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Groton woman is fighting cancer and winning

By Ann Baldelli

Publication: The Day

Published April 11. 2014 4:00AM
Tim Martin/The Day
Alice Andrews of Groton, a survivor of stomach cancer who has received 20 chemotherapy treatments in the past 18 months, participates in a spinning class at Work Out World in Groton on Thursday.
70-something Alice Andrews has positive thoughts, fierce exercise in her arsenal

About 6:30 on Tuesday and Thursday mornings, hooting and hollering comes from the second-floor spinning room at the Work Out World in the Groton Plaza Shopping Center.

Alice Andrews has exited the class.

Andrews, who is well into her 70s, typically does about 30 minutes of the strenuous, hourlong class, and when she's had enough and prepares to leave, the other cyclists send her off in a rousing fashion.

"When she stops and starts to get her stuff, we all woo-hoo her and tell her we love her," said Bonnie McNichol, who does the spin class and has known Andrews about five years.

For Andrews, who has undergone 20 chemotherapy treatments since her stomach cancer was discovered about 20 months ago, the support and friendship of gym friends has been an important part of her recovery.

Despite the diagnosis in August 2012 that her daughter-in-law and registered nurse Laura Kokoska called "very grim," Andrews' last CT scan in January was clean.

Relatives and friends believe that Andrews' holistic approach to healing has been instrumental in her recovery.

Despite the rigors of chemotherapy, which Andrews acknowledges "knocks me on my keister," she's continued to be a regular at the gym, arriving a little after 5 a.m. three to four days a week to lift weights before spinning or climbing onto a treadmill.

She watches what she eats, is a zealot about getting enough water, takes supplements, meditates, goes for massages, and regularly goes through an herbal detoxification process. She has a deep faith and prays, keeps a journal, and sometimes she just sits and blinks, because she was told blinking is good for brain stimulation.

"You just can't sit there and expect your doctor to do everything for you," said Andrews, who declined to give her age and admitted she's vain about it. "Just tell them I'm in my 70s," she said.

After an initial pity party, Andrews, who lives in Groton and is retired from Groton Utilities, said she decided that a spiritual and positive approach was a better way of dealing with her cancer.

She clearly remembers her initial visit to the oncologist.

"I left the room feeling very depressed, and all of a sudden, I stopped. I felt like I was in a fog. And then it just felt like a relief came over me," she said.

Her husband, George, son and daughter and their spouses were all with her.

Her daughter, she said, was emotional, and Andrews turned to her and said: "'Hold it.' I told her, 'I'm going to be all right.'"

"It was the spirit," she said, referring to her faith and a belief at that moment that greater forces would be on her side in her battle with cancer.

"And I know when I tell people that, they think I belong in a looney bin," she said.

Her diagnosis and treatment, she now believes, was God's way of telling her to slow down and appreciate the important things.

Kokoska, her daughter-in-law, said Andrews used her cancer as an opportunity to engage in positive thinking.

"She's really been able to focus on herself, and the benefits of scrupulous self-care," she said. "She's been able to let things go. ... She's a phenomenal example of how to live well."

'She's relentless'

Andrews' oncologist, Dr. Richard M. Hellman, said privacy laws prevent him from discussing his patients but "we do believe there is a connection between diet and physical activity and improved outcomes."

"Being active and making better, healthy food choices are all very important components of managing a person with a malignancy," he said.

Interdisciplinary care - working as a team that includes a doctor, social worker, dietitian, patient and others - is the model for optimum outcomes at the Lawrence + Memorial Cancer Center, where Hellman is the medical director.

Andrews is a patient at the center and gets additional support from her family, friends and the people she's inspired at the gym.

"She's fighting like I've not seen anyone personally that I know fight this battle," said Cheryl Fee. "We've all seen people go through this, but she's relentless. She'd be up there spinning with a chemo pack, and I'd know we wouldn't see her the following week because post-chemo weeks are bad, but she keeps going - she keeps all of us going.

"She's a tough old broad, and I mean that in the best sense. She's a hero to a lot of people," Fee said.

Spinning coach Robin Kerwin said when chemotherapy really dragged Andrews down, she'd visit Andrews' home and pray with her.

"We see so many people give up when exercise gets hard," Kerwin said. "But with Alice, whatever she was going through with cancer, she never gave up and never will."

And that is Andrews' advice to others facing health challenges.

"You gotta help yourself," she said. "You gotta get out there and help yourself, and don't give up because it will get better."

She said her doctor calls her "his miracle patient."

"It's remarkable, unheard of," Kokoska said of her mother-in-law's progress, explaining that the cancer had gotten into organs and lymph nodes by the time it was detected.

The family never told Andrews what stage her cancer was and, to this day, she doesn't know.

Instead, she focuses on her overall wellbeing and the progress she had made.

Most cancer patients can endure seven or eight chemotherapy treatments, she said, while so far she's received 20. And unlike other patients who oftentimes have to experiment with various drug formulas before they find one they can tolerate, she's been on the same medicine regimen the entire time.

Andrews believes her lifestyle and habits have benefited her.

"Anything you do for your health, your body, helps," she said.

"I think everyone has a different experience," said Kokoska, "But for her, it was pivotal shifting into a different reality. This was terrifying for the entire family, and we all had to prepare for everything and hope for the best. But she exceeded our expectation on every level."

a.baldelli@theday.com

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