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Friends continue to bond over cancer, hope for better future



It’s more than just a simple word to Benjamin R. Towles, 18, and Linda J. Welsh, 46 — it’s the daily reminder that without positive thoughts to overcome the odds, both would lose their battle with cancer.

Mr. Towles and Mrs. Welsh are determined to keep fighting, and in doing so have forged an enduring friendship. The two didn’t know each other until Mrs. Welsh volunteered in March 2011 at a benefit for Mr. Towles. Since then, they have supported each other in their cancer struggles.

“We can’t wait until the time comes when we can celebrate for real,” said Mrs. Welsh, who has ovarian cancer. “We can be in that remission state he is in right now.”

But Mr. Towles, who is battling diffuse large B-cell non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, stage 3, said he won’t know until Jan. 13 whether he definitely is in remission; he is due for a series of scans at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Pa. Although Mr. Towles said he can handle the scans, the dreaded January curse has him worried.

“January holds my fate for a third year in a row,” he said recently while chatting with Mrs. Welsh at his County Route 66 home.

Mr. Towles’s mother, Michelle R. Reff, said her son was diagnosed with cancer in January 2011. Although he went into remission later that year, he relapsed this past January.

Mr. Towles said he reminds himself, as does Mrs. Welsh, about that one little word: believe.

“When I hear the word ‘believe,’ I think of hope, to stay in the clear,” Mr. Towles said. “Even sometimes when you don’t want to hear the word, you still think about it.”

Mrs. Welsh, who lives in Alexandria Bay, said that’s been proven too many times for her. In early December, she was told by her team of doctors in Syracuse that there was nothing else they could do to treat her cancer.

“The word ‘believe’ to me gives hope, and I don’t know why, but it has to be on everything for now,” she said. “I’ll believe it’s OK. The word has connected us through hard times.”

That has been the case for the past two years, as she and Mr. Towles have cried together, lent their shoulders to the other to lean on, and traded both good and bad news about their prognoses.

Even when the day comes that both can say they are in remission, the two agree cancer is never truly gone.

“You’ll never get rid of it,” Mr. Towles said. “Mentally, you’ll always have it. Physically, you’ll always have it.”

He said that after someone who has had cancer is in remission, the effects of cancer linger as people try to recover from hair loss, weight loss, depression and many other side effects, including what he calls “chemo brain,” where it’s hard to remember simple words or thoughts after chemotherapy treatments.

He said he has tried to put a smile on his face through it all, and although there are days when he has the blues, laughter has become the best medicine. Two tiers of plastic storage bins full of his prescriptions and supplies have nothing on silly moments with his puggle puppy, Scrappy, and moments with friends and family.

Mr. Towles said he also wears a smile knowing one of his ultimate wishes is on the way to coming true. Assisted by the Make-A-Wish Foundation, he is writing a yet-to-be-named nonfiction book. He’s also getting a little help from Syracuse-area children’s author Bruce Coville.

Only two chapters are finished, as the book’s progress has been derailed by cancer treatments, including a stem cell transplant earlier this year.

“He went into septic shock and coded four times in one day, like right in front of me, and then he spent 13 days in the intensive care unit,” Mrs. Reff said.

Mr. Towles said that when he gets to that part of the book, he’ll break down, and he doesn’t know if he’ll have the strength to write it. When he does get there, Mrs. Welsh said, she’ll be there for support.

The support of friends and family has carried Mrs. Welsh through her journey’s toughest times. She said her husband, Kevin, her daughter, Melanie Shambo, and her parents, William and Kathleen Shambo, as well as her closest friends, have lent her strength to carry on.

Never giving up and always believing things will work out have empowered Mrs. Welsh, who found out at midmonth that there is a chance her disease may one day enter remission. She attended an appointment at Roswell Park Cancer Institute, Buffalo, where she received an early Christmas gift — since her cancer seems to be only in the muscle and not the lymph nodes, Roswell Park can treat her disease after all.

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