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Doreen Empson, an Irish nurse who married an American airman and moved to Indiana 60 years ago, has lived through the London Blitz of 1944 and a couple of hip replacements.
The 88-year-old also has survived breast cancer.
Her bout with cancer came later in life, with the diagnosis of a 1-centimeter tumor when she was 83.
“I didn’t drink. I didn’t smoke. I was in total shock. I just couldn’t figure out how it could happen to me,” said Empson, who was born 13 miles north of Belfast in Northern Ireland.
“I went for a mammogram at the time, and it was a complete surprise,” Empson added.
She got the all-clear with her health report after a series of radium treatments and an ongoing regimen of medication that concluded in January.
Empson said she took breast cancer treatments in stride even when it meant going for two-a-day radium sessions at Community Hospital East in Indianapolis, a cancer treatment center.
“They have a tremendous cancer department, very understanding,” she said.
Empson, who worked as a traveling nurse in the United Kingdom after World War II, said the only times she generally got extremely nervous about surviving cancer were the occasional checkups in which a number of patients would wait for a health screening in a big waiting area at the hospital.
“I hated to be the last one there, waiting for the oncologist to read my X-ray,” she said. “I always wondered why they were seeing me last. Was it bad news?”
Radium treatments could be an ordeal, she said. Sometimes, the doctors asked her to endure two sessions — one at 9 a.m. and the other at 3 p.m. on the same day. “It would wear you down,” she said.
Empson will get rechecked in February at another follow-up exam, and she hopes to remain cancer free at that time.
The octogenarian said she believes her long career as a nurse helped prepare her for the
unexpected medical ordeal.
“I was a nurse in London, and I’ve seen all kinds of cancer patients in my life. There’s a lot of it around,” Empson said.
Her husband, Howard Empson, 87, was at her side throughout the cancer treatments.
Doreen met Howard, then an airman 1st class attached to the U.S. 3rd Air Force, in 1952. They were wed the next year.
The couple moved to Howard’s hometown of Brownstown, where he became a wheat, corn, soybeans and clover farmer. The couple came to the United States shortly after Thanksgiving 1953, riding a crowded troop transport (the USS Henry Gibbins) from Southhampton, England, to New York on a nine-day voyage.
The couple lived for a while in Brownstown and moved to a house on the outskirts of Columbus in 1960.
They live in the same home to this day.
Doreen Empson said the only good thing about her cancer treatment was that some of the medicine she took required a special diet to keep her bones strong. The doctors’ orders included extra feedings of ice cream, yogurt and cheese, said Empson, who describes herself as a cheese lover of the highest order.
True to her nature, Empson stresses mainly the pleasant memories of her cancer years. She remembers a male nurse who’d tend to her during radium treatments, asking if there was anything he could fetch her — even a song.
Her worst memory has nothing to do with cancer. Rather it occurred in 1944, as the Germans bombed London with V-2 rockets in a last-ditch effort to bring the island nation to its knees.
“I woke up one morning and there was glass all over my pillow,” she said. “I looked outside, and the block of buildings across from my flat were all gone.”
Lives in: Columbus.
Diagnosis: Breast cancer.
Date of diagnosis: Diagnosed at the age of 83, five years ago.
Declared cancer free: January.
Background: Born in Northern Ireland; former nurse; moved to U.S. in 1953 after meeting her husband, former U.S. Airman-turned-farmer Howard Empson in England after World War II.
Reaction to her illness: “I didn’t drink. I didn’t smoke. I was in total shock. I just couldn’t figure out how it could happen to me,” she said.
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