Above: Ray and Roslyn on their wedding day.
Editor's note: Roslyn Singleton passed away on Nov. 15, 2022.
Even with a mask covering half her face as she and her surgeon review her latest brain scan, Roslyn Singleton's joy shines through.
"Whenever there's something going on in my life, God always puts the right people just right in front of me to make it a little easier," she explained.
Those people include members of her cancer care team at Novant Health, where the U.S. Navy veteran is battling an aggressive form of brain cancer called glioblastoma. Despite four surgeries and repeated rounds of radiation and chemotherapy, her stage 4 cancer continues to spread, reaching brain areas that a scalpel dare not touch.
The prognosis for glioblastoma patients is poor: Only 5% live more than five years. But Singleton and her husband, Ray, who has chronicled their journey on Instagram, have faith that she can beat the odds.
"I know what God can do," Roslyn said, her voice rising with conviction. "My constant statement to him is: 'Prove them wrong, prove them wrong.'"
Her oncologist, Dr. Justin Favaro of Oncology Specialists of Charlotte, would like nothing better.
"I take care of patients of all different religions and those who have strong faith, and they really have that ability to be positive in the light of difficult disease,” said Favaro. “Roslyn is a fighter. She's-never-say-die, I'm-going-to-keep-doing-what-I-have-to-do-to-beat-this.'’
"And I love that about her," he added, "Because that does help her to keep pushing ahead for newer and better treatment options."
A new weapon for treatment
Roslyn, 39, is not a typical glioblastoma patient.
These fast-growing tumors most often strike older people — half are diagnosed at age 65 or older. Men are 50% more likely to develop them than women, according to the Glioblastoma Foundation. In all, about 15,000 Americans get a glioblastoma diagnosis each year.
Roslyn was first diagnosed with a less aggressive form of brain cancer at age 31. She has already had all the surgery and radiation she can receive. Doctors can only try to manage her cancer — they can't cure it.
As long as she continues to tolerate it well, plans call for chemo to continue for the next year. Favaro recently added a newer weapon to her treatment plan aimed at disrupting electrical activity within cancer cells to slow or stop them from dividing. It's called TTF — short for tumor treating fields.
Exposed to toxic burn pits
No one knows for sure why Roslyn got sick.
She suspects it owes to exposure to toxic air during her service in Iraq with the U.S. Navy and, later, in Afghanistan as a civilian contractor with the U.S. Department of Defense. The military used burn pits in both countries to incinerate all sorts of waste, hazardous material and chemicals.
Eighty-six percent of post 9/11 vets who served in the two countries say they were exposed to the pits or other toxins, and 88% think they have symptoms as a result, according to a 2020 survey by Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. In November 2021, the Biden administration announced a series of actions to address these effects.
It was during a two-week leave in 2013 that Roslyn's cancer was first diagnosed in South Carolina. For some time, she'd had severe migraines, blurry vision and was aware of an odd sound similar to holding a seashell to one's ear when she lay on one side. Doctors said it was brain fluid seeking its way around her tumor.
Though it was the size of an orange, the original tumor was no match for surgery, radiation and chemo. When her treatment ended, Roslyn resumed her life in Charlotte, where she met Ray at a party three years later. It was almost love at first sight.
As Roslyn recalls it, it was nighttime. Ray was in sunglasses. She thought he looked silly and said so loud enough for him to hear. She played it cool when he asked her to dance. But when Ray spotted her at a late-night eatery hours later and asked if it would be OK to bless her meal, she swooned.
"I said, 'Yep, I'm gonna marry him,'" recalled Roslyn, the daughter of a pastor and a deacon.
They've been a couple ever since, married in Ray's native Charleston in November of 2018.
‘It’s in God’s hands’
After her move to Charlotte from South Carolina in 2016, Roslyn turned to Dr. Ziad Hage of Novant Health Brain & Spine Surgery - Cotswold, who specializes in these types of tumors. She needed to maintain long-term follow-up as her initial tumor was aggressive.
Then, shortly before the Singletons' first anniversary, a routine follow-up scan delivered unwelcome news. Roslyn's brain cancer had returned. The new growth was near the cavity where the old tumor had been and was considerable. Hage removed it and a second round of chemo and radiation followed. After that, her disease was under control for a couple of years, and Roslyn continued rigorous follow-up with Hage and her oncology team.
Then, last summer, the cancer came back. And parts of the tumor had spread to unreachable parts of the brain. Hage operated again and removed the tumor's largest components, leaving behind what he thought was not safely reachable.
"Every time she thought she was cured, you know, she would be and then, unfortunately, the disease recurred," said Hage, who has developed a special relationship with the couple. "You always try to prepare your patients that the disease may come back, but she never thought about that. She always thinks forward about it. She's a fighter and an inspiration."
In late January, Roslyn and Ray sat down with Hage to review her most recent brain scan. While one area of concern was shrinking, the cancer had also moved into her brain stem, which is responsible for essential bodily functions such as breathing.
Hage reluctantly told the Singletons there was nothing more, surgically, he could do.
Roslyn tucked her head on Ray's shoulder and wept. The tears were quick. With her usual resolve, she straightened herself up, looked her trusted surgeon in the eye and asked what's next?
"It's in God's hands," he said later.
Hugs at every turn
The Singletons see it the same way, saying they believe God is using them as a living testimony.
If that's the case, they're taking full advantage of modern-day tools to get the word out. Combined, Roslyn and Ray have 116,000 followers on Instagram. Their posts range from songs by Ray to updates on Roslyn's care to aphorisms. ("What weighs HEAVY on your mind weighs A lot LESS in God's hands … prayer CHANGES things.")
Everywhere the Singletons go, from the halls of Novant Health offices to the sidewalks of Charlotte, where they live, she gets hugs and fist bumps and high-fives.
"People literally will walk up to her and just say, 'I love you. Thank you so much for being an inspiration,'’’ Ray said. "She'll put whatever she's got going to the side and speak to and minister to that person."
The recognition owes not only to Instagram but also to TV.
Ray was briefly a contestant last year on NBC-TV's "America's Got Talent." And when he serenaded Roslyn online before her 2019 brain surgery, the video went viral, leading to an appearance on "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" on Valentine's eve in 2020.
It was a month after Roslyn's second brain surgery. Sporting a stylish pink plaid pantsuit and a radiant smile, she glowed on camera.
"You're not sad. You're just happy," DeGeneres marveled.
"I feel personally that God gives battles to certain people just to let other people know that it's going to be OK, " Roslyn replied, crediting her outlook to "positive prayer and positive people."
As her treatment continues, the Singletons continue to stay positive, do good work and appreciate the caring people who surround them.
Roslyn is an honorary survivorship chair for the American Cancer Society. Ray, 32, is music minister at First Calvary Baptist Church of Rock Hill — a congregation that he says eases the couple's path through love, encouragement and prayer.
While it's hard seeing his wife wage this life-and-death battle, Ray says she's a blessed warrior.
"I'm staying strong because I see the smile on this girl's face," he said, wiping away a tear with his T-shirt sleeve. "I see the work of God in action. I see a miracle every day."
For more information on glioblastoma, visit the Glioblastoma Foundation.
Robin Baltimore contributed to this story.