Stories of Survival

Surviving Cancer: ‘You Can’t Let Yourself Not Feel Normal’

Article by Katie Sweet

Jeff and Mary Cohen

The definition of a survivor, according to the National Cancer Institute, is: someone who remains alive and continues to function during and after overcoming a serious hardship or life-threatening disease. In cancer, a person is considered to be a survivor from the time of diagnosis until the end of life.

That just seems so passive. Remains alive? Continues to function?

Have you ever seen someone stand on the beach, admiring the sun and water, only to get smacked with a wave he never saw coming? What comes next isn’t “remaining alive” and “continuing to function.” First, there is a scream of surprise and fear, followed by a steadfast resolve to be strong, stay upright and push back.

Jeff Cohen has survived four types of cancer. His wife Mary has also survived cancer. Neither one of them could be described simply as “continuing to function.” They both stood strong, pushed back and are thriving.

Jeff said with a chuckle, “I have this quote from Hunter S. Thompson sitting on my desk. It’s just great. It says, ‘Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming, “Wow! What a ride!” ’ ”

Jeff was diagnosed in his 20s with cancer. Prior to his cancer diagnosis, he had ulcerative colitis. He said he has dealt with health issues from the time he was 18. But, as he tells it, it doesn’t sound like a sad story. It is simply a part of his life.

Both of the Cohens are former college basketball players. Jeff works in wealth management, and Mary is a physical education coach and a long-distance runner. They are loyal V Foundation supporters, and both credit their time as athletes for getting through cancer treatments.

“You get up every morning. If it’s a bad morning, grit your teeth and get through it. Giving up is so foreign to anyone who has been an athlete. It’s so foreign to me. Jim [Valvano] got that same attitude from being an athlete,” Jeff said. “Don’t let treatments dominate your day. It’s a thing in your day – like a job or a workout. Don’t let it dominate your thoughts. You can’t let yourself not feel normal.”

Mary agreed, comparing it to running a race.

“If you are running a marathon or when you are fighting an illness, you are just getting through it little by little. You say, ‘This mile is for my kids.’ Or, ‘This mile is for my family.’ The last mile is always for me. The next thing you know, miles accumulate, and you’re through the race or the illness,” she said.

Mary and Jeff have described their new normal – their post-cancer lives – as ones in which they don’t sweat the small stuff. They don’t fear cancer anymore, either. They’ve been through a lot. Jeff described his treatments, ranging from organ transplants, to radiation and chemotherapy. He’s missed time with family because of cancer, and he will not allow the worries of “what if” to steal any more of his time.

The Cohens have busy lives – work, family and travel were all part of our conversation. Cancer has been in that mix for this family, but Mary and Jeff have fought to keep it as small as possible in their lives, while also taking a stand against it. As supporters of The V Foundation, their gifts help create more survivors.

“We support [The V Foundation] because of mainly my health and the fact that every dollar we give goes to research. As a money manager, I see clients donate a lot, and not all of it goes to the cause,” Jeff said.

The V Foundation is proud to have awarded more than $150 million in cancer research grants. Our focus is to fund the scientists that make these stories of survival possible.

We won’t give up. We won’t ever give up.