May 31 will mark the 43rd wedding anniversary of Bryant residents Anna
Elizabeth and Joe Ogden. The couple met in 1969 at the Wesleyan Foundation
on the campus of the - then - Arkansas Agricultural and Mechanical College
in Monticello, where Ogden worked.
“I’d come in for a free meal on Sunday nights," Anna muses. “I didn’t have
a car, and he offered to give me a ride back home.”
“Two weeks after we met, I told her,‘I’m going to marry you',” Ogden says.
“I told him, ‘that sounds like a pretty good idea to me,’” Anna laughs.
They wed six days after graduation and have been inseparable ever since.
Their commitment to one another, faith in Christ, a love for others and a
healthy sense of humor have equipped them to confront Joe’s 16-year journey with cancer.
Wearing a blue polo-knit shirt with “Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer
Institute” monogrammed on the front, Joe explains he has just returned
from his weekly trip to Little Rock, where he volunteers as a counselor to
new cancer patients.
Not only does Joe have personal experience from which to draw, he has
professional credentials to support him in serving the patients.
Upon graduating from Arkansas A & M, Joe earned his Master of Science in
Social Work at the University of Missouri – Columbia, as well as completed
some post-graduate coursework at Tulane University in New Orleans, La. He
began working for the Arkansas Department of Human Services, in 1969, in
both the mental health and youth services divisions, prior to retiring in
“I always ask my patients what their biggest fear is,” Joe says. “Death is
what I hear the most. They’ll ask me, ‘Aren’t you afraid of dying?’ I tell
them no, because I have strong faith.”
As Joe begins to share his own experience with cancer, he urges Anna to
join the discussion.
“You’re the caregiver; you are more important than me," he says. Besides, I forget some things, but I have an excuse. I have chemo-brain,” he says smiling.
“No, you were that way a long time ago,” Anna retorts.
"I'm sympathetic to caregivers. A lot of tears have been shed on her part," he explains. "I tell the patients that I counsel, 'If you're an inpatient, don't complain. Yes, you may be poked and prodded, but you can push a button if you need help. Caregivers come home to an empty house and uncertainty," he says.
"So much was hitting us in the face at once," Anna says. "I would go in the closet and cry."
The Ogden's children, Kim and Kyle, were young adults at the time.
"If Kim so much as had a cold, she would not come by the house," Anna said. "They were very protective of us."
Prior to Joe’s cancer diagnosis, the couple would run 5Ks together. Joe
considered dropping out of a race in Hope, Ark., due to excruciating back
pain, but Anna - who had polio as a child and spent three months in an
iron lung and six months lying flat on her back – was not one to accept
excuses or defeat. She encouraged him to participate.
“I ended up winning second place in my age division,” he says. “Anna’s my
The pain continued, increasing in severity. Joe vividly recalls having to set down his luggage, his back ached so badly, when was returning from a conference in Overland Park, Kansas.
“It was Nov. 6, 1996,” Anna says, “I woke up at 3 a.m. to a blood-curdling
Unable to move, Joe was transported to the emergency room at Saline
Memorial Hospital. A radiologist said he had multiple myeloma, cancer of
the plasma cells in bone marrow.
Two days later, Joe was admitted to the Arkansas Cancer Research Center
(currently, the Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute), where tests
confirmed the diagnosis of Stage 2 Multiple Myeloma. He also learned he
had sustained a broken back from a tumor on his L-1 vertebrae.
“I was initially told I had five years to live and that I would have to
wear a back brace and use a walker the rest of my life,” Joe says.
The doctor said that Joe, at only 57, would be a viable candidate for a
bone marrow transplant. Joe’s sole sibling, a brother – Sydney, took a
blood test to check compatibility. He was not a match, however, physicians said they could use Joe's own stem cells.
Anna began keeping a journal.
On Friday, Nov. 19, 1996, she wrote: We entered ACRC for the first time,
and Joe was barely able to walk. We entered the waiting room and felt like
lepers. The feeling we both had - at this moment – will always be with us.
There was a young boy, about 15 years, who was undergoing treatment for
leukemia. Joe began to weep, saying he is just a kid, and I have had a good
life. He said it hurts me to see children with cancer.
There was no room in the myeloma unit; therefore, Joe was admitted to the nephrology floor to begin chemotherapy.
With a broken back and muscle spasms, the pain was so great that Joe was
unable to feed himself, and he required a steady supply of morphine.
Thanksgiving day 1996, Day 2 of chemo: I know I was hard to be around at
times, but I had never faced anything like this with a loved one,
especially my best friend in the whole wide world … It is so hard to watch
someone you love suffer, hurt and not be able to put a band-aid on it and
make it all well … God is with us always. This is a Thanksgiving we won’t
Joe’s most poignant memory is of the man who shared the semi-private room
with him at ACRC.
“We noticed my roommate would take his kidney meds then leave at night.
He’d return each morning in time for breakfast. As it turned out, he was
homeless. On the day I was to leave, I notice this homeless guy was on his
knees praying for me,” Joe recalls, pausing to compose himself. “Here’s
something – I was being prayed for by someone who had lost everything.”
