Mesothelioma survivor Diana Saunders works out at her local YMCA for at least an hour most days, stretching, walking, lifting and sweating.
She travels, dances and laughs. She adores her boyfriend, who is 20 years her junior.
“I certainly don’t sit around feeling sorry for myself. I’m still enjoying life as best as I can,” she said from her home in Cincinnati. “I don’t want to seem boisterous or too brazen, but I’m not going to look back one day saying I coulda, woulda, shoulda done things differently. I’ll do it my way.”
Saunders, 76, concedes nothing to this dreaded disease now, still living life on her terms.
She weighs 128 pounds — only 15 more than she did 55 years ago when she lived in London, where she grew up with seven siblings.
A life filled with adventure hasn’t changed her much. She aged remarkably well.
“Someone said, ‘when are you going to start acting like a real grandmother?’ My answer was never,” she said with a laugh. “I’m not going to be an old grey-haired lady, sitting in a rocking chair feeling sorry for myself. I’ll probably end up dying of something other than mesothelioma before then.”
After one week, she was gone from the hospital. She left New York the next week with daughter Rowena on an Amtrak train back to Cincinnati, never looking back.
Saunders declined follow-up chemotherapy and radiation treatments because of potentially debilitating side effects. She undergoes regular scans every three months in Cincinnati to check for any recurrence.
“I hope I’m not tempting fate here, like opening an umbrella indoors and getting bad luck, but I feel good right now,” she said. “I can’t do the same volume of exercise I once could — maybe 80 percent now — but you deal with it.”
Saunders stays busy at home, often cooking for guests. She eats right, exercises regularly, and stays surprisingly positive for someone with such an awful disease.
“It is what it is. I can’t do anything about it now, so I take it one day at a time,” she said. “My body didn’t make this cancer. It was something I breathed in that made it. That’s a big difference to me, and the way I approach this.”
Mesothelioma is a rare and aggressive disease caused by inhalation of toxic asbestos fibers.
Like many mesothelioma survivors, the original diagnosis stunned Saunders. She worked for more than 20 years as a flight attendant for a major airline, traveling the world and satisfying her sense of adventure.
She survived a major heart attack in 2010 — requiring double bypass surgery — and was back to flying months later.
Saunders later developed malakoplakia, a rare inflammatory infection that almost killed her, forcing her retirement.
It can take decades after initial asbestos exposure for mesothelioma to develop.
Saunders believes her cancer stems from working in a General Motors automobile plant in London 50 years ago. She worked in the office, but she rode home most days with her husband, who worked in the factory and died a decade ago.
“When I was first told what I had, it was like getting shot in the stomach,” she said. “I called my daughter and told her if the window was open — and I was on the 19th floor at the time — I would have jumped out. That’s how I felt.”
The doctor, who knew Saunders for many years, started to cry when he delivered the diagnosis. She steadied him.
She later grew frustrated by the lack of reliable information she could find about this rare cancer. So many questions went unanswered. Doctors and nurses, who rarely deal with this disease, couldn’t help.
Fortunately, Saunders found Dr. Snehal Smart at The Mesothelioma Center.
Before surgery, Smart directed her to a second opinion in Boston. She set up Saunders with a mesothelioma mentor — a survivor who lived with the disease for several years before becoming an advisor.
It changed her outlook completely.
“Having a mentor was the most important thing that has happened for me,” Saunders said. “This [mesothelioma] was frightening at first. You’re given a death sentence, but then no one to turn to. You don’t know what’s normal, how you’re supposed to feel at each step. Doctors should take a class on this type of thing.”
Originally against surgery, Saunders talked at length with her daughter, her son and Smart about options. They reminded her about her grandchildren.
Saunders’ medium, a psychic who she’s known for years, helped release much of the tension.
“Some people think it’s crap, or witchcraft, but if you have one, and believe in him, it can really help your mental state,” she said. “You don’t think about living and dying. I don’t really go to church, and I’m not pushing anything, but it’s right for me.”
Saunders wants to help other mesothelioma patients the way her mentor helped her. She believes helping others is why she survived the heart attack.
“I was dead when they worked on me. It happened at the airport between flights,” she said. “For some reason, I’ve been asked to take this journey. I’m happy to help anyone who is going through this. I don’t want anyone to have to feel as helpless as I did. It’s why I’m here.”
Saunders remains as comfortable in an aircraft today as most people are in an automobile. She grew up at boarding school and lived on her own at age 19 in the Canary Islands.
She has a trip planned to Greece with her son and recently traveled to Egypt. She took her two grandkids to her timeshare condo in Mexico and believes there is plenty of living left to do.
“Those first few days [after the diagnosis] were absolutely putrid. It was like losing your job, and a real blow to the ego,” she said. “But then you get over it, and move on. And you look forward to tomorrow.”