It was a typical Sunday morning in October 2001 when Evelyn Outlaw’s life abruptly changed. Without any warning, she suffered a gran mal seizure, which caused her to lose consciousness and be rushed to the UAB emergency room.
“I can remember the paramedics saying the seizures were coming back to back,” she recalls. “After that, the details are fuzzy.”
After she arrived at UAB Hospital, Ms. Outlaw had emergency brain surgery, performed by UAB neurosurgeon Barton Guthrie, M.D. The diagnosis was grim—a grade III astrocytoma on the right frontal lobe of her brain. She was only 24 years old.
“My first thought was that I’m too young to die,” she says. “I wondered how anyone could live through a grade III tumor. I still had so much left to do with my life.”
Ms. Outlaw had no family history of cancer, and until her seizure occurred, she had experienced no symptoms of any kind. “I was a typical, independent 24-year-old,” she says. “I had just returned a few months earlier from spending a month by myself backpacking through Europe. It was a complete shock.”
After that shock wore off, Ms. Outlaw turned her attention to her treatment. “I didn’t have a choice about getting cancer, but I had a choice about how to handle it,” she says. “I saw it as a challenge that had been placed in front of me. It was no time to feel sorry for myself.”
Ms. Outlaw began receiving daily radiation treatments for two months under the care of John Fiveash, M.D., a UAB radiation oncologist and Comprehensive Cancer Center scientist. She took a three-month medical leave from her job with the UAB School of Nursing and began 18 months of chemotherapy with Cancer Center scientist Burt Nabors, M.D.
Chemotherapy proved to be especially difficult for Ms. Outlaw. “I was exhausted all the time,” she says. “For the particular drug I was on, 99 percent of the people who take it tolerate it well and live a normal life. I was part of the other 1 percent. I was sick to the point where I had to be hospitalized for a week to receive my chemotherapy that I was supposed to be able to take at home.
“Every month consisted of me being able to work for two weeks, then be in the hospital for a week, then take about a week to recover from the chemotherapy. I basically had half a life.”
Another difficult aspect of treatment for Ms. Outlaw was the negative effect on her memory, a common occurrence among brain tumor patients. “I had to write down everything I needed to remember,” she says. “I would tell my friends that I’d do something with them, but when they showed up at my house, I would have completely forgotten. That was tough, because my memory had always been like a steel trap.”
Ms. Outlaw credits the support she received from her friends and family, as well as the staff at the Cancer Center, with helping her meet the challenges of her treatment. Though it was an arduous process, the treatments were a success, and Ms. Outlaw has been cancer-free since July 2003.
New Outlook on Life
After her fight with cancer, Ms. Outlaw returned to school. “I had a new perspective on life and knew what it was like to lose one’s independence. I decided it was time for a career change that would allow me to work with people who were struggling to get theirs back,” she says. So she pursued a master’s degree in occupational therapy, which she received from UAB in December 2007. Today Ms. Outlaw works for UAB’s Spain Rehabilitation Center, where she helps patients who have suffered strokes, physical trauma or brain injuries regain their independence in daily activities such as dressing, grooming and feeding themselves.
Though her memory is still not the same as it once was (“I have to use sticky notes for everything!” she says.), Ms. Outlaw, now 31, lives a normal life with her husband, Jeff Elliott. She enjoys traveling, gardening and reading. With an undergraduate degree from UAB in English, she also does freelance editing in her spare time. “Having cancer was not a good experience by any stretch of the imagination, but it was a gift in the sense that I now understand the fragility of life,” Ms. Outlaw says. “I’m very lucky to have survived. I’ve been coming to UAB every day for 13 years—as a student, as an employee, as a patient, you name it. I might not be here today if it were not for UAB.”