Minutes later, Joe was to receive another blessing.
When he pulled into his driveway, he was greeted by friends from church.
“They were mowing the yard, cleaning gutters, cleaning the house, and they
had even brought us a Christmas tree – already decorated,” he shares.
“Seeing them inspired me. I went into the bathroom and made up my mind I
would remove the back brace and walker. I began practicing and eventually
resumed normal ambulation.”
December 1996: He wanted me to take him to Cherry’s Hallmark in Benton so
that he could try to go in and buy me a Christmas present himself. I felt
so sorry for him. He could hardly get in and out of the Honda, but he
wanted to buy me something himself. I will always remember the sweatshirt
that he gave me, it said to follow your dreams. It meant so much to me on
In May of 1997, on Anna’s 50th birthday, Joe received his first stem cell
transplant at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. It was
autologous, meaning the doctors were able to use Joe’s own stem cells.
Joe breaks into a grin, as he remembers that day. His brother had
accompanied them to the hospital.
“Sydney was pushing me in a wheelchair. We stopped on a hill, and he forgot to set the brake. I began rolling. I asked, ‘You trying to kill me?’”
Joe received a second autologous stem cell transplant in September of
1997. One month later, tumor markers (blood work) indicated he was in
remission. He was put on maintenance treatment which involved taking steroids and thalidomide.
Joe recalls a grocery shopping outing to Kroger in which he was denied his
senior citizen discount.
“The steroids puff your face out; they hide the wrinkles,” he says. “The
cashier wasn’t going to give me the discount. The store manager came over,
“They gave the senior citizen discount to me!” Anna interjects. “He’s
eight-and-a-half-years older than me!”
October 28, 1997: We went to see the doctor for our three week check up
the doctor said you are in complete remission. We were elated to say the
least. We longed and prayed for this day to come. Just to hear those words
was a wonderful experience.
Though Joe was in remission, he encountered other health issues. In 1998 he
was diagnosed with shingles, and in 1999 he had to have a kidney stent
surgically inserted. Joe also had to have surgery at Arkansas Heart
Hospital after having an abdominal aortic aneurysm in 1999.
With a weak immune system, Joe had several cases of pneumonia over the months.In over to boost his immunity, staff infused him with immune gamma globulins. He had an adverse reaction to the IGGs and coded.
"They revived him and kept hymn the hospital for observation," Anna says.
Still on the maintenance treatment plan, Joe was on a mission to help
others. He completed Community of Hope training and was commissioned as a
Chaplain by the Episcopal Church in 2001.
In 2003, he facilitated the Community of Hope chaplain training at the
First United Methodist Church of Bryant.
From 2003 to 2005, Joe remained in remission with no medication.
However, tumor markers spiked in 2005, and Joe was declared out of
remission, which required him to resume Thalidomide and Velcade.
That same year, Sydney Ogden was diagnosed with non-small cell lung cancer
– stage 4; he died of the disease five years later in May of 2010.
From 2005 until 2009 Joe was once again declared in remission, but was kept
on maintenance medication as a precaution.
“I wasn’t satisfied with one cancer,” says Joe.
In February of 2009, he was diagnosed with colorectal cancer (CRC) – Stage
4. Surgery for a partial resection of the lower colon was conducted,
followed by 25 radiation treatments that April.
“When I learned I had the colorectal cancer, I just saw it as another bump
in the road. It is fine just as long as it doesn’t become a pot hole,” Joe
In June of 2010, however, 25 percent of Joe’s liver had to be resected
because the CRC had metastasized.
“I tell patients that if you have pain, you know you’re still alive,” Joe
A surgical biopsy of the lungs in September of 2011 revealed the CRC had
metastacized to both lungs as well. Bi-weekly infusions of Fluorouracil
were administered immediately.
Currently the tumorous nodules on the lungs are stabilized.
“I am off everything now but thalidomide - a maintenance plan for myeloma,”
“It is $5600 per 28 capsules,” Anna adds. “Thank goodness for AFLAC and
insurance. I encourage all my friends to get a cancer policy. It is not
that expensive, and it is a real blessing.”
Joe suffers from neuropathy, where he experiences numbness or loss of
feeling in his hands and feet, but he says his fine motor skills are good.
“I can still button a shirt. It’s taught me patience, and that’s saying
something,” he says.
“Patients who are newly-diagnosed have hope when they see Joe who has been
fighting cancer for 16 years,” Anna says.
"While cancer is a terrible disease, having cancer brings out the best in
people who try to help you. They love you, and they have a need to help you as part of being obedient in their faith," Joe explains.
"Cancer has changed my life; it has been kind of like a friend that has moved me from being religious to spiritual. There is a difference. It's not just going through the motions; it gets deeper."
Joe Ogden will be speaking at the Luminaria Ceremony to begin at 9 p.m. as part of Saline County's Relay for Life at Bishop Park Friday.
“I’m glad to get back to Relay for Life,” he said.