When Linda Horner walked into Dr. Orlando J. Martelo’s office in the early 1980s, the oncology specialist hadn’t administered chemotherapy to a patient since medical school.
Horner recalls that he wasn’t terribly enthusiastic about the prospect, but she didn’t give him a choice.
“He wanted me to schedule an appointment with one of his nurses,” Horner said, “but he was booked solid, and the next appointment wasn’t for six weeks; I couldn’t afford to wait.”
A year after Horner’s family doctor had misdiagnosed a cancerous lump in her breast as a benign cyst, the 34-year-old mother of two had, quite recently, been correctly diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer and given six months to live.
It was a prognosis neither she, her husband, nor anyone in her considerable support network (who accompanied her to every doctor’s visit) would accept. Now, a recommendation from a member of that vocal, determined support group, Peggy Schmeltzer, RN, had led Horner to Martelo.
Although by then the cancer had spread throughout Horner’s lymphatic system, it hadn’t yet reached any vital organs.
“I had no time to waste,” Horner said. “I’d already lost a year, and it cost me dearly. I wasn’t about to give the cancer a chance to spread to my liver or kidneys or lungs or anywhere else. I was determined to live.”
Spurred by Horner’s resolve, by her medical chart and by her support "posse," Martelo complied and administered his first chemotherapy treatment directly to a patient since his days as a med student.
It was a victory Horner wouldn’t savor long; in a sense, she’d just made a deal with the devil.
The “Red Devil,” to be precise.
That’s the nickname for the principal compound — Adriamycin — in Horner’s chemotherapy regimen, and, according to Horner, it lived up to its nickname — and then some.
“Adriamycin was new in those days,” she said. “It had only recently received FDA clearance. For the next 24 hours, I came to intimately understand why it’s called the red devil.”
Horner spent those next 24 hours continuously vomiting and dry-heaving. All her hair fell out, too.
“The drug itself is red,” she explained, “and when you throw it up, it looks like blood. There was a point when I crawled into the bathroom and spent the night by the toilet. My poor daughters — they were 9 and 12 — thought their mommy was dying. It felt like I might be, too.”
Horner’s next appointment was three weeks later: Another dance with the red devil, another 24 hours of nonstop vomiting.
And so it would go for the next year.
“In those days, there was no nausea medication,” Horner said. “So you just dealt with it.”
By the second treatment, however, armed with a better understanding of what she faced, Horner had arranged for her daughters to stay with friends until the sickness passed.
“I got my treatments on Tuesdays,” Horner recalled. “It was always on a Tuesday, and my girls came to look forward to those nights. Those were special nights because they got to stay with friends.”
Those nights were a living torment for Horner. Her only respite from the red devil came five months into treatment, during six weeks of radiation therapy. Those treatments weren’t much better, though.
“After one of my treatments,” Horner recalled, “Dr. Martelo came into the room and told me I looked great. I was outraged. I had no hair; I was losing weight; and I had this big, oozing sore on my breast from the radiation. ‘You want me to take off this wig and this robe and show you how I really look?’ I said.”
Martelo took such outbursts in stride.
“He was a very empathetic man,” Horner said. “I was angry and mistrustful at times, but Dr. Martelo never once got upset. He once told me I had a right not to trust doctors because they’d failed me as a profession. I got very lucky with him. Not only was he a very smart doctor, he was also extremely empathetic and understanding. Our personalities matched well.”
After the radiation, Horner endured another five-plus months with the red devil.
By the end of her year of treatment, Horner was frail and exhausted. Martelo was wary of administering further chemotherapy.
“Adriamycin causes a severe drop in your white blood-cell count,” Horner explained. “And I’d developed big, painful sores inside my mouth. I couldn’t stand to eat anything. It was awful.”
Horner was lucky in one sense, however. Although Adriamycin’s white-blood-cell side-effects cause lowered immune function, she’d avoided opportunistic infection.
“I was young and otherwise extremely healthy,” she said. “It was a dual-edged sword. My cancer wouldn’t have spread as aggressively but for my age, but I might not have responded as well to treatment, either, were I older.”
She continued, “After my last treatment, we did another CAT scan to gauge my cancer levels. We did those throughout treatment to track my progress and gauge how much we were slowing the cancer down.”
Horner recalled that, from the beginning, Martelo’s stated goal was to slow the cancer’s progression in the hopes of buying time.
“He hoped to give me time for a cure to be found,” she said. “There was never any thought we might eliminate it.”
Martelo delivered the results of that final scan the way he’d delivered all the ones before: He waited to look at them until Horner was with him.
“He never knew the findings before I did,” Horner said.
The results were more than doctor or patient could’ve hoped for.
Horner’s cancer was gone — completely.
Thirty years later, Horner remains in remission. To date, through all the scans and mammograms and blood work and other medical exams, doctors have yet to find a single cancerous cell.
“Dr. Martelo called me a miracle,” Horner said. “He’d never seen anything like it. I’ll never forget that day, in that room with him, going over those results for the first time. We were both just numb and in a state of shock. I asked him, ‘so what are we going to do now?’ and he just kind of sat there and after a second, he said, ‘I don’t know; I guess we’ll see you again in three months.”
Horner was so stunned she left the office without even thanking Martelo.
“I called him at home later that night,” she said. “I had his number; all his patients did. That’s just the kind of doctor he is.”
As the years passed and doctors kept finding no further sign of cancer, the tests became less and less frequent. Martelo moved on to a prestigious teaching position in New York, and Horner has been under the care of Dr. Donna Stahl ever since.
“Switching doctors was difficult,” Horner recalled. “Losing Martelo was like losing my best friend. We went through so much together. But I’ve managed, and Dr. Stahl has been just as much of an advocate for me.”
For about 10 years after she went into remission, Horner served as a counselor and mentor to women recently diagnosed with breast cancer.
“One thing I learned from that experience,” she said, “is how lucky I was to have a man like Joe by my side throughout the entire ordeal. So many husbands and boyfriends hit the road when breast cancer strikes. It’s terrible, but true. I’ve seen it; I’ve counseled women who’ve lived through it.”
Asked to offer advice to women newly diagnosed with breast cancer, Horner responded, “Keep a positive attitude and surround yourself with as many friends and family who love you as possible. You can never have too many advocates. You’ve got to have a good support system of people who believe you’ll survive. You have to make yourself believe it too.”
For any woman who might lack adequate support from family or friends, Horner offered, “If you don’t have anyone, come find me. I’ll be there for you.”
Horner will be a guest at Decatur County Memorial Hospital’s Spirit of Women “Girls Night Out” starting at 6 p.m., Oct. 25, at Wolf Theatres. The theme is “Survivorship and the other Cs.” For more information, contact Annie Wilkison at 663-1325.
Contact: Rob Cox at 812-663-3111 x7011.