Cancer Survivor Inspires 'Creating Hope' Donors; Event Breaks Record to Support Providence Research and Treatment

June 11, 2018

In a powerful speech to a packed house, Becky Roth spoke emotionally about the cancer that changed, but didn’t claim, her life. And, despite losing two leg bones used for her jaw reconstruction – and against all odds – she will run in the 2018 Providence Hood to Coast relay race to raise money for cancer research at Providence.

Roth’s amazing life story inspired the 500 guests at the 20th annual Providence Creating Hope Dinner to give a record-breaking $964,025 in the paddle-raise to help expand cancer services and research. In addition, Safeway/Albertson’s annual round up for cancer campaign during May raised $427,553. In that campaign, Safeway/Albertson customers and employees are invited to “round up” at the cash register to support Providence Cancer Institute. In total, nearly $1.4 million was raised in May for cancer programs at Providence.

Most of the funds raised will be used to expand services on the 11th floor of the Robert W. Franz Cancer Center, including Providence Head and Neck Cancer Program and Clinic, where Roth received her care. The remaining funds will support immunotherapy research at the Earle A. Chiles Research Institute, part of Providence Cancer Institute.

“Patients with oral, head and neck cancers face incredible challenges with the disease because it affects so much, including speech, swallowing and appearance,” said Bryan Bell, M.D., D.D.S., director of Providence Head and Neck Cancer Program and Clinic, and assistant member of Earle A. Chiles Research Institute.

“It takes a large team to care for our patients, from surgeons to physical therapists,” Dr. Bell explained to Creating Hope attendees. “We’re committed to helping people with their life after cancer, and we want to make treatment easier.”

“Making treatment easier is why we focus on immunotherapy research at Providence,” added Rom Leidner, M.D., co-director of Providence Head and Neck Cancer Program, and assistant member of Earle A. Chiles Research Institute. “Immunotherapy teaches the body to heal itself, and side effects are the exception, not the rule,” said Dr. Leidner. “Immunotherapy has changed the game, and we’re on the brink of a revolution in cancer treatment.”

“Patients are at the heart of everything we do,” said Dr. Bell. “Expanding our services on the 11th floor benefits our patients by bringing their care all together in one location. That makes a difference for those we serve, including Becky Roth.”

In 2005, Roth’s dentist found a small white spot on her tongue; she met with Dr. Bell who removed the spot. She was back in 2010 with another spot. This time she was diagnosed with oral cancer. “It didn’t make sense. I was young, healthy and active. I didn’t smoke, I didn’t drink, I had no risk factors,” said Roth. The teacher and married mom of two remembers thinking, “I don’t have time for cancer.”

Dr. Bell and his team removed a golf ball-sized tumor from the base of her tongue and jaw. Doctors rebuilt her jaw using tissue and the fibula bone from her right leg. The surgery took 10 hours, and she spent a week in the hospital.

Recovery wasn’t easy, but within a month she was back in the classroom. Nearly four months later she ran her first race with one fewer fibula – despite the orthopedist saying she would never run again.

Then, the cancer returned, this time in the floor of her mouth, tongue and lower jaw.

There was another surgery, this one lasting 14 hours. An additional jaw reconstruction was performed, using her second fibula.

Complications arose, and she had to endure additional reconstructive procedures.

Roth emerged on the other side of surgeries, chemotherapy, radiation, and lots of speech and physical therapy. She continued teaching her kids and racking up the miles on her running shoes. Two years ago she ran her second marathon 30 minutes faster than her first one 25 years earlier.

“The statistics say I shouldn’t be alive today,” Roth told the cancer dinner attendees. “The extra years I’ve been given feel like a bonus.”

Her journey is not over. The plate in her jaw broke, and she’s facing another life-altering surgery. Originally, she was told she needed to go to Seattle for the procedure, but donor support and growth at Providence Cancer Institute now mean Dr. Bell can continue to care for Roth in Portland with her friends and family close by.

Roth told the crowd they made that possible.

“Your generosity will help people like me continue on after cancer,” said Roth. “These are people whose lives were changed by cancer, not taken. People who know there is life after cancer, and who are ready to live it.”

The crowd responded with an emotional outpouring of support. The $964,025 raised far exceeded last year’s record-high contributions.

“We’re humbled by the support of so many in our community,” said Walter J. Urba, M.D., Ph.D., director of Earle A. Chiles Research Institute and Robert W. Franz Cancer Center. “We take this support seriously. We’re committed to making a difference in the lives of everyone touched by cancer through our determination to #finishcancer through our immunotherapy research and clinical trials.”