“Good luck. Love, Judy.”

Judy Carter was just 16 in 1975 when she was diagnosed with a cancer called mesothelioma. Most commonly caused by exposure to asbestos, it is a type of lung cancer that is rare even in adults — and is nearly unheard of in children and teenagers. To this day, she says, doctors cannot be certain how she contracted the illness. 

Judy Carter at MSK
Judy Carter during her recent visit to Memorial Sloan Kettering

A Surprising Illness

After a fun night at a slumber party with friends, Judy awoke the next morning with difficulty breathing and “feeling terrible.” Almost before she knew it, she was in Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis, close to her family’s home in Kokomo, Indiana. A chest x-ray revealed an orange-size tumor in her left lung. Doctors attempted to operate, but the tumor had calcified and they determined that it could not be removed. They decided to put Judy on a rigorous chemotherapy protocol of three powerful drugs: vincristine, cyclophosphamide, and doxorubicin.

It worked. The tumor began to shrink and kept shrinking. Six months later, it was small enough to be removed through surgery. Judy’s parents and her doctors discussed which cancer center and surgeon would be best at performing the operation. They determined that Memorial Sloan Kettering was the place, and that Edward J. Beattie, known as Ted, was the surgeon.

Dr. Beattie, who died in 1998, was a leading chest surgeon and lung cancer specialist and MSK’s chief medical officer.

A Little Bit of Luck

Remove part of Judy’s lung or all of it? This was the choice Dr. Beattie presented, one Judy faced head on. Although she was still a teenager, the decision was ultimately hers. She decided that to increase her chances of survival, she wanted her entire lung removed — and she had a little surprise for Dr. Beattie and his team on the day of her surgery.

Before entering the operating room, she’d cut out a little pink paper heart and taped it to her chest. On it, she had written, “Good luck. Love, Judy.”

“I was going to face this cancer surgery with bravado, and I wanted Dr. Beattie and his staff to see it when they opened my gown!” Judy recalls.

Dr. Beattie successfully removed her left lung as well as the sac-like membrane surrounding her heart, called the pericardium, as the cancer had invaded there as well. He replaced the membrane with a mesh covering.

Just three days after this extensive operation, “I was up and about,” Judy recalls. Her appetite also returned. “I remember that during my recovery I loved the fact that I could get whatever I wanted to eat. What I wanted was rice pudding — and MSK obliged!”

A Message for Healing

After about two weeks in the hospital, it was time for Judy and her parents to return to Kokomo. But before they left, Dr. Beattie had a message for her: On a piece of notepaper bearing a drawing of the beloved Charlie Brown character Snoopy, he’d written: “To Judy, our favorite teenager and Brian Piccolo fan — with our admiration and kindest regards. Love, Ted Beattie, MD.”

The reference was to football player Brian Piccolo, a running back for the Chicago Bears. He’d also had lung surgery performed by Dr. Beattie and had been a patient on the same floor at Memorial Hospital — the 16th — as Judy was on when she had been hospitalized. Piccolo died in 1970 of an aggressive form of testicular cancer and was the subject of a famous 1971 TV movie called “Brian’s Song.”  

Written note from Ted Beattie, MD to Judy

A Gift of Gratitude

Five years after her surgery, at age 21, Judy was officially declared cancer free. She went on to have a 20-year career in marketing and sales, from which she is now retired. Remarkably, the chemotherapy protocol she received did not affect her fertility, as is often the case when people are treated with certain chemotherapy drugs early in life. She married and gave birth to two children, a son who is currently a freshman at Michigan State University and a daughter who is a high school senior. (As more young people are surviving cancer and its treatment, preserving their fertility has become increasingly important. In 2009, MSK established the Fertility Preservation and Parenthood After Cancer Treatment program to provide information and resources to both clinicians and patients about fertility-preserving options such as banking sperm or having eggs or embryos frozen for later use, so that these interventions can be made as early as possible.)

In 2014, after a 25-year absence from MSK, Judy felt drawn to return. She planned to include her mother on the trip, but sadly she passed away before they were able to finalize their plans. Undeterred — and knowing her mother would have wanted it — Judy traveled to New York City with her sister and daughter, where they visited the 16th floor of Memorial Hospital. “It was an amazing feeling to be back on the same floor on which I’d been a patient,” she says.

A long-time donor to MSK, Judy’s gratitude and admiration for the organization remains as solid as ever. “I was very lucky,” she says. “I was at the right place at the right time and had the right medical team. From Dr. Beattie to the nurses to the support staff, everyone was 100 percent committed to helping me get better.”

She also acknowledges that despite the fact that her experience with cancer is four decades behind her, anyone who has ever had the disease lives with the concern that it could recur. Today, she and her family make it a point to travel widely, including annual trips to the western United States and jaunts to Europe. “If my experience taught me one big lesson, it’s to live life to the fullest every day,” Judy says.

Learn about the many ways to donate to MSK to help advance research and treatment for mesothelioma and other cancers.