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Of character: Pryor woman fights cancer with humor and heart

Darla Thompson

Darla Thompson

Oklahoma City — Not too many people can start off a talk with an incurable cancer diagnosis and have everyone in stitches by the end.

But for Darla Thompson, every heartbreaking circumstance comes woven with little moments of humor.

Thompson, of Pryor, volunteers with the American Cancer Society as an advocate for research, helps people struggling to navigate the health care system, started several support groups and organized her hometown's Relay for Life Fundraiser for years. She also volunteers as a listening ear and companion for people in hospice.

All of that volunteerism is on top of working as an administrative programs officer for the Oklahoma State Department of Health.

Maria Alexander, regional director over local health departments in six counties, including Mayes County, where Thompson works, said Thompson has a talent for connecting with people going through cancer.

“Darla is an amazing women with regard to her cancer journey, personally and professionally, and her advocacy for cancer victims and the cause,” she said.

Thompson has more than her fair share of experience to draw on.

She was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma, a cancer of the immune system, in 1986. Cancer treatments were even more toxic than they are now, so doctors warned her she likely would die from organ damage before she turned 40 — an age that seemed impossibly distant then, when she was 23. She has outlasted cancer long enough to raise two children and get to know six grandchildren.

Which isn't to say it's been an easy journey. The original tumor still resides in her chest, and she has had to fight other tumors in her breast, colon, uterus and thyroid. She's had to have her spleen removed, which allows infections to rapidly overwhelm the body's defenses.

Lesa Foster, executive director of American Cancer Society Oklahoma, said she's known Thompson for 20 years, and her “extraordinary spirit” has helped not only survive her own cancer this long, but to inspire others.

“She's been able to look at her situation and find those moments of humor,” she said. “She just exudes happiness and positivity. She's never let cancer slow her down.”

Alexander agreed that Thompson's combination of experience and humor is powerful. One of the stories she remembers is Thompson getting into a traffic accident while hauling a load of prosthetics for breast cancer patients. The responding officer didn't seem to know what to do until Thompson scolded him to “help me pick up my boobs,” she said.

“She tells it with such humor, one can't help but laugh,” Alexander said. “But that's what she does: bring humor and humanity into a tough discussion all the while providing care and comfort to those who need it the most.”

She can turn serious, though, when that's what it takes to get the message across. Paula Warlick, Oklahoma grassroots manager for the American Cancer Society's Cancer Action Network, said Thompson's personal story made a substantial impression when she traveled to Capitol Hill to advocate for increased cancer research funding.

“Nobody, including her then-congressman, left with a dry eye,” Warlick said. “Myself and other advocates cannot thank her enough in lending her voice in the fight against cancer and more importantly to fund cancer research.”

Thompson said she never would have imagined herself as an advocate before she was diagnosed with cancer, but meeting people who have lost their fight or are too sick to speak for themselves inspired her to go beyond her comfort zone.

“If someone on their deathbed says, ‘Keep fighting for me,' are you going to say no? Are you not going to do it?” she said. “From being so shy I couldn't talk on the phone to speaking in front of thousands of people, that hasn't been me, that's those stories.”

Meg Wingerter

Meg Wingerter has covered health at The Oklahoman since July 2017. Previously, she lived in Topeka, Kansas, and worked at Kansas News Service and The Topeka Capital-Journal, where she earned awards for business coverage. She graduated from... Read more ›