Cancer battle leaves Duvall ‘happier than before’

Published 3:16 pm Sunday, September 10, 2023

By Michael J. Collins, Bowling Green Daily News

Amy Duvall was “thrilled” to receive her cancer diagnosis.

She had spent 11 weeks with extreme chest pain and fatigue, which quickly left her wheelchair-bound and oxygen-dependent. Doctors couldn’t narrow down the cause.

“I kept thinking, ‘They’re just going to let me die,’ ” Duvall said. “Nobody could do anything because you can’t start treatment without a diagnosis.”

Duvall, a member of Warren County Public School’s board of education since 2015, was told earlier this year that she had a form of Stage IV non-Hodgkins Lymphoma.

She received her last treatment Thursday, and she’s ready for her next chapter in life.

Her diagnosis was rare and aggressive, seen in around 3% of non-Hodgkins patients, most commonly in women.

A cancerous growth sat between her lungs and wrapped around her pulmonary artery, making it too risky to remove through surgery.

The weeks between her symptoms and her diagnosis were some of the most difficult of her life, she recalled. She experienced constant pain and fatigue and was forced to sleep upright just to keep breathing.

“I honestly thought I was going to die, and my family thought I was going to die,” Duvall said. “I was getting sicker every few days. I was seeing a rapid progression of my symptoms.”

Three surgical biopsies and 88 tissue samples later, she finally received the call from her doctor.

“ ‘I’m sorry, I’m so so sorry’ — that’s what she said to me as I’m driving home — ‘I’m so sorry,’ ” Duvall said. “And I said, ‘What do you mean? Are you talking about cancer or something?’ And she said, ‘Possibly.’

“And then my next question was, ‘What do I tell my family?’ ”

Her husband, Rep. Robert Duvall, R-Bowling Green, and their three sons, Alexander, 27, William, 23, and Grayson, 19, seemed to take it harder than she did, she said.

Early in the process, when her recovery was still uncertain, they planned a “final trip” to Florida – one last family vacation together.

Grayson recalled peaceful breakfasts on the beach, when the family had a chance to just be themselves. Still, it was hard to take their minds off the situation at hand and Duvall was growing weaker.

Grayson said he struggled to control his emotions, but his mother served as a rock to lean on.

“(I saw) how strong and resilient my mom was and I talked with her about it,” Grayson said. “There was one moment when me and her just sort of talked and I was so afraid of losing her. We just sort of sat there just in our emotions. It was helpful.”

Duvall remembered the unimaginable feeling of watching her own father lose his battle with cancer, though her condition is unrelated. She knew how hard it would hit her family.

“I didn’t cry for me, I wasn’t afraid for me. I talked to my doctors about the chance that yes, I could still die, and (our family) talked about that,” Duvall said. “It’s Stage IV cancer, so sometimes you die, but the doctors felt that I would respond well to treatment, and I have.”

Her case thankfully caught the eye of researchers at the MD Anderson Cancer Center, which specializes in treating rare cancers such as hers. She visited the facility in Houston for additional tests before beginning a regiment of “extremely strong chemotherapy.”

She participates in a clinical trial that combines chemotherapy with immunotherapy, which stimulates the immune system to fight and slow cancer on its own.

She could breathe much easier after her first treatment – both literally and figuratively. Grayson said the growth in Duvall’s chest shrunk significantly in her first sessions.

“If my clinical trial proves to be successful, which I think it will, then lymphoma patients will have the option of a hybrid chemotherapy-immunotherapy treatment plan,” Duvall said. “With less chemotherapy, you have less risk of having damage to your heart and your kidneys.”

During each treatment, doctors take extra blood in order to facilitate research. She takes pride in being able to give back to a trial that could prove life-changing for lymphoma patients.

“I just hope that they’re able to use my tissue samples and my blood samples to help somebody else,” Duvall said.

Duvall said the process was arduous, and she’s still left with lingering fatigue and nerve pain. She was forced to miss several board meetings, despite her best efforts, before returning in July.

