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Sharp Health News

Two-time cancer survivor celebrates love and life

May 30, 2019

Two-time cancer survivor celebrates love and life

Don Rice, a two-time cancer survivor, with his wife, Debi.

There are three things that people quickly figure out about Chula Vista resident Don Rice:

  1. The only shirts he owns are Hawaiian.
  2. He’s madly in love with his wife, Debi.
  3. His cancer diagnoses define him — and he’s OK with that.
Rice, an avid surfer and surfboard collector, was living a laidback existence in the early 2000s, paddling out at Imperial Beach any chance he got outside of his landscaping job. With his longtime girlfriend, Debi, by his side, life was good until 2006 when he heard the three words that turned everything upside down: 
“You have cancer.”

“I knew nothing in that moment except that I was afraid,” Rice says. “Any survivor knows that when a doctor says ‘you have cancer,’ your heart stops.”

Rice had throat cancer, and treatment — a rigorous regimen of chemotherapy and radiation therapy — wasn’t going to be easy. He was referred to Dr. Marilyn Norton and Dr. Phillip Zentner at the Douglas & Nancy Barnhart Cancer Center at Sharp Chula Vista Medical Center. At the end of 16 chemotherapy and 36 radiation sessions, he was weak, but still standing with a new outlook on the rest of his life.

“I never wanted to get married, but Debi got me through that awful time. In the hardest moments, I thought about what would happen to her. I didn’t want her to have to worry. Plus, I loved her.”

One year later, in 2007, Rice (then 61) married the love of his life in the backyard of their Chula Vista home, where he keeps his collection of nearly 100 surfboards. The invitation said “No ties allowed” and guests received leis as they celebrated both love and life.

In 2016, Rice was diagnosed with colon cancer. The cancer was found early, and Rice’s surgeon, Dr. Hugo Barrera, was able to successfully treat it with surgery.

“My throat cancer diagnosis was difficult, so when I was diagnosed again, I was a wreck that I’d have to go through it all over,” says Rice. “Dr. Barrera let me know everything was going to be OK and he was right. I’m cancer-free as of this January.”

Rather than put cancer in the past, Rice chooses to keep it at the forefront of his life. He now spends his time volunteering with the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society and mentoring men and women going through treatment.

“After I finished treatment the first time, Dr. Norton asked if I’d be willing to talk to a patient having a hard time. I called him and we were both pretty emotional, but by the end of the call, we were laughing,” Rice says. “I’ve done that many times since. Friends will put me in touch with their friends who are recently diagnosed or in treatment and I try to help them through their emotions. I think I have a unique understanding having been through it myself.”

For the news media: To talk with Don Rice for an upcoming story, contact Erica Carlson, senior public relations specialist, at

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