North Huntingdon native beat the odds to offer others facing colon cancer hope
Stacy Hurt never set out to become Wonder Woman, but life thrust her into the role.
Today, the relentlessly upbeat 48-year-old blogs, counsels, commiserates and travels the country promoting colon cancer prevention, testing, early diagnosis and hope as a national spokeswoman for the Colon Cancer Coalition.
Just four years ago, the future looked uncertain for the North Huntingdon native.
On Sept. 17, 2014, her 44th birthday, Hurt was supposed to be traveling to Bermuda with her husband, Drew. Instead, the mother of two was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer. It had spread to her liver, lungs and lymph nodes.
“When I saw the doctor at the Hillman Cancer Center, I flat out asked what my chances were. He would not give me an answer. He said, ‘I don’t have a crystal ball. This depends on you,’ ” Hurt said.
Others were depending on Hurt.
Her husband and sons -- Emmett, now 13, a medically fragile boy with a rare chromosomal condition, and Griffin, now 15 -- felt the world shift in their Bridgeville home.
Hurt’s mother, Elaine Sydeski, of North Huntingdon, was in a state of shock.
“Her dad and I thought this can’t be. Her young sons need her. ... We can’t lose her because she is everything to her family,” Sydeski said.
Hurt was terrified. A lifelong athlete who had never smoked and had no family history of colon cancer, she was left to wonder “Why me?” as she absorbed the awful news.
“I thought I was going to die for about two days until Griffin asked me, ‘Are you going to die?’ That was when I made my mind up and said there was no way I could let that happen,” Hurt said, choking back tears.
Some 18 months, two surgeries and dozens of chemotherapy and radiation treatments later, Hurt made good on her promise.
Along the way, after learning that diet and nutrition can play a role in colon cancer, she gave up sugar, alcohol, sodium and fried foods and bumped up her intake of healthy foods. After discussing additional options with an integrative oncologist, Hurt added yoga, massage, aromatherapy, acupuncture and Reiki to her routine.
Her form of colon cancer offered no options for immunotherapy, so she was left with standard treatments.
“I had an unprecedented response. I am classified in the literature as an exceptional responder,” Hurt said. “I am a woman of faith and a very spiritual person. So, I do believe there was some divine intervention and I am very grateful for that.”
A graduate of Penn State who worked in health care and marketing, Hurt had bounced back once before.
Thirteen years ago, Hurt had a satisfying career, a healthy two-year old son and a loving husband when they learned their new infant son, Emmett, would face incredible odds the rest of his life. The tiny boy was diagnosed with a chromosomal mutation so rare that he is one of only three people in the world diagnosed with it.
“A doctor told me, ‘He will never walk or talk, get used to it.’ I wanted to throat punch her, but I didn’t. I said, ‘Well, we are going to do everything we can to give Emmett the best life he can possibly have,’ ” Hurt said.
In the beginning, there were so many trips to UPMC Children’s Hospital that the parking valet knew Hurt by name.
“My husband and I have investigated and procured every possible piece of therapy, equipment and service that we can,” Hurt said. “I can say today Emmett is doing way more than doctors ever expected. He can’t walk, but he can ambulate with assistance. He has exceeded all the expectations.”
The challenges have only made her family stronger, Hurt said.
“Drew is my best friend. He makes me laugh. He is my rock,” Hurt said. “And it’s made Griffin remarkably resilient, more than the average 15-year-old in understanding the old adage that life isn’t fair.”
After her cancer treatments began to work, Hurt decided to take a year off to reassess her life and explore advocacy opportunities. She was impressed with the work of the coalition, a small Minnesota-based nonprofit that promotes grassroots, community-based efforts to build programs to promote colon cancer prevention and screening as well as support services for those dealing with the disease.
Working with the coalition and doing patient outreach on social media, Hurt said she’s learned the most important thing she can offer is hope.
“I’ve always had hope. Before this I didn’t realize how many people needed hope,” she said.
The coalition eventually offered Hurt a position that met her need to keep travel to a minimum --“with Emmett, I can’t be gone more than two days at a time”-- and allow her to work remotely from Pennsylvania.
“Stacy is a force to be reckoned with on social media,” said Sarah DeBord, coalition communications manager. “A lot of her work is strangers reaching out to her and her providing that one-on-one time. It’s about helping individuals, being the safety net for those people, to give people hope, so they know they’re not alone.”
Back in North Huntingdon, Hurt’s mother couldn’t be more proud. Her daughter may not wear a Wonder Woman costume, but Sydeski knows she has earned that title.
“Stacy’s first-grade teacher, Audrey Churma, told us at an open house that she was special and would grow up to make a difference in the world,” Sydeski said. “She is special. We are most proud of how she has turned her fight against cancer and caring for her son, Emmett, into a way to help so many people who need hope and encouragement with life’s challenges.”