Write Your Cancer Story – Essay Contest 2022
In Honor of National Cancer Survivors Month, June 2022
The voting has ended and the winners (1st, 2nd, 3rd place) were announced at our ART & WINE RECEPTION with DINNER BUFFET honoring our Local Cancer Survivors on June 24th, where the finalists read their essays. Congratulations!
Essay Finalists – click on their name to view their essay.
MY PERSONAL EXPERIENCE WITH CANCER
by Nancy Donahue, age 64
Satellite Beach, FL
May 2020. I was in the ER on morphine. I suspected the herniated disk in my back was the culprit of my excruciating pain. The doc arrived with the scan results. “Nancy, your abdomen has too numerous-to-count enlarged lymph nodes. Huh? Defensively I thought, “I’m not here for that”.
I couldn’t have cancer. No one in my family had it. I’m a healthy person and take care of myself. But cancer doesn’t care about that. It appears at your door uninvited, lets itself in, makes itself at home inside your body and tries to take over. Both physically and emotionally. I named it ‘The Beast’.
Spending a week in the hospital prior to my first chemo treatment gave me a lot of time to think. The Beast must not win. I needed something to fight for, and I knew just what it was. In 2018 I had met a young teacher from Malawi, Africa online. She had 285 third graders in a classroom lacking desks and chairs, textbooks, electricity, and food. In 2019, she stayed with me for a week on an educational grant. She changed my life. Her life reminded me of my blessings: a pillow under my head, a bathroom, a refrigerator, food choices…all things that she and her students lacked. I needed to help them.
The Beast, aka my uninvited guest took me through many phases. The death of my old self was the big one. It left me physically drained and the face in the mirror didn’t look like me anymore. Way too thin for my 5’7” frame, dark circles under my eyes, bald head, and wrinkles that I hadn’t seen before. And mentally…well I would never be the same…each time I felt a twinge, I would wonder if The Beast was back.
Chemo…. nasty poison, thief, friend, enemy. So many emotions. It did its number on me. There were more trips to the ER, I was on a first-name basis with my bathroom floor, and I felt like someone hooked up my Dyson vacuum and sucked every last little bit of energy right out of me. My gardens were filling with weeds, my shower held a portable seat where my husband had bathed me, and my dresser held a Styrofoam head sporting my wig. Life had definitely changed.
I am a retired teacher and a life-long learner. I didn’t know anything about Follicular Lymphoma, so I dove in. One of the best things I did was find a Facebook group. Suddenly I wasn’t alone but instead had over 8,000 taking the journey with me. Some were survivors, some were in the thick of it and others were just beginning. I read and engaged with the endless posts of questions and answers from all over the world. Sometimes posts broke my heart and some encouraged me.
The word of my cancer was out, and friends began calling. I didn’t have the strength most days to chat, so I posted updates on my Facebook page. I’m so glad I did that. The outpouring of love engulfed and humbled me. I’ve always received great joy from giving. Receiving was not my strong suit. The cards, texts, calls, flowers, food, gifts, and prayers were overwhelming, but warmed my heart and comforted me beyond measure.
My family was so supportive and positive. Because Covid had limited my doctor appointments to one caregiver, only my husband accompanied me. But my grown children participated by phone – listening and asking questions. This was huge for me. They all had my back.
After my first two rounds of chemo, I reached out to a top-notch cancer hospital for a second opinion. The doctor specialized in my specific cancer. We met virtually. He contacted my local oncologist and together they put together a plan which brought me great comfort. I will be forever grateful for their care and support and also the amazing nurses who treated me like a VIP. They watched my transformation from my first chemo visit when I arrived in pajamas and robe curled in a ball in a wheelchair to where I am today – standing tall and taking my life back.
In August 2020 after my third chemo treatment and getting the awesome news of a clear scan, I was ready to do something meaningful. I founded the nonprofit, Lessons with Love, Inc., to help the teacher from Africa. Covid and my weakened body and immune system meant I couldn’t go anywhere… fundraising was challenging. Once again friends and family helped.
Then in January 2021, just four months after founding the nonprofit, The Beast was back. It was an aggressive form so the doctors said we would go after it with hard-core chemo. I had beat it before, and I had every intention of doing so again.
I won’t lie…. I had concerns. How could I ask my husband to go through this again? I needed to be strong. Could I keep Lessons with Love going through another journey with chemo? I reached out to a counselor for virtual visits to ensure I stayed positive. I told my husband after receiving more gifts that I hoped folks wouldn’t be disappointed when I didn’t die, because I had no intention of that!
The next eight months were tough. More of what I had been through before but now intensified. My Facebook group, doctors and nurses, friends, family, and the good Lord all played a critical role that got me through those tough days. I challenged myself to face them one day at a time (and sometimes one hour at a time). I focused on my blessings. And once again, I beat The Beast!
I’m still working for the poverty-stricken children through Lessons with Love. Knowing how these kids live puts my life in perspective. They remind me what’s really important. I don’t have time for cancer. There are children who need help. And thanks to all the support and love I received, I’m still here with the opportunity to make a difference.
