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A presidential cancer victory

September 24, 2010 by admin

College President Welcomes Students, Staff

By Charles W. Kim

After fighting cancer for almost a year, college President Peter F. Burnham is back at the helm of the school and “doing great.”

“(The experience) was a wakeup call,” Burnham, 66, said during a telephone interview Sept. 24. “I was very lucky.”

Burnham said he was diagnosed with cancer after his primary doctor of more than 20 years found a growth on his tongue during a routine check up last October. A biopsy shortly thereafter confirmed the worst, the growth was malignant.

“It was very frightening,” Burnham said. “You are asking, ‘Why me’?”

Doctors told Burnham the cause was likely a combination of a genetic pre-disposition to cancer and a history of smoking cigarettes in the past, even though he quit the habit 24 years ago.

“I used to smoke two packs a day,” Burnham said.

Burnham said the diagnosis started him on a 5- to 6-week surreal odyssey where he researched his condition and the forms of treatment available.

“There are about 10 million people in the country (right now) with cancer,” Burnham said. “About one out of every three people will develop cancer (in their lifetimes).”

He eventually decided to be treated at the Abramson Cancer Center of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

The center is one of only 39 in the nation to hold a Comprehensive Cancer Center designation from the National Cancer Institute, according to the center’s Internet site. According to its site, the center sees more than 70,000 outpatient visits each year, 33,000 chemotherapy treatments and more than 66,000 radiation treatments.

“I had a 7:15 a.m. standing appointment every day,” Burnham said. “I had to discipline myself to get in the car, through all kinds of weather, and go to the treatments.”

Like many other cancer patients, Burnham talked about the difficulties of the radiation and chemotherapy treatments that became a large part of his daily routine.

“You had to wear a mask (for radiation) that would keep your head perfectly still,” Burnham said.

Burnham said he dropped 40 pounds during the treatments because he had trouble eating when the radiation damaged his taste buds.

“Food tasted horrible, like cardboard,” Burnham said. “It was very depressing watching yourself shrinking away in the mirror.”

Burnham said he used a feeding tube, going directly into his stomach, three times a day for two months in order to take in the proper nourishment. He said he feared using the tube too long would allow his throat muscles to atrophy and he would have to learn how to swallow all over again.

“You have to have your own head on your shoulders and commit to the treatment,” Burnham said. “I saw a lot of people (in treatment) who lost hope.”

A large outpouring of support from Burnham’s family, friends and especially colleagues both at Brookdale and in the Middlestates Commission of Higher Education where he served as chairman until illness forced his resignation, helped him through the tough times.

The regional accreditation group, which serves more than 500 institutions in the Mid-Atlantic States as well as Puerto Rico, sent Burnham more than 500 cards wishing him well in addition to cards and letters from the Brookdale community.

“It bowled me over (getting that kind of support),” Burnham said.

Burnham says he is currently cancer-free and is hoping a comprehensive six-month exam coming up soon will confirm the fact, even though he is a bit nervous.

“You see people who are there (in treatment for cancer) for the second or third time,” Burnham said. “It is on your mind.”

His recovery also had some very good moments, according to Burnham, such as the day last spring when he could start to taste food again.

“The taste buds grow back,” Burnham said. “It was amazing (tasting food) again.”

Rediscovering the joy of food has led Burnham in a search for spicy, greasy foods featuring various ethnic cuisines.

The whole experience and being away from the daily pressures of the college with its $125 million annual operating budget during the six months he was battling the disease did produce a bright note for the career educator.

“This is a high-burnout job, and I was beginning to wonder (before the cancer) if this was something I wanted to do for the rest of my life,” Burnham said. “I was on the fence.”

The hiatus, however, re-energized Burnham, and he is now “10 times more aggressive” in carrying out his duties as the head of the college.

“It became very clear that I missed (my work) a lot,” Burnham said. “I am getting stronger as the weeks go by.”

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