DANVILLE – It's been a tough year for Danville residents Joe and Janet Burns. Both were diagnosed with cancer.
"I still can't believe it," said 49-year old Janet, wisps of hair escaping her pink baseball cap. "I'm still in shock."
In January, her husband of 24 years was having chest pains.
"I described my symptoms to a friend, and we thought I might be having a heart attack," said Joe, whose own cap hid a smooth head where thick black curls once nested. "I went straight to my doctor, who put me in the hospital for a stress test and chest X-ray."
The former Chicago policeman, now an investigator for the Department of Children and Family Services, felt more than tightening in his chest when he learned there was "something" on his lung.
"I knew from my family history and the fact I was a smoker it wasn't going to be good," he said. Joe had given up cigarettes in 1988 and was diligent about annual physicals. His diagnosis put him at Stage III, but he then was put at Stage IV because of the location of the tumor. Cancer staging describes how far cancer has spread anatomically and attempts to put patients with similar prognosis and treatment in the same staging group.
"Because the tumor is by my trachea, it's inoperable – for now," Joe said optimistically. "The chemo and radiation treatments are trying to shrink it."
Joe, 56, said he always thought he'd die in his 90s with a surprised look on his face. He wasn't prepared when the doctor said that without treatment, he had a life expectancy of eight to 24 months. With treatments, it was possible the tumor would shrink enough to allow the affected lung to be removed.
Joe said his regimen of treatment has been really aggressive, with five radiation treatments per week instead of three.
In March, because of a low white blood cell count, Joe was hospitalized.
Shortly before that, though, one of the couple's three cats had jumped up on Janet – not an unusual habit, but this time was different.
"I'm telling you, I saw stars," Janet recalled. "Of course, people wanted to tell me if it hurts it can't be breast cancer, but I wasn't going to take the chance, even though I had no family history of it. I knew I had to listen to my body. I had the mammogram and the ultrasound, too. That's where it showed up."
Janet had been checked out on a Monday, and on Friday, the doctor's office called and wanted her to come in.
"I just knew," she said with a heavy sigh. "I was Stage I, but I didn't waste any time. I had a mastectomy in less than a week. It was a no-brainer for me. The best thing was removal, then chemo."
When Janet got the call from the doctor's office, Joe was in the process of being discharged from the hospital.
"She had to walk to the 800 Building next to the hospital and back by herself," Joe said. "I'd go through all I've been through a hundred times for Janet not to have had" cancer.
As the couple attended Provena Regional Cancer Center for treatments, they learned they may be the first couple to undergo treatment at the same time.
"This is not the way I wanted to make history," Janet said.
Joe has been off work for almost three months and is approaching going on disability with its cut in pay. He suffers from coughing spells that have caused him to pass out and keep him from working. A procedure to remove fluid from his lung may help get that under control.
For Janet, fighting cancer has meant a color change.
"I've never been a pink person," Janet said of receiving not only pink ribbons, but also a number of items in the traditional color associated with cancer victims and survivors or their supporters. "I'm a military mom; red, white and blue is more my style."
When Janet returned to work as a patient services representative at Christie Clinic in Danville, her coworkers were dressed in pink. Now her workspace is probably half pink, she said.
Janet is active with the Military Moms Web site because Paul Burns, one of the couple's sons, is in the Air Force. So Janet's online friends from as far away as England started sending hats to Joe when he started losing his hair, which bolstered both their spirits.
Paul, 28, has received a hardship transfer to an air base in Illinois in order to be closer to home. His twin, Tony, lives next door to his parents.
Joe's son Jason, 35, has made trips to Danville from his home in Southern California to help his dad.
Daughter Heather Will, 32, also of Southern California, gave birth to the couple's third grandchild on Aug. 25.
Tony's daughter, Ariel, 9, comes and goes from her grandparents' home and gives advice with the clarity of a child.
"I think the doctor should just take the scissors and take that out and throw it away," she told her grandfather.
"It was hard to tell her about me," said Janet, "since she'd already watched what Joe was going through, but she's helped us both by doing whatever she could."
Both say they've tried to keep their senses of humor and remain optimistic.
Joe has T-shirts that read: "I have chemo brain. What's your excuse?" and "My bald head is better than your bad haircut."
"Sure, I wear them," Joe said with a laugh. "It's fun to watch people's reaction.
"I've never looked back," Joe said seriously. "I'm 56. Three-quarters of my life is behind me. I've taken treatment with people half my age that will not recover. I'm the lucky one. I have hope."
The couple find it imperative to share their experiences with others.
"Everyone should have an annual physical, tell the doctor their family history and even have the extra tests insurance doesn't always cover but could give you early answers," Joe said. "If I'd have had an annual X-ray, we would have found this a lot sooner."
Benefit to raise funds to help couple with expenses
Friends have put together a benefit for Joe and Janet Burns of Danville to help defray their medical expenses.
Joe was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer in January and Janet with Stage I breast cancer in March. Joe is undergoing radiation and chemotherapy in hopes of shrinking his tumor enough to create a possibility of surgery to remove his lung. Janet has undergone a mastectomy and chemotherapy and is back to work.
The benefit is set for 1 to 8 p.m. Sunday at the Turtle Run Golf Club and Banquet Center, 332 E. Liberty Lane.
The event will feature access to the swimming pool, pulled pork sandwiches and hot dogs, a raffle for prizes and 50/50 raffle. Live music will be provided by Willard Cratchelow, George Martin presents the Beatles, Anger Management and Bill Clauson.
"We're going to try to raise $5,000," said family friend Rick Todd of Danville. "Usually if someone has cancer, they rely on their spouse or significant other. This time, they were both fighting it."
Todd said the Burnses have been good friends to a lot of people in the area, and the benefit is just a way to pay back all the help they've given others over the years.
Tickets are $20 per person or $30 for a couple. Children younger than 12 get in free.
People are also welcome to make donations to: Friends of Joe and Janet, 509 N. Vermilion St., #512, Danville, IL 61832.
Information is available at www.friendsofjoeandjanet.com.