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Lutz: A match made in adversity

This husband and wife have more than marriage in common: They both survived cancer. In fact, it's why they met.

By RICK GERSHMAN
Published February 13, 2004

LUTZ - He survived a cancer so deadly, diagnosed so late, few who reach that advanced stage survive.

He survived the most aggressive chemotherapy regimen available, a therapy so ferocious it killed three of four recipients and has since been discontinued.

But nothing prepared Kevin Thompson for the distress he endured on Valentine's Day 1993. That day he asked Lisa Cunningham, a fellow cancer survivor, to be his bride.

Eleven years later, he's still waiting for an answer.

"She's still never officially said yes," Kevin recalled this week. "I was panic-stricken, thinking I'd made a huge mistake, she does not want to do this."

And yet Kevin and Lisa Thompson, who met through a cancer survivor support group, will celebrate their 10th wedding anniversary this April.

"I love him - he makes me laugh," said Lisa, 41, a freelance writer. "He is a lot more elegant and sophisticated and romantic than any man I'd dated."

"I love her personality, I love her generosity, her compassion for people," said Kevin, 43, a commercial real estate broker.

This is the story of Lisa, who decided - eventually - to give marriage another try after her first brief union left her wary.

It's the story of Kevin, who decided not to give up on life after doctors asked him to choose between ways to die.

This week, in their home off Lake Estes in Lutz, the Thompsons reflected on surviving illness and treatment at the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center & Research Institute at the University of South Florida.

It was fall 1988 when Kevin, then 28, fell ill. The Tampa native suffered from fevers as high as 105 degrees and crippling abdominal pain.

For months, doctors believed the symptoms came from a flu or related virus. In February 1989, shortly before Kevin's 29th birthday, doctors biopsied a swollen lymph node and found it was cancerous.

He was sent to the Moffitt Center on the University of South Florida campus and was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma. It had reached the highly-advanced Stage 4B.

At that stage, the cancer had metastasized into Kevin's bone marrow and spinal fluid, invading virtually every organ in his body.

The only way to battle the cancer at that point, Kevin said, was through a chemotherapy regimen so toxic - he was later told - 75 percent of recipients did not survive.

The therapy went on from February to September 1989; Kevin's mother Marlene helped care for him.

Kevin recalled a time midway through treatment when a doctor gave him two treatment options that both spelled death.

Kevin had developed a tumor in his esophagus.

This is the choice, Kevin said, a doctor gave him:

If Kevin chose to continue the excruciating super-aggressive chemotherapy, the chemicals' assault on the cancerous cells almost certainly would open a hole in his esophagus. Food then would pass into his lungs, which would soon kill him.

Kevin already knew what the other option would be, and its certain result: If he stopped chemotherapy, he would be relieved of its agonizing effects for a while. But then the cancer entrenched in his body definitely would kill him.

Faced with two ways to die, Kevin picked the painful one: At least it offered some slight glimmer of a chance.

"It was my real defining moment. I was going to give it my best shot, because I (had) nothing to lose," Kevin said.

He continued the chemotherapy, it destroyed the lymphoma, and his esophagus somehow held.

Kevin's cancer was in remission by fall 1989, and he started attending support group meetings at Moffitt for cancer survivors ages 18-40.

Life already was hard for Lisa Cunningham in April 1989. The Chicago native and USF graduate had recently separated from her husband of less than a year. They would divorce six months later.

Lisa, then 27, was working as editor of the Terrace Area News (now the Temple Terrace News). A sore appeared on the right side of her tongue, and it didn't heal.

A biopsy revealed the cancer, and doctors quickly cut out the tumor, removing a third of Lisa's tongue.

The doctors eschewed any follow-up treatment such as radiation therapy, a decision Lisa said "I think they felt bad about later."

In September 1990, Lisa began to develop pains in her neck. Doctors soon found that a cancerous tumor had wrapped around her carotid artery.

That tumor was removed in November 1990, and in January, Lisa began radiation treatment to ensure the cancer was ridden from her body. The therapy continued through March.

That's when Lisa determined she needed more than physical treatment: "I really need to talk about this with somebody."

While Lisa was fighting her second battle with cancer, Kevin was helping facilitate the young adult support group at Moffitt.

Several group members thought the two would be perfect together. But Lisa and Kevin's schedules didn't match, and they kept missing each other.

The support group suggested Lisa speak with Kevin, who had counseled many cancer survivors. They spoke by phone several times before meeting in person.

"I just thought he had a nice voice, a great sense of humor," Lisa recalled of the phone conversations.

Said Kevin: "There was a connection of some sort, but how to describe it, I can't say. I was intrigued, I found her interesting."

They met in person at the support group, in March 1991.

"It wasn't love at first sight," Lisa said. "I just thought, "He looks like a nice guy, an attractive guy.' "

Kevin asked her out, they went on a few dates, and became romantic: "We were just very comfortable together - like an old pair of tennis shoes."

The pair had dated almost two years when Kevin decided "it was time to fish or cut bait."

They traveled to Savannah, Ga., for Valentine's Day and got a hotel room. Kevin had planned a carriage ride and a fine dinner. But first, Kevin presented a ring and popped the question. It caught Lisa completely unawares.

"I had no idea," she remembered. "I felt so stupid later, (because) I had just gotten him a CD and a tie - a Kenny G CD and a blue and purple tie."

Lisa hardly spoke for a half-hour. Eventually she told him she needed to think.

But she slept on it, and realized she wanted to be Kevin's wife. On the drive home to Tampa she simply started talking about wedding plans. They married 14 months later, on April 24, 1994.

Lisa went to work as a freelance writer, contributing articles to the St. Petersburg Times in 1993. She moved on to public relations at USF, where she stayed eight years before she was laid off last fall.

In August 2001, the Thompsons moved to Lutz with Jessie, their German shepherd. Said Kevin: "Our dream was always to live on the water."

Though Lisa battled a serious thyroid condition a few years ago, neither of the Thompsons has had a recurrence of cancer since they were married.

Still, it remains an intrinsic part of their lives.

Kevin continues to battle cancer in another way, as a consultant to the American Cancer Society's Cancer Survivors Network (www.acscsn.org) But he and Lisa also are fighting the enemy again in their home.

Kevin's mother, Marlene, 65, has colon cancer. She just completed six months of chemotherapy at Moffitt, and doctors are waiting to determine the next step.

Lisa and Kevin are caring for Marlene in their home. For Kevin, it is a chance to reciprocate his mother's care from 15 years ago.

As for the union that had its unofficial engagement 11 years ago this Saturday, Lisa is glad she gave her hand, albeit silently.

"He is always emotionally supportive - a lot of my friends say they wish they were married to him," she said of Kevin. "I just can't imagine life without him."

"I could never imagine being married to anyone else," Kevin said. "She's my life."

[Last modified February 12, 2004, 12:51:07]

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