Write Your Cancer Story – Essay Contest
It’s time to vote! The three (3) finalists have been selected and their essays are listed below. Please fill out the form below to vote for the essay you like best. Voting will close on June 22rd, end of business day.
Essay Finalists – listed in alphabetical order. Click on their name to view their essay.
HOPE IS A VERB
by Staci Donovan, age 50
Indian Harbour Beach, FL
I just got off the phone with my mom who has stage 4 colon cancer that has metastasized to her lung and stomach. She was put on hospice in February and for the last 4 months has been hanging in there pretty well. My dad has prostate cancer and is currently in a rehab facility recovering from multiple complications, trying to get well enough to go back to home to be with his wife of 51 years while he still can. She has fought a good fight and is now nearing the end. The pain that used to be sometimes, is now always. Her body once strong is now frail. Her bones are visible, her eyes are protruding and it’s clear that the cancer is taking her…and she is not ready to die yet. There is still more she wants to do.
Cancer took my aunt in the 90’s. It took both my breasts 4 weeks ago. I was diagnosed with Her 2 positive stage 2 breast cancer in November. I have finished 6 rounds of chemo and a double radical mastectomy which also removed 12 lymph nodes. I meet with the radiologist next week and eventually a total hysterectomy to remove a mass on my ovaries. I am 50 years old, married to my best friend for 23 years and we have 3 girls.
I asked my mom what she would do if she could get outside. “I would go see the ocean” she said. She lies in the bed near her window and stares outside remembering the days she took for granted. The days she was able and free to go as she pleased. The crazy thing is, we’ve lived in Florida for 26 years and I don’t think she has ever driven to the beach just to see the ocean.
When death sits at your door, it makes you think differently. She isn’t asking to visit her favorite store, watch her favorite show, eat her favorite food – she wants to see something that she didn’t revel in while she was able. There’s only two things I can think of that would put me in right relation to the universe. First, ponder all its galaxies and second, stand with your toes at the shore line where the sand meets the sea and the vast ocean suddenly decides to just stop right here. It just demands wonder and perspective.
That is exactly where I went before my PET scan 6 months ago. I just found out I had breast cancer with positive lymph nodes…I was overwhelmed with fear that it had traveled to other places and the PET scan was going to settle that. I wanted to be overwhelmed by something else. I went to the beach to mediate and pray.
I prayed for hope. Hope spoke and reminded me – I don’t just hope, I have it. Here is the difference. “I hope the cancer doesn’t spread.” “I have hope.” Hope is both a noun and a verb. Something I have and something I do. If I want it- I have to actually do it.
I went to the beach overwhelmed with fear and left overwhelmed by HOPE. Which is why I would love to get my parents out one more time together to see the ocean. I don’t know if this is possible since they are both immobile but it sure is beautiful to imagine. We must try.
My personal journey with cancer is not unlike those who have walked this road before. It took me by surprise. It took me to my knees. It took me to the bathroom often. It took my hair, my breasts and eventually it will take the rest of my girl parts. The only way I know how to get thru it is one day at a time. We literally counted the days during chemo weeks – we knew that day 1 was good, day 2 was altered, days 3 and 4 were awful, day 5 was better and by day 7, I was making my way back. We counted all the way to day 21 where I would start all over again. We called it the chemo crazy cycle.
But fighting a battle of my own is nothing compared to watching my parents lose theirs.
Maybe I fight harder because of that. When I count my days, I am counting till the days I am done – and by done I mean NED, no evidence of disease. When I think of counting days with mom and dad – it’s how many days do they have left to live? How many more conversations will I have with them? How many times to hold their hand, tell them I love them, see their face, listen to their voice? How many more times will I see their name appear on my phone when they call?
I don’t know how many days they have left. I don’t know how many days I have left. None of us really do. So let’s take back what cancer can’t take. Today.
Cancer can’t take this moment. We can choose to give it away – but let’s not do that.
Cancer has already taken too much. Take it back by living your moments right now.
Cancer can have my hair, my breasts, and the days I felt so sick to my stomach I wanted to die. But that’s it, no more. It can’t have my future. I have already decided ahead of time that I will not live the rest of my life waiting for a reoccurrence. As much as it has taken away, it has also given me a reason to live -better, stronger, healthier.
I’m at the half way point in my battle. I’m a little bloodied, tired and forever changed. Anchored to hope, I press on to run the race and finish well.
Tomorrow is not promised, so live today.
MY CANCER STORY
by Elizabeth G. Fisher, age 59
In November of 2012 I was told that if I did not start treatment immediately I was not likely to live 90 days. Hospice was recommended.
Before that horrible day I was a very healthy, strong and active single woman who owned a luxury oceanfront bed and breakfast and had served as a career volunteer firefighter. Life was grand!
A top-notch Innkeeper works long hours. I became a little run down, but happy and continued working hard. Suddenly I had unexplained back pain. Terrible pain! A dear friend offered to ask her chiropractor to stop by the Inn on his way home to adjust me. When he arrived, he told me that he was concerned by the way I was moving and arranged x-rays and an MRI for the following day. I was agreeable, and grateful, because the pain was staggering and I knew that I might have cracked a bone.
I took a break from the Inn mid-day and headed to the imaging center. It was difficult to get into position for the scans, but I did, and was getting out of my gown to dress and return to work when I was fetched from the changing cubicles. I was delighted! I knew the chiropractor had a working relationship with the head of the imaging center, but this was first rate service! I was not going to need to wait for a week for my results.
Well … when I was lead, not to the radiologist’s office, but to his work space, I had no idea what I was in for. He said to me “I have seen this before …” He said “If you were a man I would believe that you had prostate cancer and it had metastasized to your spine …”. Well, that was good news. These weren’t my scans. These scans were from some poor man that had …. CANCER???? My first four fractured vertebrae and first four fracture ribs were clearly visible. I looked at the picture of my spine and was confused by the black blobs laced in, out, around and through the bones. I could not hear what he said after that. It was just like listening to Charlie Brown’s teacher. Wahh, wahh, wahhhh. My ears and my brain would not work. This sort of news is not something that this doctor delivers directly to a patient. He did because he knew I did not have a referring physician, and this was very, very serious. I thanked him, left and got into my car. I wept, just wept. I simply could not believe that there was no advance warning. I held hope that it was a mistake. I went back to work.
