Family approaches illness with humor and good cheer

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BYU student Greg Andrus was diagnosed with bone cancer as a high school student. Following his diagnosis, the rest of the family were tested for illnesses. Three of the six siblings, including Greg and his sister, Natalie Andrus, were diagnosed with Li-Fraumeni Syndrome.

Li-Fraumeni is a rare hereditary disorder that predisposes carriers to different types of cancer. Someone with the disease may go their entire life without showing symptoms, but someone can also develop multiple forms of cancer in their lifetime. Natalie has developed two benign tumors and Greg has developed two different cancers.

[vc_video link=”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n7KFfV2usP4&t=1s” title=”Learn more about Li-Fraumeni Syndrome.”]

Natalie, a sophomore at BYU, remembers living a normal, ordinary life before the diagnosis. She and her siblings were eating dinner when her parents made the announcement that Greg had bone cancer.

“It took a long time to sink in,” Natalie said. “I wondered what it meant for our family. It just gets incorporated into your life, though. It becomes part of your identity.”

The Andruses decided early to approach the news positively and not let their cancer define them, even though it was devastating at first. Natalie said the way her family decided to approach this trial immediately set the tone for how positive and upbeat they have been since then.

“Right after my parents told us Greg had cancer, they said ‘We’re going at this together.’ That sounds cliché, but we went at it every week together,” Natalie said. “We made it a part of our identity. We had this weird thing, but that is just who we are, and we just deal with it. You don’t let it stop you. That might sound weird to other people, but that’s just who I am.”

The likelihood of cancer survival can vary greatly depending on a number of factors. Statistic by the American Cancer Society. (Anne Taylor)

Greg, a senior at BYU, said his first concern was how the diagnosis would fit into his life. The treatments meant long periods of time in the hospital without the ability to attend class or other activities.

“I didn’t want to fit it into my life,” Greg said. “That’s when I learned that I needed to fit my life around my trials, because trials are part of life, they go hand in hand. We adjusted; the whole family had to make sacrifices, and we all had to decide that we were going to adapt and get through the next chapter of our life.”

The summer after Greg started chemotherapy, Natalie was at a basketball camp when she realized she couldn’t lift her arm above her head. Natalie admitted she was a little excited when doctors found tumors in her shoulder.

The children became competitive and started having playful arguments over who had had the most surgeries. Natalie said it didn’t become a bad thing until the removal surgery actually happened.

“Leading up to my arm surgery, everyone was giving me attention and I loved it,” Natalie said.

Greg Andrus was first diagnosed with bone cancer in October 2010. Several years later, his sister, Natalie, had several tumors removed from her shoulder. (Anne Taylor)

Natalie was diagnosed with a brain tumor less than a year later. She said she was once again secretly excited to experience something so rare.

During the recovery, however, she began to realize how dangerous the situation was and started to look at it with a new perspective.

“You look at life differently,” Natalie said. “I had the possibility of dying or losing my sight or my hearing, and suddenly everything became less important. My friends would talk about liking a boy and I would think, ‘Yeah, well I have a freaking brain tumor, so…’ Life becomes more fragile. I feel like I got more depth to myself.”

Greg was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2014, several months after returning from a mission. He said he was obviously disappointed in the news, but the timing actually worked out really well and chemotherapy for this cancer proved to be much easier than chemo for his bone cancer. He finished the treatments soon afterwards and has not had any problems since.

Greg said Li-Fraumeni unavoidably affects his life, but he has been lucky with his experience and chooses to not let this illness define him because he is able to live a completely normal life the majority of the time.

“I have worked hard to make sure it affects my life very minimally, and maybe that’s how it has changed the way I approach life,” Greg said. “I have decided that I will define who I am and I get to choose what people think of me. We all have hundreds of quirks that make us different, so I have chosen to let other ones define me.”

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Greg said the family decided early on to have a “three-day rule.” They are allowed to feel sorry for themselves for three days, then they have to move on and deal with it.

“If you’re moping around all the time then you end up being miserable,” Greg said. “But if you choose to be happy, then you allow yourself to enjoy life once again. We all have sad times and hard times, but if we focus on that and feel sorry for ourselves then we are sad and nobody wants to be around us. Choose to find joy in the journey and you’ll be amazed at how much joy there is all around.”

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