EBR councilwoman fights cancer with prayer, positivity

Ronnie Edwards looked as though she could have been on her way to church Monday — dressed to the nines with a red and black dress, red shoes and matching red lipstick. She lugged a heavy tote bag filled with inspirational books and Scripture.

She sat down on a recliner, and nurses prepared to draw blood for testing. Unfazed, Edwards comfortably propped up her feet as though ready for a pedicure.

The reality is far different.

Edwards, a six-year Baton Rouge Metro Council member, was diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer on Dec. 27. The disease is the fourth leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States, with the expectation it will jump to second place by 2020.

“I was stunned,” Edwards, 61, said during an interview at Oschner Health Center at her weekly doctor consultation and chemotherapy treatment. “I couldn’t really comprehend it because nobody in my family had ever had it.”

Prayer and positivity

Edwards decided early on that she wouldn’t succumb to her diagnosis. Relying heavily on her faith and prayers, she has firmly decided that she is going to beat the odds.

That means she’s living her life, business as usual, but with a little extra prayer. She continues to work at her job at Urban Restoration Enhancement Corporation and tend to her duties as a Metro Council member. She has yet to miss a council meeting this year.

“I’ve never lost a sense of peace — which I attribute to my faith — but for my family, of course, it was a different story,” she said. “The one requirement to talk about it was there would be no grief, no panic, no worry. And that has become a motto.”

Edwards is a mother to two adult children and a grandmother to three. The support of family and friends has been integral to her healing process, she said. She crammed all of her children, her husband, her mother and her best friend into a doctor’s office for one of her first appointments, so “we could all be on the same page together.”

Her husband of 43 years, Oliver Edwards, said his wife is the glue that holds the family together.

“Her attitude is so positive,” he said. “People get so sad about it, but she is the rock.”

Oliver Edwards said the family was in shock after the diagnosis, likening the cancer to a “stealth bomber.”

He accompanies his wife to all of her doctor’s appointments.

“The chemo seems to be working, that plus a lot of good prayers and good medicine,” he said. “Had we not picked up on it at the time we did, I don’t think we’d be here today.”

Still, it’s a particularly tough form of cancer to beat.

Only 15 percent of patients live past two years of their initial pancreatic cancer diagnosis, and only 6 percent live five years after the initial diagnosis, according to cancer research studies. Only 5 percent of pancreatic cancer patients will reach full remission.

Edwards said she asked her doctor during an early consultation if he’d ever seen “a patient experience a miracle” with a similar diagnosis.

“He answered that he’d heard of patients who have had a miracle but had never seen one. And so I thought to myself, ‘I’m going to be your first,’ ” Edwards said.

Making progress

Edwards went to the doctor in the days after Christmas because she was having stomach problems that she thought were related to acid reflux. She had lost about 40 pounds over the previous two months — a red flag she said she wishes she’d addressed sooner.

At the doctor’s office, she mentioned she had suffered a pancreatic attack 30 years ago that to her knowledge had completely healed. But the doctor immediately ordered her to get a CT scan, which detected the cancer.

Stage 4 is the most serious phase of the cancer. For Edwards, it meant it had spread into her liver and lungs, and she was unable to get surgery.

Dr. Jay Brooks, Edwards’ oncologist, said pancreatic cancer is often diagnosed in its advanced stages because there is no effective early detection screening process.

But Edwards is already showing significant signs of progress and is nearing a partial remission, which means the cancer is shrinking.

“She’s had very good results in terms of having the tumors shrink, and her tumor markers have fallen dramatically,” Brooks said. He said only about 50 percent of advanced stage pancreatic cancer patients will experience a partial remission.

Edwards said she’s also thankful she hasn’t experienced severe side effects from the chemotherapy. She’s experienced occasional nausea and fatigue but was surprised that it hasn’t impacted her daily routine.

Edwards did begin to lose her hair after the first month of chemotherapy, at which point she decided to shave her head and switch over to a wig.

“It wasn’t a big deal to me,” she said. “Hair grows back.”

Public advocacy

Edwards attributes part of her progress to many changes she’s made in her lifestyle. She stopped eating meat and white sugar. She’s also eating more fruits and vegetables and drinking more water. One of her new favorite indulgences are nutrient-rich, cold-pressed juices from The Big Squeezy.

Now Edwards said she wants to use her experience to try to raise awareness about the disease and about healthy living habits.

She said she’s disappointed by the lack of research and development dollars dedicated to the disease and would like to see more money concentrated toward finding effective, early detection screening processes.

There is significantly less funding dedicated for research and development for pancreatic cancer compared to other cancers.

For example, between 2003 and 2012, breast cancer research received between $500 and $600 million per year in federal investment. For the same time period, research for lung, colon and prostate cancer each received more than $250 million a year. Federal funding for pancreatic cancer research, in contrast, was between $50 million and $100 million per year, according to the National Cancer Institute.

“The difference is in the survival rates,” said Ashley Wallis, a representative for the Baton Rouge branch of the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network. “You see fundraisers and walks for breast cancer that are filled with survivors and family. But with pancreatic cancer, you don’t have as many survivors who advocate for the cause.”

As part of her public health advocacy efforts, Edwards is hosting a forum at 6 p.m. on April 30 at Delmont Service Center, where residents can meet with various doctors, who specialize in women’s health, dentistry, family health, pediatrics and primary care.

She’s also helping host a Community Health Fair from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on May 3 at the service center, where residents can get screening for blood pressure, as well as information about fitness, nutrition and stress. She’s also organized a panel of cancer survivors who will share their stories.

Edwards said she feels like promoting healthy education has become part of her calling, particularly as a public servant.

First elected to the Metro Council in 2008, Edwards was re-elected in 2013 without opposition. She said she has considered stepping down to spend more time with her family and check things off her “bucket list.”

Her bucket list includes traveling to every continent and going on a riverboat cruise with her family.

But she said she would like to at least finish out the next 2½ of her term to help educate people and bring about change.

Ultimately, Edwards said she wants to inspire other people with serious medical issues to have hope.

“If you have hope, there’s always the expectation that you can beat the odds, that you can be the exception and that you can have a longer and better quality of life,” she said. “People who don’t have hope, and receive the diagnosis as a reality for them, well, they don’t live very long.”