I am a person of faith. I believe that God has a plan, and we will often not understand it, or like it. I also believe that He puts special people on earth and the chiropractor is one of them. I was not even his patient. We had never met until the day before. He came to me at the Inn that night and explained what Multiple Myeloma was and that I needed a very specific blood protein test to confirm it. He had already made the arrangements for the very next day. Multiple Myeloma was confirmed.
I am unmarried and childless, which is a blessing. It was hard enough telling my siblings, my elderly parents, my staff and friends. I still “knew” it was a mistake and I would be fine. I had to find an oncologist, sell my Inn, and prepare for the fight of my life, or prepare to die.
My first visit to Cancer Care Centers of Brevard in November of 2012 was horrible. My bone marrow had 90% involvement with plasma cells, and it got worse from there (a high of 99%!). I was dying, rapidly. My bones were cracking from the inside and I had “lytic lesions to numerous to count”. The pain was was unimaginable … indescribable … so great that I did not want to survive. My doctor was determined to try. I agreed to one month, three weeks on, one week off of chemo. I was reluctant to start opiates, knowing how dangerous they can be. He said two things to me that have stayed with me all of these years. He said “You can fight the cancer, OR you can fight the pain. You can not do both.” He also said “If you have true pain, the drugs will “screw” the pain. If you don’t, the drugs will “screw” your brain.” The opiates were a big part of my survival.
I survived the first month of treatment, and agreed to a second. I have no idea how many fractured vertebrae I had by this time. My only priority was to breath in, breath out, and keep my heart beating.
My treasured Staff ran the Inn for me and we were blessed to sell it to a couple who owned two other fine properties. I moved in with my elder sister, still with dying as the likely outcome.
About six months later I was beginning to get better, stronger, and beginning to believe this might not be my end. Radiation to my thoracic spine (32 treatments to the front, and 32 to the back) and my sacrum (30 to the front and 30 to the back) helped with the pain. I started to walk, which was very painful, but necessary form my mind as much as for my body. I used Canadian crutches for stability and to relieve some of the pressure on my fractured spine. I began to sit on my sister’s dock and read. I began to have friends over to visit. My faith had never waned, but this is when it began to strengthen.
Thirteen rounds of 3 weeks on, one week off of chemo and I was able to receive a bone marrow transplant. There was question if I would be able to produce enough stem cells because of the amount of radiation on my sacrum. But the harvest was successful. I went in to the transplant center the day before Thanksgiving 2013. It was horrible. I don’t know how children tolerate that! When I left a month later I swore I would NEVER do that again. However, six months later when I was really starting to feel better, I knew I would do it again when needed.
My oncologist then refereed me to an orthopedic spine doctor for kyphopplasty. I had lost over four inches of height as my spine collapsed. Thirteen fractured vertebrae were identified as “treatable”. There was one that was beyond repair. Within an hour of waking up after my first surgery, repairing L1, 2 & 3, I realized that I had a significant reduction in pain! By the time the 13 had been completed (seven weeks later) I had, by myself, stopped taking Oxycontin. I have never been pain free, but I have not needed it for survival since then, and I am grateful. I started taking long walks, and doing light exercise. I no longer under the influence, was able to get in and out of the car myself, and started driving. I started to go to the family cabin in the Blue Ridge mountains. I started to live.
I have had 15 kyphoplasty total and am able to walk for miles, travel (before Covid-19), house and dog sit for friends and family. I still take Revlimed 21 days on and 7 off, and a few other related drugs, but other than the cancer, I am very healthy.
I have never achieved remission, but I have had not only tremendous unexpected quantity of life, but tremendous quality of life. And I might live to see a cure for Multiple Myeloma!
The moral of the story is to never, ever give up on even the lost cause, and never ever lose faith.
This essay is dedicated with thanks that words can never express, to:
- Michael Kenemuth, Doctor of Chiropractics
- Carl Tahn, MD Board Certified Medical Oncologist
- Devin Datta, MD Board Certified Orthopedic Surgery, Spine Surgery
- Giuseppe Palermo, MD Diplomat in Oncology and Hematology
- and the entire team of Cancer Care Centers of Brevard to whom I owe my life.
CHASING THE GOLDEN HOUR
by Jamison Fleming, age 62
Cancer is not my friend, a blessing in disguise or even a wakeup call from a life of indiscriminate toxic exposures. It is not my enemy, my nemesis, a dive into a bad gene pool or punishment for past sins. It is just something that has happened to me. Twice. I accept some responsibility in lifestyle choices and environmental exposures. I have made drastic changes where I could, including removing as many of life’s stressors as possible, although I continue to work on this daily. I have learned that if nothing changes regarding diet, activity level and lifestyle decisions, the triggers that caused the cancer remain and despite chemotherapy and treatment, the cancer may return.
I was first diagnosed with stage 2b breast cancer in 2004 and had all the standard treatments – surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, followed by 5 years of oral medications. In my mind, I was cancer free and did not worry about a return or spread. I trusted my doctors and the medical community. Working as an RN through treatment was very helpful as it forced me to focus on helping others and not succumb to fear of the unknown or the side effects of therapies. I was the perfect patient. Within a year after completing all treatments, my life returned to relative normality, and by the time I was 10 years post-chemo, I KNEW I was cancer-free.
In 2017, I was having problems breathing and after multiple tests, learned that my cancer had returned and spread to my lung, spine, hips and pelvis. Treatment of daily oral chemo and hormone blocking medication was started and I began to learn how to live with this now chronic, yet terminal condition. I have adjusted to life with the constant exhaustion, and the memory issues that remain a constant gift of chemo. I am grateful that this time around chemo is not nearly as debilitating as the first time and I accept that I will be on chemo for life until it no longer keeps the Beast at bay.
