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Missoula cancer survivor local hero for helping other survivors

By Kevin Maki, KECI Reporter, kmaki@keci.com
Published On: May 09 2013 08:28:51 PM MDT
Updated On: May 09 2013 08:33:45 PM MDT
MISSOULA, Mont. -

May brings a new local hero to NBC Montana. It's part of an ongoing series we're proud to be part of.

This story is about a cancer survivor whose efforts to better understand his own illness, started a nonprofit online society that has helped thousands of people all over the world.

Jeff Runyan got sick when he was working at the now shuttered Smurfit-Stone paper mill in Frenchtown.

"I noticed some swelling in my groin area at work," said Runyan. "I felt it come on spontaneously."

It would take a  precious six weeks before doctors at Mayo Clinic diagnosed Jeff with a very rare form of cancer.

Before he even knew what Burkitt's Lymphoma was the tumors were doubling, even quadrupling in size.

"I was losing weight in my body mass, but everything was being absorbed by these tumors," said Runyan.

He had cancer from his neck to his knees.

"Turns out," he said, "Burkitt's Lymphoma is the most aggressive tumor for mankind."

He said the disease responds well to chemotherapy. His treatments were intensive and brutal. But they saved his life. He is in remission.

The disease affects about 300 people in the United States. It's more common around the world. But it's hard to diagnose, and most doctors don't know a lot about it.

Jeff went looking for other survivors online.

"It took quite awhile," he said, "but I found a couple people."

From there, he found the nonprofit Burkitt's Lymphoma Society.

Penny Lyon is on the board of directors.

People from Texas to Pakistan share their personal stories about living with the rare disease because of Jeff's work.

The society wants to provide information and hope, said Penny.

Runyan is a local hero, said Lyon. "He helps other cancer patients discover the answers to take them further down the road."

That's thousands of people.

Jeff said the society works because participants share their most personal and painful experiences, reassuring new Burkitt's patients that they aren't alone.