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Elation and honor in survival

Trees are dedicated and white doves released for four cancer patients, including Pat Thrush.

Survivor Pat Thrush with the tree planted in her honor in Ferko Park by the Cancer Treatment Centers of America. "Every single morning we have, we should take joy in," Thrush said. (Akira Suwa / Staff Photographer)
Survivor Pat Thrush with the tree planted in her honor in Ferko Park by the Cancer Treatment Centers of America. "Every single morning we have, we should take joy in," Thrush said. (Akira Suwa / Staff Photographer)Read more

Being around the relentlessly cheerful Patricia Thrush can be exhausting.

The raindrops that ruined your morning? Beautiful. Cleaning house on a Saturday? What fun! Doesn't she know there's a recession on?

Of course. But these days, very little fazes Thrush, who five years ago finished treatment for an aggressive breast cancer she believed would kill her long before now. Life looks way different today.

"Every morning is so wonderful," she said.

Thrush, of Neptune, N.J., is the 49-year-old mother of six beautiful daughters and has two lively granddaughters and a husband she still calls "the light of my life" after 27 years of marriage. She's also one of four cancer survivors being celebrated this spring by the Cancer Treatment Centers of America facility just north of Juniata Park.

Staff and family gathered last week in Ferko Park, near the hospital, to release four white doves and add five Japanese Stewartia trees - one extra in case there's vandalism - to what's become known as Survivor Grove.

In all, 17 young trees have been planted in patients' honor among the park's decades-old London planes and sky-high tulip poplars. Stewartia was chosen this year because "it's such an elegant tree, and special people deserve special trees," said Brian Cox, landscape architect for the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, who designed the grove.

At the foot of one of the Stewartias, which sport creamy white blossoms in June and purplish-bronze leaves in fall, Thrush vowed to bury her driver's license photo. It was taken during a brutal post-mastectomy, chemotherapy regimen that made all her hair fall out in a single day.

"I looked like a plucked chicken," she said, "eyelashes, eyebrows, the works."

The Illinois-based Cancer Treatment Centers of America operates four for-profit hospitals across the country, including the facility at 1331 E. Wyoming Ave. This is the former Parkview Hospital, which CTCA bought, renovated, and opened in December 2005.

Technically, it doesn't have five-year cancer survivors yet; those being honored started their treatment at another hospital. Thrush was first treated at the CTCA in Zion, Ill.

Cancer has not been her only medical issue. At 29, she got a diagnosis of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, a progressive illness that affects breathing. She also has asthma.

Both conditions, she said, are better for the holistic treatment she received at CTCA.

In her darkest moments with cancer, Thrush despaired of ever living to witness future family milestones.

In the last five years, however, she has become a grandmother twice and attended two graduations from high school, one from college, and her youngest child's First Communion.

"I burst into tears at that, tears of absolute, utter joy," recalled Thrush, who describes a heightened sensitivity to all of life's experiences, however small, in her post-cancer life.

"Every single morning we have, we should take joy in," she said.

Thrush's family, including one boyfriend but minus the son-in-law, attended last week's ceremony. Husband Tim tried to keep track of the daughters, who range in age from 8 to 25, and the granddaughters, who are ages 1 and 3.

They were a girlie nation of ponytails and backpacks, braids and sneakers, and, in the case of the littlest, kitty socks and dolly-pink dresses.

"Mom's chilled since cancer," said one daughter. "She got more religious," said another. And three more observations: She cherishes life more. We became more mature because we had to. It brought us all closer together.

It's all there in Survivor Grove, whose trees Thrush sees as symbols of hope, strength, "and a very long life."

She does not fear death. "I fear leaving a job undone," she said.

So every day counts as never before. Thrush is making jewelry again. She's crocheting and weeding to restore dexterity still impaired by chemotherapy. And she hopes to study fine arts this fall at Brookdale Community College.

This urgent agenda may explain why Thrush seemed to take special joy in releasing the doves, provided by Manny and Heather Barbosa, who run their Say It With Doves business from a farm in Bethlehem, Pa.

Homing doves are long-lived and smart, Manny Barbosa said. "When you let them go, they circle, get their bearings, and - pfft! - they're headed home."

They know to land and wait out a storm. Barring a hawk attack, they unfailingly find their way home from up to 300 miles away.

The symbolism seemed tailor-made for cancer survivors. As Thrush opened the cage, the birds stood still for a second. Then, just as Barbosa predicted, they swept out and over the crowd, beyond the swings, heading toward Roosevelt Boulevard.

Heather Barbosa reported yesterday that all four doves had arrived back at the farm about an hour later. Safe.