I learned self-reliance at a young age and, for better or worse, independence and stubbornness is at my core. I grew up in a dysfunctional household, with little to no parental support, and by age 17, I was on my own with no home to return to. My two failed marriages followed the same destructive pathways, with both spouses being alcoholic abusers and offering no emotional encouragement. I have since come to terms with all this baggage, and it has served me well in the solo navigation of cancer treatments, as well as living with chronic pain and mobility issues unrelated to cancer. By letting go of my past emotional injuries, I have released myself from suffering the daily traumas of reliving those experiences. I encourage everyone to try to deal with their own personal tragedies to find some inner peace. Let the past remain in the past and learn to just focus on today. Right now is really all we have. Tomorrow is a dream and there is no promise of its arrival. All the personal tragedies and traumas of my life have shaped me and strengthened my character. Instead of becoming angry and bitter, asking God, “Why me??”, I say “Why NOT me?”. I can handle this and still be a beacon of hope to other people. My daily prayer remains “God, please let me be a blessing to others today”. And He does. My purpose drives me forward.
My lifelong attendance to the School of Hard Knocks has taught me many things, but I will have to admit that The Big C has held the most impactful lessons for me. Cancer has not been my death sentence, although I accept this as my ending. Cancer has been more of a life motivator. I have learned to appreciate the simple things that I used to rush past, in a hurry to get to places, to do things, that I now no longer remember. While we all have an expiration date, mine now has a name and has led me to get my affairs in order. I have downsized my living quarters and personal belongings, scaled down my collections of “treasures”, written my will and pre-paid for my cremation. The worry of leaving a burden on others is now gone, so I have freedom to explore the world that I am still a part of. I am blessed to live on The East coast of Florida where most days are sunny and warm. My focus now is to make memories, mainly just for myself, as I have realized that my entire life has flown past while I was busy helping others achieve their dreams. Cancer has taught me that it truly is the small things in life that carry the greatest value. The glint of sunlight on the river in early morning, searching for sea glass, the incredible pinks of blooming Hibiscus, a kind word, sharing a laugh over silly things. This is what brings me joy. And when I get to share that with others, it gets even better. Being outside draws me closer to my Creator and I am in awe daily of the nature of creation.
I want to offer encouragement and hope for anyone going through treatment or caring for a loved one with cancer. Treatments eventually end, or we adjust to the side effects and learn how to live with them the best we can. Cancer has a way of testing our strength and we are all much stronger than we realize. Take your small miracles where you get them and if you are open to the little joys around you, you may find more things that make you happy. Do what you love now – do not wait. This is such a personal journey for all of us, my happiness does not look like yours. But it is just as important.
Lately, I feel like time is moving in overdrive. As though I am chasing sunrise every morning while the sand slips away and the tide rushes in. I have learned that there is a name for that special time in the morning and the evening, at sunrise and sunset, that photographers call the Golden Hour. The colors can be incredible and are different every time. My goal is to catch as many beach mornings as possible and be saturated in those colors. This will be my summer of discovery, of laughter and of travel. While I am still well enough to squint at the diamonds of sunshine on the ocean water, breathe in the cool, salt air and feel the tropic winds on my face, I want to live life to the fullest and spend it with people that make me laugh. Cancer cannot take my smile today, and if I am lucky, it won’t take it tomorrow, either.
In Honor of National Cancer Survivors Month
Essays will be read at our Art & Wine “Happy Hour” Reception Honoring our Local Cancer Survivors on June 24th, 4:00pm to 7:00pm
Please join us! Click HERE to learn more and to register.
To read all of the submitted essays from our brave cancer survivor writers, click on their names below.
BELIEVE IN HOPE
by Robert Biehl, age 70
West Melbourne, FL
My story begins on Friday March 3, 2006. I was employed at a health food store called Wild Oats in W. Melbourne. As normal on a Friday I only worked till noon. When I got home, I was reading the newspaper in the living room and my wife Kathy was making sandwiches for lunch. Out of nowhere I began to experience horrific pain on my left side. The pain was nothing like I had ever experienced. I stood up and walked toward the kitchen. Kathy turned and saw me and immediately called 911 without ever saying a word. I went to the bedroom and laid across the bed just hoping for some relief. Within minutes the paramedics were there and started to try and diagnose the pain. They put me in the ambulance and rushed me to the hospital and started to treat me for what they believed was a kidney stone. In the hospital they began to run a multitude of tests and admitted me. The medication I was given stopped the pain and I was told that when I urinated I should do so into a devise that had a screen. I slept through the night and woke up Saturday feeling terrific like nothing had even happened. All day I would ask the nurses if I was going to be released. All they would say is not until the Dr. came in. All I know is I was treated for a kidney stone, and all the nurses said that when I would pass it everyone would know. All day Saturday I was continually going for tests and waiting for the Dr. Unbelievably around 11 PM Saturday night the Dr. had finally come into my room. His first words were the Man upstairs must have a plan for you. I was stunned to hear that from a Dr. He proceeded to tell me that on Friday a test revealed a very large kidney stone in my left kidney. His plan was to remove it Saturday because of how large it was, he did say that should I pass it overnight it would have caused great pain and he told the nurses about this. As he prepared to do the surgery, he had requested another MRI. To his surprise the stone was no longer there. His words to me were, I know you didn’t pass it and it was no longer there. He proceeded to tell me had it not been for the pain I experienced and the tests they had done he wouldn’t have seen the cancer in my kidney. I had never had any symptoms for Renal Cell Carcinoma, but there it was. My left kidney and my adrenal gland were removed on Monday March 6, 2006. I share with people no matter what your belief this story is one of hope. For over 15 years now I try to live each day like it’s my last. I would encourage everyone to have a yearly physical and if you have any symptoms of any type get checked immediately. To all my fellow Cancer Survivors continue to have HOPE.
