TURLOCK — When Carol Keennon of Turlock was diagnosed with stage-four esophageal cancer in 2004, she knew the odds were against her.
"Ninety percent of people with stage-four esophageal cancer die in the first year after diagnosis," Keennon said. "I faced reality. I honestly didn't grasp for more I didn't say, 'Lord, let me have another year, another two years.' I went out to the canal bank and walked every day, looked up at the sky and said, 'Lord, I know all your promises are true. All I want is strength and peace.' "
He answered that prayer, she said. "I felt so strong, the strength that I could handle whatever came along. And the peace that only God can give us."
She was sent to "a really excellent doctor" in San Francisco and had surgery.
"I don't have a stomach anymore," Keennon, 75, said. Doctors removed it when they removed the cancerous mass that was growing at the junction of her esophagus and her stomach.
Because of the surgery and radiation treatments, food doesn't taste very good, Keennon said, so she has to work to avoid losing more weight. Small meals every couple of hours, lunch with friends and soup are the best things. Even better, nine years after surgery, Keennon is cancer-free.
She once asked a doctor if he could put her in touch with other doctors who worked with esophageal cancer survivors.
"He looked at me and said, 'Carol, you're a miracle! If a doctor specialized in that, he would have only 20 patients. Most don't survive.' "
The retired schoolteacher credits God and the prayers of many for healing her.
"Many people were praying for me," she said. "I went to a group of people who prayed that all of that vile cancer would get out of my body. I believed that it could happen. I believed God could do it. I know miracles are still happening every day.
"I don't know how prayer works. I think that if you really believe, prayers will be answered. I think people wish to believe, they are trying to believe, but they don't really trust the Lord. I don't know if that has anything to do with the Lord answering prayers. All I know is that I didn't just survive. I've had a wonderful, wonderful life. I just thank the Lord for the healing and the many blessings he's given me."
After she retired from teaching in 1998, Keennon turned her energy toward volunteering for The Salvation Army, Emanuel Medical Center and the Turlock Family Network, among others. She rang the bell for the season's Salvation Army red kettles for nearly four decades.
"I used to take my Sunday school class down, and we'd ring bells and sing Christmas carols," she said.
She's taking a break from bell ringing this year because she's recuperating from another bad break.
"I fell and broke my hip on July 18," Keennon said. "The doctor told me that 40 percent of people who break a hip never get out of the hospital."
She beat those odds, too.
"They put in a big metal tube and bolts and nuts," she said. "The doctor said I healed really fast."
Which is a good thing, because she has too much to do to sit still. Besides her volunteer work, Keennon said, "I belong to book clubs. I have a Bible study tonight. I'm very busy."
Too busy to worry about death.
"I don't play sick," she said. "I don't want any sympathy; I don't think I need it. I have never woken up in the middle of the night afraid to die.
"The only happiness is in giving to others. When I can't be useful anymore, I'd want the Lord to take me home quickly."
But in the meantime, she's enjoying life with her friends and family she took her family on a trip to Ireland after her bout with cancer and is looking forward to celebrating Christmas.
"Christmas and Easter are so much more important to me now," she said. "I get awfully disappointed in America, that we're taking 'Christ' out of Christmas more and more. I like to wish people 'Merry Christmas.'
"I don't get excited about presents, because Jesus is the best present we've ever had. I do love going to church and seeing the children in their Christmas pageants.
"This is the time when we prepare our hearts and lives and thinking for the coming of our savior, so it's a special time. It's the excitement of recalling God's plan of sending his son down to us. Christmas is very, very meaningful because it's the time to celebrate the birth of our savior. That's what it's all about."
Bee staff writer Sue Nowicki can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2012.
ESOPHAGEAL CANCER FACTS
The esophagus is a long, muscular tube that joins your mouth to your stomach.
Esophageal cancer is not common in the United States. It occurs most often in men older than 50.
It causes 12,000 deaths per year in the United States (2 percent of all cancer deaths).
Symptoms include: Difficulty swallowing; unintended weight loss; chest pain, pressure or burning; fatigue; frequent choking while eating; indigestion or heartburn; and coughing or hoarseness.
Early esophageal cancer typically causes no signs or symptoms.
If you've been diagnosed with Barrett's esophagus, a precancerous condition that increases your risk of esophageal cancer caused by chronic acid reflux, ask your doctor what signs may signal that your condition is worsening.
Sources: Mayo Clinic and other online sites