She was also sad to miss the district’s 2023 graduation due to sickness.

“Whenever I go into the doctor, I know I’m going to get stuck a bunch of times, and it hurts what they do to me,” Duvall said. “But I tell myself, they can stick me, they can poke me, they can do whatever they want to me, but they can’t touch who I am. They can’t take my joy away.”

In May, a reaction to her treatment left her hospitalized in extreme pain, but she was determined to press on. Her faith was a comforting companion in the toughest times.

“I have faith in God, and my faith in God told me that either way, whether I lived or whether I died, that I would be OK,” Duvall said. “You have to get to that point where you’re OK with whatever happens.”

Grayson said his mom received immense support from their church, Living Hope Baptist. He said “so many people” were supporting and praying for her.

Her husband was also eager to help her along, but she was determined to keep him working in the legislature during their session. He didn’t love being away from her, but it brought a sense of normalcy that comforted her.

“If I needed him, he would be there, but I wanted him to stay in Frankfort,” Duvall said.

Strangers still approach her in public to tell her their church is praying for her, Duvall said. Even state legislators got involved.

“A group of state representatives would meet twice a week for prayer, and so I knew that they were praying for me the whole time,” Duvall said. “And when I see them now, they remind me ‘I’m still praying for you.’ ”

Rep. David Hale leads the Prayer Caucus in Frankfort and has an office just down the hall from Robert Duvall. He said said Amy Duvall’s handling of everything “shows the quality of her character.”

“(Robert Duvall) told me on more than one occasion that she would prefer him to be (in Frankfort), and that she can feel those prayers from him and the group even though she was in Texas,” Hale said.

He added that Robert Duvall missed very few sessions and spent weekends traveling with his wife, though he would’ve preferred to be with her more.

Amy Duvall’s faith wasn’t the only thing that got her through the last nine months. A litany of friends stepped up to accompany her to treatments in Houston and help her navigate the rapid change in lifestyle — “the real heroes,” she called them.

Duvall is happily in remission after nine months of treatment. If she can stay clear for two years, she will be considered cured – an outcome she’s optimistic about.

“But once that chapter is over, I want to move past it. I don’t want to be the cancer lady,” she said. “It has definitely made me more grateful – grateful for little moments of being together, when you have all your family under the same roof.”

She said cancer has ultimately been a “blessing” in ways that only families who have experienced it can understand.

She and Robert plan to spend more time traveling, and last month they welcomed their first granddaughter, Ana Lou, to the family.

“The whole family was like, ‘she looks just like Amy,’ ” she said with a mile-wide smile. “That’s so sweet to have a little baby girl that looks like me.”

Grayson said it’s been a relief to see his mom near the end of her treatment.

“I’m looking forward to that post-treatment PET scan where we’ll see if she’s officially cured and I’m very, very excited for her future,” Grayson said. “I know she’s going to, immediately when she is officially cured, just return back to life and keep fighting.”

Grayson, a sophomore chemistry major at Western Kentucky University, had long been interested in a career in cancer research, inspired by his grandfather’s struggle. Duvall’s diagnoses was a sudden shock, but reinforced his goals.

“I feel more weight to help people, to put my effort into that and to be a part of that,” Grayson said. “How can I help this person get better? Not only them, but all the family that are supporting them, all the church members that are praying for them, the entire support system that is following their story and hoping that they will get better.”

Grayson is now looking at a variety of internships, one of which being MD Anderson after what they’ve done for his family.

He said before now, he never realized how close their family could be.

Duvall said since she began treatment, she makes an effort to say “I love you” more to friends and family and tries not to sweat the small stuff – “at least it’s not cancer.”

She said her advice for anyone in a situation like hers is simple: surround yourself with good family, good friends and good doctors.

“I hope that if any of my friends in the future get a diagnosis like mine, they’ll remember, ‘Hey, Amy did that, I can do it, too,’ ” she said. “Maybe they can remember that I didn’t fall apart, I didn’t cry. And if I can do it, they can do it.”