EARLY DETECTION: MY LIFESAVER, IT CAN BE YOURS TOO
by Lesbia Roner Hansen, age 61
I am not sure that many cancer survivors can say they are as “lucky” as I was. Cancer is sneaky, it does not announce its arrival. And more importantly, gets here to stay.
However, I have a different story to tell. At the age of 55 I decided to join a kickboxing class. Half-way through my classes I would end up folded in pain from my abdomen and lower intestinal area. My instructor suspected that it was a hernia. However, because of the area where the pain was coming, my doctor referred me to the gynecologist. Tests revealed I had huge fibroids. So in 2015 I underwent a hysterectomy.
A year later, mid 2016, I still suffered from pain in the same area. I went back to my PCP and he suggested we do all types of tests in that area, including an Xray. That is when the clock started ticking. Right at the very lower end of my left lung, the Xray technician found a “cloud”. He recommended another X-ray in 6 months. After waiting for five months, I contacted my doctor who ordered a new X-ray of the area right away. This time the cloud had doubled in size.
That is when all types of tests followed: CT’s, PET scans, and others. All tests pointed out to that area as having abnormal cells. I got referred to the Oncologist, who at the time did not think much of the “cloud” as being cancerous. However, I insisted I wanted to know. That is when he explained that we could have a biopsy done of the area, but it was difficult because it could cause my lung to collapse. “And what would happen then?”, I asked. He said that I would be in a respirator in the hospital for 3-4 days-an uncomfortable situation. I did not care, I had to know – “let’s do it” – I insisted.
Days after the test, sitting in my Oncologist’s office, the worse moment arrived: the news. “Les, it is cancerous… I am sorry”, said Dr. Drew, my doctor. With that I broke down and cried. I was alone, and no one was there to go through this news with me. Surprisingly, Dr. Drew hugged me and told me it would be Ok. Then he explained the suggested treatment, which would be to cut out my left lower lung lobe.
In the next couple of weeks, announcing this to my family and friends was even more dramatic. Everyone wanted to know: was I dying?.. did I ever smoke?.. what could have caused this? I had no answers for anyone.
The first lifesaver in my sea of confusion came from my boss in England. He sent me the best message I ever received: he had gone through it and knew how lonely I felt and that he had been there. But he pledged to support me. Another person in my office in England who went thru lymphoma also gave me an ears’ full about her experience, and little by little I had my support and prayer groups and family members ready to stand up with me.
At this point, and still today, I have no idea what caused this cancer. But one thing I am sure, that I was in the hands of a great team at Holy Cross in Ft. Lauderdale, and two, that GOD was with me, because this does not happen to every cancer victim. Most people do not find cancer at the onset like me, but rather when it is advance. Also, some people have cancer in the family. Besides a cousin, I never lost anyone to cancer. Nothing could have prepared me for this diagnosis: I was asymptomatic, and my lungs were in great shape. So, it was ‘all go’ for the surgery and months of recovery.
Fast forward to my first year’s Oncologist visit, I was thanking everyone for helping me through this process. That is when my Lung Nurse Navigator told me that I can help other people by telling my story, by spreading the word of early detection.
Cancer never knocks and asks for the way in. It comes as a thief in the night and sometimes by the time it is discover it is too late. My reason for writing this Cancer Story is to tell the world about the urgency of early detention and checkups (of all kinds). God only knows how my health would be today if I did not get my cancer detected on time. It was a lifesaving decision to go through all the tests and available doctors. Some of us give up the basics, do not insist on the testing, or forget they are available to us. I read on all the possible screenings I can have in relation to my health and age, and I do not miss any of them now!
Everyone’s cancer situation is different. But when detected on time, results are so much better and the outcome much brighter. Just last month I had my 5th annual visit to my oncologist. He said that I graduated! It was a moment for celebration! A celebration that I wish upon every cancer victim. Because cancer not only affects us the patients, but our full circle of relatives and friendships. By the way, cancer also teaches us to appreciate those around us. I thank my family for being there for me. Also, the friends who prayed, who showed concerned, who called, who sent a card or word. Let us not forget to lean on those who can help us get through it all. Let us stand up to cancer together and say NO MORE!
NEVER GIVE UP
by Nancy McConnell, age 73
Palm Bay, FL
I was diagnosed with cancer in the summer of 1980. It was devastating. They say that when it rains, it pours. I was 32 years old and a recent widow. I was still grieving the loss of my husband of 13 years due to a car accident during the blizzard of ’79.
Around the middle of May, I was telling my sister-in-law that I was having pain in my left hand. She immediately got on the phone and made an appointment with a hand specialist. Dr. Acuna did not know what my problem was. He said that he had never seen this type of growth before and he would like to have more than one opinion on it.
For the next couple of months, he sent me to half a dozen different doctors. On August 1st, Dr. Acuna sent me to see the doctor he had studied under, Dr. Blair at McGraw / Loyola University Hospital. He immediately scheduled me for surgery the next morning. I was told that it would take about 2 hours, but it took almost 7 hours. Prior to this, I had never been in the hospital and never hurt myself bad enough to have any stitches. There were 3 doctors working on me and they would talk to me as they cut away the growth. After about 3 hours, they discussed amputating the hand and half of my forearm…I SAID NO AMPUTATION. Dr. Blair said that he would do the best that he could to save my hand, and he did. When I asked him how a person got cancer, he replied that you could get it in any number of ways. He said that too much stress was one way.
I was in the hospital for 5 days afterwards and was told to come back in 4 days for the results of the 4 biopsies. I WAS SCARED. As I sat for those 4 days and watched my little nieces and nephews play, a calmness came over me and I knew that no matter what the doctor had to say, I would be okay with it. I was so thankful that this did not happen to one of those little ones.
When I saw Dr. Blair 4 days later, he explained that I had Synovial Sarcoma. This cancer is always in the torso of the body, and that I was the first person to have it in an extremity, and that it is usually fatal. We talked for a long time about not giving up and that sometimes miracles do happen. I assured him that I had no intention of giving up.
