Rollercoaster to recovery: Acra Samuels on how love and faith helped her survive
Acra and Chris Samuels are set to celebrate their 25thwedding anniversary and 12thyear together in Big Sky – something that seemed nearly impossible during much of 2016.
Acra began to have pains and digestive issues in early 2016 and finally ended-up in the emergency room in Bozeman in the latter part of March.
“After 15 hours of tests and scans, they told me I had a tumor in my colon wall the size of a softball,” she said. Referred to Virginia-Mason in Seattle, she had surgery and was told the comforting news that the mass was not malignant. Acra was sent home with the belief that she just needed to have a scan in a year or so. In July, the pain came back and was not getting better. Another scan showed that the cancer had returned to her colon and spread to her liver. The misdiagnosis allowed for the cancer to metastasize.
“It was a devastating blow – shocking and heartbreaking,” she said. “Once we found out how rare my cancer was, it seemed hopeless. But, with the help of my husband, who is my angel and my rock as well as numerous friends and family, I was able to get in to see the specialists that are my doctors at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.”
Her very first appointment at Dana-Farber led to testing of her tumors to see if there was anything specific about them that could help doctors discover a treatment.
“That decision that day is why I am here today – that and God,” she said with emotion.
The family had been frustrated with the initial misdiagnosis in Seattle.
“I can’t help but think in some ways that it was divine intervention because there were very few solutions and if they had diagnosed me with cancer at that time, I may not have ended-up in Dana-Farber in Boston and be on the path that I’m on right now,” she said.
It would take a month before the tests of her tumors would come back. In the meantime, the tumors were so rampant she needed another major surgery. The only plan in place before the tests came back was that she would have the surgery, recover and begin chemotherapy.
“They gave me a 10-20% chance with chemo,” she said. “We were told I would have 6 months at best.”
The children were educated about the situation every step of the way and the family debated her every move: the surgery, the chemo.
The surgery was extensive and recovery grueling.
“I was six or seven days into recovering in the hospital and it was the lowest point of my life – knowing that after going through all of this that the only hope that lay ahead was to go through chemo,” she said.
At that low point, her doctor came in, sat on the edge of her bed and said her test results were back and “very interesting.”
She had a genetic abnormality – NRTK – and there was a new clinical drug out treating it successfully. Her doctor said he needed to do more research, but it looked like she was a match.
“So, things turned around and there was hope,” she said, crying. “I was still in the hospital for 12 days. I lost 25 pounds. I didn’t eat for 10 days. It was difficult. I was very weak when I left there.”
She flew back to her beloved children and Big Sky for two weeks in order to regain some strength. She and Chris then returned to Boston so she could start the first version of the drug.
“I was still really struggling to eat at that point and within a couple of days I was eating again. It was insane how quickly the effects of the drug took place – crazy. I went back within a month and they did another scan and the tumors had regressed by 50 percent,” she said.
Insidious and intelligent as it can be, the cancer adapted to the drug and the tumors again grew. Now, Acra is on a second miracle drug and joins the legion of cancer survivors who are able to lead relatively normal lives with the help of pills.
She and Chris still travel to Boston monthly for her check-ups and to restock her pill supply, but life is again beautiful.
“Hopefully this is the future of cancer treatment – if they can find a way to pinpoint it genetically, then it would be great,” she said.
The dark days taught her to appreciate every single day – to savor it and be thankful. She is so proud of the young men she has raised and the fact that whenever she and Chris needed to be gone for any amount of time, they held down the fort – caring for the family dog, the home and the business.
“It’s been hard on them and I hate that it caused them to grow-up younger than I would have liked for them to have grown-up – to have to deal with something like this. They have been fantastic, supportive and helpful. They are great boys,” she said.
When she was unable to spend time with them in the ways she used to, they adapted. Acra loves football, so the boys would watch football games with her on television.
It was about that time that Chris found out about the new national fundraising competition to benefit Saint Jude Children’s Research Hospital called Touchdown against Cancer and got the Big Horns involved.
“I couldn’t have gone through this without my husband, my sweet family, my parents and my prayer warriors that have been praying from all over. God has been listening,” she said, pushing back tears.
The path to Big Sky
Acra and Chris met in college at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and married in 1994.
They came to Big Sky accidentally, which happened to be the opening weekend of Moonlight Basin.
“We skied Moonlight Basin on day-1, at about 9:30 a.m. and that was it – we were in love. This was before the Lone Tree and Headwaters lifts. We got off of Six Shooter and it was waist deep powder. It was unbelievable,” she said.
They began the dance of part time residents until Acra spent a summer in Big Sky with the boys while Chris worked in Nashville. Heartbroken to leave Big Sky when the time came, she began planting the seed with Chris that Big Sky should be their permanent home. Their move to fulltime happened in 2007.
“We have never looked back. It has been incredible. This community is like no other. We can’t thank them enough for the love and support they have given our family,” she said.