Twenty-five years ago, Doris Schulte was saying her goodbyes, preparing to die. Diagnosed with small- cell lung cancer, she was told she had nine to 12 months to live.
In a state of shock, the Coon Rapids woman cashed in her retirement account, took her children and grandchildren to Disney World, and went on a second honeymoon to Hawaii. She also planned her funeral; she even bought white dresses for her five granddaughters to wear.
Schulte, who had battled breast cancer several years earlier, underwent chemotherapy and later radiation therapy. The days and weeks wore on. Then, in the spring of 1992, she received some surprising news: “The doctor said, ‘I don’t know what happened. The cancer is gone,’ ” she said.
In 1993, her story landed her on the Oprah Winfrey show, along with a couple of other unlikely survivors, and Dr. Larry Dossey, a physician who advocates for spirituality in health care. The episode was themed around the power of prayer.
Schulte doesn’t think about it constantly, as she once did, but her survival still seems pretty amazing, she said. “People will say, ‘Do you ever ask, why me?’ I say, ‘why not me?’ ” She tries to make the most of whatever time she has. Every day, “I wake up and say, ‘Thank you, God, for breath, for life. What can I do for someone else today?’ ”
Dr. Joseph Leach, an oncologist with the Virginia Piper Cancer Institute, echoed that cases like Schulte’s are very rare. He said that lung cancer is the No. 1 cause of cancer death among women — 50 percent more than breast cancer. Small-cell lung cancer is a particularly aggressive form.
About 15 to 20 percent of people with “limited stage” small-cell cancer, in which the cancer is on only one side of the chest, can be cured with aggressive treatment, he said, but usually it creeps back within a year. For the more advanced stage, only one in 100 people make it five years, he said.
“Twenty-five year survival is very rare either way but especially for an advanced disease like it sounds like she had. I’ve certainly never seen it happen,” he said.
A healing trip
In between her chemotherapy and radiation treatments, Schulte traveled to Medjugorje, the town in Bosnia and Herzegovina that’s known for six community members’ claims of visions of the Virgin Mary in 1981.
Schulte was engrossed by the story and this was her second visit. She went with the Rev. Bernard Reiser of Epiphany Church in Coon Rapids. One morning in the courtyards, she said, “I asked him how to die. He had tears in his eyes and he said, ‘you live one day at a time. That’s the only way to get through it.’ ”
His words made her think consciously about how to “make every day count, have a positive attitude and take it one day at a time.”
The news in 1992 that her cancer was gone wasn’t immediately a relief, Schulte said, because it was likely to come back in some form. She continued to spend hours in the chapel at Epiphany Church in Coon Rapids, praying and writing in a journal. She wouldn’t even buy a full bottle of makeup, for fear it would go to waste. “I couldn’t make plans for the future because I didn’t know if I had a future,” she said.
Today, more than 20 years later, Schulte says she still tries to live by the philosophies from her talks with Reiser. She appreciates life more, and her faith is stronger. While she was in the thick of things, “I realized the only thing that mattered to me are my relationships,” she said.
She has always been a “professional volunteer,” as she put it, but after her health improved, she had the time and energy to redouble her efforts. She is highly involved with her church, and she’s long been active with the Coon Rapids Rotary Club.
One cause that’s especially important to her is Reiser Relief, the nonprofit organization that Reiser founded in 2005 to help the poor in Haiti. “When Father Reiser came back from Haiti, he said he had his heart broken wide open,” witnessing the extreme poverty. “He said he couldn’t face his Lord if he didn’t do something about it,” she said.
Just hearing about it, Schulte felt the same way, and for several years she led the group’s board. The organization has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for everything from clean water to elder care in the impoverished country.
Father Reiser died in 2011 at age 87. His niece, Ann Brau of Plymouth, the current board president, admires Schulte’s dedication. “She obviously has a very tender spot in her heart for the Haitian people, and she never hesitated to dedicating herself to the cause,” she said.
As just one example, at the organization’s craft sale last November, Schulte arrived to help out even though she wasn’t feeling well. “She put her aches and pains aside, and turned into an expert salesperson without missing a beat,” she said. “Doris is a giver. I admire her resilience and her strong faith in God.”
Anna Pratt is a Minneapolis freelance writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.