Dr. Blair called me about 2 weeks later and asked me if I would be willing to talk to the doctors at Fermi-Lab Neutron Facility in Batavia, Illinois. He explained to me that they are doing experimental neutron radiation tests, but they are only taking terminally ill patients, and if I was interested, he would set up an interview. My answer was YES, ABSOLUTELY. We had the interview the beginning of September and I started right away with the treatments. I went a couple of times a week for the rest of that year. After the treatments ended, I went for checkups starting at once a week, then once every 2 weeks, then once a month, then every 3 months, then every 6 months, then once a year until the government funding for Fermi-Lab was stopped in June of 2013.
In May of 1981, I was diagnosed with Melanoma, just above my wrist on that same hand, just outside of the area that was radiated. The diagnosis was not good. Dr. Blair wanted to amputate the arm at the shoulder. When I asked him how long he thought that would give me, he shook his head and said maybe 3 months. Needless to say, I refused the amputation. What I did do though, was go to the library and read everything I could find on cancers and what I could do to take care of myself in the way of vitamins, food, exercise etc. I even checked out Laetrile, which was a controversial drug at that time. I took good care of myself and lived each day as if it might be my last. I learned right away that I could not become a recluse, I could not isolate myself. I had to keep good thoughts in my head. I had to BELIEVE that I was going to be just fine. My family helped me so much by keeping me active and so busy, that I didn’t have time to think about giving up or to wallow in self-pity. I kept a good attitude and mind set for survival. Because of my attitude and outlook, I was asked a number of times by the doctors at Fermi-Lab to speak to a few young patients to help them have a better outlook about their diagnosis. The first thing I told them was “NEVER GIVE UP”.
In 1988, one of the nurses at Fermi-Lab told me that I was their longest living patient. Now it is 41 years since I first went to Fermi-Lab. I have outlived most of my doctors and nurses, but I thank god for each and everyone that had a hand in my care. I am a SURVIVING MIRACLE… not once, but TWICE THE MIRACLE.
If you see me around Palm Bay, I am the lady that wears a black glove, with the fingers cut out, on my left hand. I wear the glove because the sun can blister the part of the hand where I had the radiation. Feel free to say ‘hello’.
I WILL NOT FEAR
by Stacie Mullin, age 40
Palm Bay, FL
“This cannot be right. Things like this do not happen to me, they happen to other people. What about my kids, my husband, my family?” These are all of the thoughts that swarmed through my mind after the emergency room doctor came into my room with a look of pity on her face and told my husband and me that I had stage 4 metastatic breast cancer.
Metastatic breast cancer is cancer that has spread to other parts of the body from the breast. For me it had spread to pretty much every bone in my back, ribs, hips an even my skull. I had just been handed my death sentence.
Let me back up a few weeks before this happened. I had been having extreme back, hip and rib pain for months. I visited 3 separate doctors and had 2 xrays and a MRI. All those tests said I just had some osteoarthritis.
The breast tumor was felt a couple of months later. I knew it was not normal and was fast tracked into my doctor, who sent me for the mammogram. I pretty much knew that day of the mammogram and ultrasound that it was indeed cancer, but I thought it was still really early. The tumor was small and I just found it two weeks prior. Boy was I wrong. The night before the breast biopsy I ended up breaking my back. Let me tell you, that was the worst pain I had ever felt in my life. That is when I received the horrible news. My husband and me were shocked. We did not sleep at all that night. I had never been so scared in my life, but I still in the back of my mind was thinking it cannot be true. They are wrong.
I still went and had the breast biopsy the following morning. By this time, I was using a wheelchair to get around. The next month was a complete blur. I was on pain medications, steroids, and had appointments with a few doctors. I started radiation to fix the biggest tumor on my spine. The one that caused the back fracture. Then I had a port catheter implanted in my chest so that I can start chemo.
The oncologist ordered 6 chemo treatments, but I could only finish 4 because my body just could not take it. In December, 4 months after the diagnosis, I had my last chemo and we did a PET scan, which showed major improvements. We were all very happy. I was to continue on two drugs called targeted therapy. They were infusions and I was to be on them forever, or until they stop working.
Now 8 months later I am still here and on my first line of treatment. It has not been easy because I am in pain every single day of my life. Some days its intolerable. Right now, I am considered stable, but that can change at any minute.
I think a lot of people in my position would start to question God. How could he do this to me? What sins have I committed to deserve this harsh judgement against me. I will not lie and say I have not had any “why me” moments, because I am only human. I have never doubted God though. I have only grown closer to him and have dived into his word. I have prayed constantly for healing and peace in my journey. I have also thanked him. You are probably thinking, how can I be thankful to God for anything?
Cancer has completely changed my life. I used to be scared of dying and now I am not. I used to live my life in fear and now I do not. I am blessed to be humbled by our all mighty Lord. He has given me the gift of time. Time to show the ones I love more attention. Time to travel, something I was always afraid to do. Time to appreciate the little things in life and the people who surround me.
Have you ever just sat in awe looking at a butterfly, the sky, or a flower? I have, and that right there is a gift in itself. 1 Peter 5:10 says “And the God of all grace, who called to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast.” I am not sure why God has placed me in this trial. I believe it is for a reason, and I know I am not alone in it. He is by my side.
I am so thankful to my husband Jeremy, my mom Debbie, my kids Emily and Nicole, and all of the family that has been such a big help and comfort to me.
I will end this essay with one of my favorite bible verses. Joshua 1:9: “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”
MY CANCER STORY
by Lucille Noonan, age 70
Palm Bay, FL
Any comments about my multiple skirmishes with cancer has to be prefaced by acknowledging my hardworking Guardian Angel, Mary and the Baby Jesus. To whom I give all the Praise for putting people in my path who said something, when acted upon, saved my life.
