Joanie Willis knows what it means to be a real survivor. Not the kind who eats snails and bickers with others in pursuit of $1 million, but the kind who fought with everything she had to beat cancer, Stage 4 lung cancer, after being told she had a 4 percent chance to survive.
She was part of a team, in a way. In 1994 she and eight others from tiny Sanibel Island, Fla., were diagnosed with the disease, this country's second leading cause of death.
"There were nine of us fighting like crazy for our lives," said Willis, in a phone interview from her home on Sanibel Island, a community of about 5,600 people.
She, alone, made it.
"I went to one funeral after another," she said, referring to three close friends and five others.
Willis, author of the new book "The Cancer Patient's Workbook" (available at local book stores), readied herself as a warrior would. She learned all she could of her enemy. She sought support. Crusader-like, she encouraged the others who were fighting.
She did it all believing that she could beat the intruder, though the inoperable cancer had already shown up in a lung, lymphs and the mediastinum area, the center of the chest.
"I don't know why I'm here today, except that I believed that I had some power over my future," she said. "Even though I might not have had, I felt like I did."
A plan of action
Seven years ago, nothing set off a cancer alarm. She had vague symptoms: fatigue, a sore right arm and shoulder, some flu-like symptoms. Maybe, she thought, she'd put in too many hours at the popular Captiva Island restaurant where she worked.
But one morning she awoke with the apprehension that something was gravely wrong.
"Since then, I really have taken my intuition seriously," Willis said. "A lot of times people have a knowing that they refuse to honor. Instead, they want to listen to a doctor who says they are fine because they want to be fine."
After she absorbed the news, Willis took decisive action. She set a goal of seeing her sons (who are 17 and 19 now) graduate from high school.
And she told the doctors to throw whatever they could at her, setting herself up for long days of chemotherapy in combination with radiation, a protocol she doesn't think is used anymore.
"Doctors will follow your lead," said Willis. "I allowed them to take an aggressive approach. That's one of the reasons I'm alive.
"Every time I laid on the radiation table, instead of fighting the treatment, I'd try to go with it. I'd think 'let's do it and do it right.' You have a choice. You might as well embrace the treatments.
"I might have been sick at the time, but I'm alive today."
Willis also self-prescribed a "1 percent plan of action" meaning that she would do anything to ratchet up her chances, however minimally.
She rented funny videos, drank tea, ate fruit, exercised, drank carrot juice until she turned orange, took handful of vitamins and food supplements.
"I knew I had to eat something, so I had the most nutritional foods I could. If research said broccoli helps healing, I ate tons of broccoli.
"I always wondered, 'what's the worst thing that can happen?' It's already happening."
Because she's so contagiously upbeat and willing to help others, Willis' name got passed around "the cancer grapevine" and she spent a lot of time counseling the newly diagnosed and sending out resource packets that she assembled.
Then, in 1998, the lung cancer recurred, and she didn't know if she had the emotional reserve to get through a second round.
But she followed her instincts to keep fighting. She went to Houston's M.D. Anderson Cancer Center because of the reputation of a thoracic surgeon there.
He told her that the surgery would be complicated because of scar tissue. "And I said 'that's why I'm asking you,' " said Willis.
Post-surgery, she requested a follow-up round of chemo.
"I decided that since I was sick already and I was bald already, I just never wanted to face this again," she said.
During her recovery, though, she was depressed and "thrown for a loop." She said she was "saved" by writing a book to tell others about how to fight and how to keep control of their lives.
"The Cancer Patient's Workbook" with its short paragraphs and eye-catching graphics is designed to be easy to access.
"Never in my life had it been more important to retain and organize information and never was I more unable to do so," said Willis, whose book is endorsed by Cancer Care, the country's oldest and largest non-profit agency dedicated to offering emotional support and practical help.
Filled with helpful information, the workbook includes questions to ask doctors, pages of Web sites, phone numbers and hard-earned practical tips.
One of them is the Dixie Cup Method. To keep track of the 20 pills, supplements and vitamins that she takes each day, Willis spends about 30 minutes every two weeks organizing them. Her drill is to fill 42 small cups, one for each meal, and then stack them in threes so that she remembers to take them.
Now that Willis' oldest son is in college and the other is a high school senior, she's near to attaining her first goal.
But she's added others. She wants to keep fighting cancer by spreading the word that it can be beaten.
"It's not always the amount of effort that changes the outcome because I've seen a lot of people put out just as much effort and not make it," she said, "but I also believe the chances are higher if you are a fighter and use whatever you believe in.
"My circumstances were so bad six years ago that I thought of giving up all the time," said Willis, who is now in remission. "I just never did."