work fighting the disease.

Following that first impromptu visit to Missouri Cancer Associates, Belinda spent the weekend at Boone Hospital. On Valentine’s Day, Feb. 14, 2010, she had a biopsy and was sent home. Treatment didn’t wait: She returned to Columbia on Wednesday for her first round of chemotherapy and then made return trips for treatment every two weeks.

From the very beginning, the family drew upon a strong sense of faith.

“I knew it would all work out,” Billy says about those first few days following the diagnosis.

Throughout treatments, Dr. Tungesvik says Belinda was fantastic. “She had a calm, positive outlook, great social support and strong faith,” he recalls.

Belinda feels fortunate that she was able to stay at home for the six months during her treatment, as Billy continued to run their family’s collision repair business without her. That solitude gave her space to rest and reduced her likelihood of getting a cold or the flu.

“Once I started chemo, I started to feel better,” she says. “I never got sick, and I never lost my hair. I spent time outside in the summer and mowed the yard, planted flowers but stayed away from people. I was feeling so good compared to two years prior.”

Belinda attributes a lot of her strength during this time to the power of prayer.

“Our church family prayed over us all the time,” she says. “We were on a multitude of prayer lists with friends from all over the country,” she says.

She also expresses gratitude for her family’s support, including Billy and Lyndsey and her son, Brett, and daughter-in-law, Billie. In college and living at home, Lyndsey was able to go to every appointment, take notes on what the doctors said and pick up the slack at work for her mother.

“It brought our family closer together,” Belinda says.

Three months after her first visit to Missouri Cancer Associates, Belinda returned for a PET scan to see how much progress had been made. Three months earlier, she was afraid to look at the first scan — the one described as black and so full of cancer — so she didn’t have the same point of reference as Billy, Lyndsey and her medical team.

“Everyone was silent and in shock,” Belinda says about the moment when they looked at the second scan. “[The lymphoma] was completely gone.”

Today, cancer-free, Belinda still returns to MCA every six months for her “own peace of mind,” she says, knowing the cancer is most likely not coming back.