See if you agree when you hear the events:
Since about 1966 through 2020 I have had malignant melanoma four (4) times. Since moving to Florida in 1993 I have tried to go to the skin doctor regularly. Having grown up in the area of Rockaway Beach, New York and having spent 1,000’s of hours in the sun, all day, every day when school let out each summer. Sunscreen was not yet in vogue. Much skin damage was done. I asked my sister, an RN, “How could President Reagan’s daughter, Maureen, have died of skin cancer. She must have had great health coverage.” My sister explained that it might have been growing on the inside. So far, my cancers have all had outward manifestations.
About 20 years ago, on a trip back to New York City, a close friend urged me to get a mammogram. I did not question this. Perhaps a friend or relative had waited too long. In any event, I needed a referral to have a mammogram done. I picked Dr. Germain Castro on Port Malabar Boulevard because he was close by to me. I have been his patient and have considered myself blessed ever since.
I overheard my husband talking to his colonoscopy doctor’s nurse on the telephone to make arrangements to have this done. Not a topic I have given much thought ever. Since I planned to see Dr. Castro the next day I made a mental note to ask him about this. I never had one. Dr. Castro immediately called to make an appointment for me to have this done. Turns out I was referred to my husband’s colonoscopy doctor. This doctor’s nurse told me on a follow up visit that I would have been getting diagnosed in about seven (7) months.
My sister, the RN, called to say that given our family’s history her medical family at the hospital wanted her to get her ovaries taken out. She would be doing that the next day. She urged me to do the same. About two (2) years later, I asked Dr. Castro, how I go about this. He made an appointment with the appropriate doctor. In preparation this doctor took pictures to assess location of scar tissue from three (3) C Sections. He saw something in pictures he thought needed further scrutiny. Report came back Stage 1 uterine cancer. I was referred to an Oncology Surgeon and everything was removed. If I had acted immediately when my sister had called, the Stage 1 diagnosis would not have yet shown up.
I sympathize and pray for those who bravely have to get chemo and other treatment. I realize I escaped such discomforts, so far. God bless them.
In closing, I would be remiss if I did not say how grateful and thankful I am to New York City Transit Authority and its health insurance to its retired workers that allowed me to make timely decisions that maintained my good health. Thank you all. My Guardian Angel, Mary and Baby Jesus, and the people I encountered along my journey.
CANCER: THE BEST THING THAT EVER HAPPENED TO ME
by Karen Pesta
Merritt Island, FL
The Back Story
In 2005, I moved to California for work. We sold our house and my husband and I lived apart for months while we transitioned to our new location. I was excited…until…..I realized I was alone….with no family/friends nearby AND a boss who HATED me. Food was the only “friend” close enough to make me feel better. I soon ballooned from being overweight to being morbidly obese.
A checkup showed high sugar and cholesterol – primary cause? Obesity. I was just 47 and I didn’t want to have the same problems as my parents. One good thing about CA is that insurance paid for Gastric Bypass surgery. In April, 2006, I had the procedure. I was 226 lbs. and had 100 lbs. to lose. I was told that I could expect to lose 10 lbs. the first month and after that 3-5 lbs. /month. Imagine my excitement when by September, I had lost 80 lbs.?!?!
What Does This Have to Do With Cancer?
Everything! Obesity is one of the top 5 of contributing causes of cancer. Stress is one of the top causes of obesity. It is also a factor in the cause of cancer.
The Whirlwind Begins
I have always been good about getting annual mammograms. I had fibrocystic breasts and had been getting them since my 30’s. I didn’t think it was a big deal to delay it until we returned to Florida. I scheduled my mammogram for January and enjoyed the holidays.
Because of my weight loss, my breasts were more like tube socks with a golf ball at the bottom. I wasn’t sure how they were going to be able to make that machine fit me but they did. It was a little unnerving when the tech told me to wait while she checked with the radiologist to see if he wanted more pics. He did. Next thing I knew, I was getting an ultrasound. Clearly they saw something requiring immediate attention. I tried not to think about the big C. Next step, a needle biopsy, but that was scheduled for another day.
My diagnosis? Invasive Ductal Carcinoma. My GP referred me to a surgeon. The surgeon wanted to “preserve my breasts” in accordance with the AMA’s standard protocol. According to him, I only needed a lumpectomy. He wasn’t sure what to say when I said. “Seriously? You just examined my breasts. What, pray tell, is there to preserve?” I got a second opinion.
I found a Surgical Oncologist and a Plastic Surgeon and scheduled a double-mastectomy with simultaneous TRAM FLAP reconstruction for March. As long as the frozen pathology from my lymph nodes was negative, they would do the mastectomies and reconstruction simultaneously. I was lucky! I went in with “girls” and came out with “girls.” I was cured! The cancer was gone. Recovery would be long but I got a flat stomach and new “girls”. How about that for a “silver lining in the dark cloud?”
Did you know that a Surgical Oncologist only does surgery? I didn’t. I thought they did all cancer treatment. So imagine my surprise when at a follow-up visit he asked me who my oncologist was and when was my appointment. He was dumbfounded when I told him I thought HE was my oncologist. I learned there are 3 kinds of Oncologists: Surgical, Medical and Radiation. Thank goodness I only needed 2. No radiation for me.
The Whirlwind on Steroids
Now I needed a Medical Oncologist and chemo. Why? Because I was under 50. My Medical Oncologist recommended chemotherapy as a preventative measure. Statistics showed I had a 25% chance of recurrence without chemo, just 12% if I had chemo. My eyes filled with tears. So did his. But his argument was sound. He only had one chance to cure me. If it came back, it would be a managed disease for the rest of my life. My husband didn’t want me to do chemo. But he supported my decision to go forward with 4 rounds of treatment, once every 3 weeks. Adriamycin (Red Devil) and Cytoxan, aka AC, was his cocktail of choice for me.
In preparation for chemo I decided I was going to take my power back from a disease that was threatening to kill me. I knew I was going to lose my hair so I decided I to choose when that happened. The night before my first treatment, I shaved my head. It was a small victory but a huge boost for my mental and emotional state.
