June 14, 2014 started out like any other day for Diane Milne. But then, just before the two-hour Zumba exercise class she took almost every morning, she suddenly couldn’t breathe. “I had an overwhelming sense of doom,” recalls Diane, a 68-year-old retired nurse. “I was home alone and I thought I was going to die.”
The next thing she remembers is coming to in the emergency room. Her heart was stopping for 7 to 8 seconds between every beat, she kept passing out, and her ER team had no idea what was wrong. Then a partial CT scan revealed a huge blood clot—or embolism—blocking the artery between her heart and lungs. “They’re usually fatal,” Diane says. “My doctor said, ‘You shouldn’t even be here.'”
Then he called in an oncologist. “I said, ‘Why? I don’t have cancer. I have an embolism,'” Diane says. But the question was what had caused the blood clot and, with all her exercise, inactivity was not the answer.
The oncologist ordered a full CT scan, which revealed an enormous tumor on both sides of her diaphragm. The tumor had also spread to her stomach, where she was losing massive amounts of blood. Further testing showed Diane had Burkitt lymphoma, a rare white blood cell cancer usually found in children and young adults. This cancer is extremely aggressive—doubling in just 24 hours—and Diane’s tumor was already so big that it had destroyed one of her kidneys. “I was being crushed to death from the inside,” she says.
Diane’s ER team said that, between the size of the tumor and all her complications, she had only a few days to live. But her oncologist took her hand and said, “If you will fight, I will fight with you. We can do this together.”
The tumor was inoperable, so her only option was chemotherapy to try to shrink it. Diane’s oncologist threw everything he could at the tumor. During her first round, she was on seven chemotherapy drugs around the clock for a month and a half. “It was so toxic that a nurse checked me every 10 minutes,” Diane says. Her oncologist put the chances of her organs surviving the chemotherapy at 40%.
So far, however, Diane has beaten the many odds against her. She finished treatment in December 2014 and has been in remission ever since. “I’m a miracle,” she says.
To get through her harsh chemotherapy, Diane drew on her experience as a cancer nurse in the 1970s, when she did visualizations with her adolescent patients. She began practicing guided imagery herself on the Fourth of July while watching the fireworks from a hospital window. “I pictured my cancer cells exploding and turning into something beautiful, like proteins my body could use,” she says.
Then she asked for guided imagery tapes, but had to order her own because the hospital didn’t have any. So when her treatment ended, Diane founded a guided-imagery library at the hospital with funding from The East Valley Foundation and The Dorothy Foundation. She’s also about to open similar libraries in six outpatient cancer centers in Arizona, where she lives.
Before her own diagnosis, Diane led craft classes for cancer patients and she continues to do so today with funding from the TLC Foundation. “Patients say the best part is forgetting they have cancer for a few hours,” she says, adding, “They share with me because they know I understand like no other.”
Diane’s next dream is a cancer house to give patients respite from the medical world. She envisions a welcoming space full of sofas and recliners, fresh-baked cookies and coffee, and a guided-imagery room. “Now I just need a million dollars to start this,” she says. She stands on the land where she hopes to build and visualizes her cancer house there, and is working with the TLC Foundation to make her vision a reality.
“Cancer has blessed me—it’s given me purpose and the ability to see beauty in everything around me,” Diane says. “The grass is so much greener, the clouds are more beautiful, and I see flowers growing through cracks in the concrete.” And she’s still doing Zumba.