I didn’t tolerate the chemo well. With each treatment, I got very sick. Nausea and vomiting caused me to barely eat. Steroids in my “cocktail” kept me awake at night and gave me night sweats to boot. None of the anti-emetics worked for me. My hemoglobin slipped downward. It dropped from 12 to 7 at its worst. I needed Neulasta and Procrit to boost white and red blood cells and iron infusions for the hemoglobin. They offered me a blood transfusion but my husband was afraid of me getting AIDS contaminated blood. At the same time, my weight dropped to 100 lbs.
The first 2 1⁄2 weeks after each cycle of treatment, I could barely eat and spent most of my time in bed. The last few days I would start feeling good. I could take a walk around the parking lot of my condo complex and stop to feel the sunshine on my face. I envisioned God holding my face in his hands and stroking my cheeks. It was just in time for my next treatment.
Even though my physical reaction worsened with each treatment, my resolve strengthened. Every time that poison was put in my body, I pictured it eating the cancer cells, bite by bite. I measured the progress by percentages. Treatment 1 – 25% done. #2 – 50%, #3 -75% and finally #4 – 100%!!!!
It Wasn’t All About Me
I wasn’t the only one who got cancer. My family and friends got it too. They were powerless. There wasn’t anything they could do to make it go away. They worked hard to support me but they suffered too, needing compassion and support themselves.
It took months to recover. But mentally and emotionally, I had never been stronger. I learned how to take better care of me. I joined the gym and went to Zumba classes even though all I could do was March in place for 10 minutes before I had to sit down. (I love music.) I was still bald and found that instead of stares and whispering from others in class, I found cheerleaders. I wore a wig in in Florida in the summer. I was miserable and one day I decided to embrace my bald head by throwing my wig on the table at a support group meeting and the whole room clapped. I deserved being comfortable. I evaluated relationships and removed myself from unhealthy ones. I kicked negativity to the curb and replaced it with positivity, fun and a willingness to try new things.
I not only changed my perspective; I changed my priorities. I put relationships above work. I took care of myself before caring for others (realizing I can’t be there for others if I am not there for myself). I replaced pride with humility. Spirituality for arrogance. I didn’t do this perfectly. I learned that I am a work in progress and working on me is a journey not a destination.
Having cancer was difficult and scary. But it gave me an improved and happier me and, above all else, an appreciation and the gift of joy.
THE LONGEST SHORTEST ROAD
by Amy Scalia, age 46
These days stretch out endlessly
Yet I am acutely aware
Of their brief presence
No words fit
I see this:
A finger marked
The human body’s incredible instinct
Despite invisible ravages within
The not ready yet
To do, to be capable
Combined with the realization
And the ultimate defeat
Relenting to what
Never ought to have been
Somehow, with grace
In your weakness
Than ever before
These days linger
Wretched yet lovely
MY LUCKY CHARM
by Christina Tecson, age 44
In May of 2015, I followed an impulse in my heart to adopt a 4 month-old puppy. My family had a dog growing up and I knew I wanted to own a dog “someday” but I always thought that would be when I felt more established in life. However, at 38, I wondered how “established” I would ever be and if I was aiming for a moving target.
There were many reasons NOT to get a dog then, knowing the time and commitment it takes to train a puppy. But he brought so much joy to my heart when I held him. And the brief moments playing with him – how they made me laugh and smile – I knew I needed that in my life. I mentally listed all the practical reasons it was not a good time for a dog, but the only thought I fixated on was, “Why not?” I listened to the intuitive feeling that this little creature was supposed to be in my life, trusted my heart, and brought him home.
Three days later I was diagnosed with breast cancer! If having a puppy wasn’t going to overburden my life, this disease would.
The name the shelter assigned to the dog was Lucky. I originally intended to change the name to something more unique, however after my cancer diagnosis, no other name seemed appropriate. He was meant to be my Lucky charm.
Why is it that one year later when I look back at the bleak moment when the nurse told me to prepare for my diagnosis . . . I can laugh at my ridiculous reaction of shock and denial? But when I replay the phone conversations I had breaking the news to my closest family members . . . I cry? I was strong suffering through the cancer hardships, but knowing my pain also hurts those I love, that is a somber thought.
The doctors already knew from my mammogram and ultrasound images that I had cancer. My parents immediately booked a flight from their home in Florida to be with me, at my home in California, as I learned all the details of my pathology and treatment plan from my oncologist. Cancer had already spread to my lymph nodes – I didn’t even know what a lymph node was.
My parents stayed with me for the next six months while I braved through chemotherapy, recovered from surgery, and started radiation treatments. They drove me to chemotherapy. My mom helped me pick out wigs and head scarves. She cooked me meals after surgery. My dad carried my groceries when my arms and chest were healing. They accompanied me to every doctor appointment and provided me with sound advice when I wasn’t in the frame of mind to be reasonable. They showed their love by doing everything the caregiver of a cancer patient is expected to do in the ways only parents can.
However, they also demonstrated their unconditional love for ME by caring for Lucky. When I was too exhausted to play with my energetic puppy, my dad ran up and down the street with my dog to tire him out. When I needed to bunker down in my bedroom to rest for two days after every chemo session, my parents kept Lucky entertained in the living room. My dad took Lucky outside for bathroom breaks every few hours on schedule to house break him so that I could conserve my energy. When Lucky faltered from his routine leaving piddles on the carpet, my Dad cleaned up after him so I wouldn’t be exposed to the germs with my low immune system. When I had a full day of medical appointments and treatments, my dad drove home to let the dog out, then back to the hospital to be with me.
Even my pragmatist mom came to enjoy Lucky’s company and see the blessings of a dog. When I talked to my mom on the phone the day I brought Lucky home to tell her she had a “grand dog” she initially thought I was joking because, in her words, “Why would you do something so silly?” However, while my mom was staying in my home, she never suggested I return Lucky to the shelter to focus on my own health, or that my illness was preventing me from taking care of a new puppy. She could have easily made the argument that she and my dad were there to take care of me, and instead spent more time caring for my dog. It was the truth – I WAS leaving my parents to do most of the work. The suggestion to return my dog was never proposed because they knew that Lucky, in his own unique charmingly mischievous way, was comforting me through my cancer treatments. The frustration over Lucky’s housebreaking habits was the welcomed distraction I needed to stay light-hearted about my health crisis. His constant nipping at me, signaling he wanted to play, was annoying when I was low energy, but it also motivated me to stay active. Fussing over Lucky gave me somebody else to focus on instead of my own sorrow.
So much of my cancer treatment plan was not within my control or the well intentions of my parents. I was left to the expertise of my doctors and the mercy of God to declare me cancer free. But having Lucky there as the newfound comfort in my life seemed to soften the harsh reality of an uncertain future.
There were many emotion draining moments of my cancer experience, but the moments that poured joy back into my heart are those that centered around the new edition to my family and the love my parents developed for my dog. They came here to take care of me, but their care giving experience became a partnership in raising my puppy.
My parents have returned to retired life in Florida, and I am getting back to my old life . . . before cancer changed me forever. But I also realize I don’t want to be moving so fast I forget where I’m going. I don’t want to get stuck on a road to nowhere. Cancer has opened my eyes to live a more purposeful life and live in the moment. And the most welcomed change, amongst a flurry of new healthy lifestyle changes and obsessive “is this symptom cancer“ thoughts, is having a canine best friend by my side. Lucky was taught well. His duty as a dog, especially now that I live with the ambivalence of cancer, is to calm my anxieties and to energize me to be bolder than my fear of cancer recurrence. Surely seeing my parents by my side and being a recipient of their unconditional love influenced his senses.
”CANCER AND . . . “
by Arlene Wolf, age 59
Cocoa Beach, FL
I met John for the first time on a blind date and we had been seeing each other only a short time when my diagnosis came back positive; Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. I was a 36 year old single mother with a 12 year old son named James from a previous marriage. To say a cancer confirmation is a shocking reveal is an understatement. A few pronounced lumps in one area and my entire life changed instantly. I suggested to John he needed to go his separate way and find someone healthy as it wasn’t fair to him dating someone about to experience such a dire and debilitating situation. I also had to break the news to James which was heartbreaking. John was a police officer and assured me he’d stand by me no matter what the prognosis. My son took it extremely hard and my parents arrived from New Jersey to assist. I guess I was as ready as ever to begin this ordeal.
The doctor suggested starting a course of treatment called CHOP chemotherapy. First came all sorts of tests and blood work, a bone marrow biopsy that pained me until I wept on the table, and I had a medical access port implanted in my chest because I was informed the veins in my arm could collapse from the administered chemotherapy drugs. As is typically the case I lost all my hair and I mean all my hair…everywhere, not just my head. I didn’t even have eyebrows! The treatments were telling and I took pills for nausea and steroids. Feeling exhausted and queasy was a constant and there were times requiring hospitalization. John visited the hospital in his police uniform between working shifts and off duty details, sometimes falling asleep in a chair near my bed as I urged him to just go home.
Treatment continued and weeks passed. There were occasions trying wigs, even the ones made of real human hair, but I finally resigned myself to just go bald. Some local neighborhood children made fun of my baldness to James and he mentioned it to me in passing. Somehow, I found the strength and wherewithal to visit their parents and put an end to the ridicule. At the cancer treatment facility most everybody was bald and there were people from all age groups including children. John told me he had seen quite a bit in his years on the police force but seeing so many people and children going through this life and death struggle was sobering to say the least.
The CHOP treatment concluded and more tests followed. I received news. Not only was the cancer still present and evident in my lymph system, it had metastasized and spread everywhere. It was hard to fathom this terrible update after being so hopeful the CHOP drugs would work. The Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scan showed the cancer throughout my entire body. The doctor advised my only remaining option was a bone marrow transplant to be performed in New York City and James would be my donor. The chance of survival wasn’t promising. The final chapter of this book seemed to be coming to a close and I wasn’t in control of anything. Soon, I began preparing which included selling my townhouse in North Lauderdale and making my funeral arrangements.
Subsequent to selling my home I visited my local church. While I was there the pastor took me aside into a prayer group where everyone prayed for a miraculous healing that would defy medical science and free me of this horrific disease. John was there but expressed reservation considering the CHOP failure and low anticipated success rate for the bone marrow transplant. James and I set off for New Jersey with our Bichon dog Pepsi to stay with family and await this next upcoming procedure. John phoned me for encouragement and support and I really fell in love with him over the phone through those frequent nightly conversations about everything.
One final PET scan was required before the transplant occurred and John came up. We sat in the doctor’s office as the doctor slowly ambled in reviewing the PET scan results. He looked a bit perplexed and said, Look, I don’t know how to explain this but it’s gone.” He just stood there. John asked, “What do you mean it’s gone? What’s gone?” The doctor stated not only was the cancer gone, but it was gone everywhere…, at the cellular level. There was nothing more to be done, no transplant. John and I walked out of his office in shock and disbelief, and joy.
Today, John and I are married 19 years this August 18, 2021 and are retired living in Cocoa Beach. James is a grown man and working as an engineer aboard a tugboat in Port Canaveral. The CHOP took a toll on me as it put me into early menopause and adversely affected my bone density. I’ve broken my ankle and both my right and left wrists, along with fracturing 3 vertebrae in my back. I receive Prolia shots twice a year to help maintain bone density plus injections in my ankle every three months by a neurologist, along with vitamin D supplements. My hair grew back except for the eyebrows albeit I’ve had microblading. But I’m alive! The oncologist advised me my cells aren’t normal but they’re not cancer either. He can’t explain it. He told me to enjoy my life but the aftermath can be disconcerting too. I’ve had a breast biopsy and a lump under my armpit that was benign. When you survive cancer you sometimes jump to the conclusion every malady is cancer related.
I write this as a message of hope because I ran the gamut of emotions from initial diagnosis to complete recovery with recovery meaning for the moment. It’s scary. But never lose hope. I was at my wits end right up until the final moment when that doctor couldn’t explain the unexplainable…, a miraculous healing.