THE DAY MY WORLD CAME CRASHING IN
by Lauren Artis, age 34
August 21, 2021 the day my world came crashing in. I sat next to my son, Bryson, in his hospital bed as a team of medical staff approached the door. I knew what was about to happen, as my stomach dropped, the door opened, and they all grabbed a chair. I was then told the most awful news I have ever heard, “Your son has Rhabdomyosarcoma, cancer.” The rest of the next twenty minutes of medical language was a complete blur all I could hear was the word cancer. The doctors then left the room and we asked Bryson if he understood what that all meant. He looked up at me with tears in his eyes and said, “Am I going to die?” I was dumbfounded, but I responded, “Bryson we are going to fight, this is not our first fight in your life, and we will continue to fight.” The doctors pulled my husband and I in the other room and told us that Bryson had a 6-10 percent chance of surviving this cancer. I told Bryson we would fight though, even against the odds and that is exactly what we did is fight.
The next seven months of our lives was the most difficult thing that has ever happened to us as a family. My husband had to go back to work, and I became a full-time caregiver overnight. The same way Bryson’s world came crashing to a halt in August, so did mine. Bryson was no longer attending school and I no longer was teaching as my career. We both were thrown into a world of hospitals, overnight visits, palliative care at home, ten to fifteen medicines a day being given, injections given by me daily, tube feedings, surgeries, school at home, and on top of all that still trying to figure out what just happened. He and I spent more time together in those seven months than we ever had. Some days we were both angry, other days we were sad, but I wouldn’t trade them for anything. As caregiver, I found that it was beyond difficult to balance not only Bryson, but my other three kids and my husband. Our hospital was an hour away from home and so it was a lot of divides and conquer. Our other children were going from one place to another after school and sometimes overnight. We have all heard about mom guilt, well times that by a thousand and that is what I had. I was spending so much time taking care of Bryson that I felt like I wasn’t doing anything to help the other kids. I know I was doing the best I could, but it was not easy.
January of 2022 was our scans to see his progress and if chemotherapy was working. I felt in my gut that it wasn’t going to be good news. I sat my husband down one night and said Bryson wants to see snow and I think we need to make that happen while he has a small break in chemo. We went over just 2 hours away and did just that saw snow as a family. It isn’t easy to travel with a child that is tube fed 24 hours a day, on ten to fifteen medications, and is so fragile, but it was worth every second of trying. We went in for the results of the MRI and scan. The scans showed improvement in certain spots, but a couple more spots that they wanted to look at again. The doctor had hope he felt like these spots were going to be something else or resolving cancer. I knew though, I felt it in my heart that this was the end. My gut was right, the doctors came in on February 11th and told us that Bryson’s cancer had spread and there was nothing left that they could do. I sat there in pure shock, anger, sadness, frustration, and quite honestly, I didn’t know what to do next. We again asked Bryson if he understood and the words that came next blew me away, he said, “I am going to die and go to Heaven, I will get to go home and live with no more hospitals, and I am ready.” I couldn’t believe it; how can my 12-year-old son have peace beyond understanding. I know this came from God but seeing it in front of your eyes is completely different. My caregiving duties were different now, I was now keeping Bryson comfortable and letting him live in a way he hadn’t been able to do. I was also now preparing to lose him. We made a bucket list and we completed more than he could have ever imagined. Our community stepped up in a huge way. The time came though when I knew he was no longer able to do things. We ended up going to a hospice center because even in the end of Bryson’s life he was so selfless that he didn’t want his siblings to see him die. As we were there at the center, it was heartbreaking watching him. He passed away peacefully on March 5th.
What is a caregiver to do now? When your sole purpose has been to take care of someone else. I look back and am thankful that God chose me to be my son’s caregiver. I remember the days being long and hard. I remember the things I saw and had to endure. Do you know what I remember most though? Are the sweet conversations we got to have, holding his hand, and the trips we would make to do things after chemotherapy. As I have closed my caregiving chapter in this capacity, I would just encourage any and every person living it to sit and be still and soak in all of the moments because I learned so much from my twelve-year-old son during this time.
HOW I FOUGHT THE SILENT KILLER
by Lois Lacoste, age 73
I am a 28-year cancer survivor. I was diagnosed with (very advanced) stage IIIC ovarian cancer in March of 1994. The following paragraphs outline “my story”:
Ironically, I had been searching for a new gynecologist, as the doctor I had been seeing for 20 years had retired. At the same time, I had noticed a swelling in my groin area that was very tender to the touch. I thought perhaps I had bumped myself and was expecting a bruise to appear any day.
Instead, when I contacted my new gynecologist’s office for an appointment, and mentioned the soreness in my groin area, I was scheduled to come in the next day…and I was a “new patient”!!
Upon meeting the doctor, I was confident I had found my new gynecologist. He proceeded with a routine exam, but his findings were definitely not the norm. My uterus was the size of a woman carrying a 3-month fetus…and I was not pregnant! He immediately ordered blood work and an ultrasound and asked me to return the next day.
The ultrasound confirmed his findings…fibroid tumors in my uterus and a right abdominal tumor mass. And the blood test, called a CA125, which is a tumor marker for ovarian cancer, was elevated to 123, while a score of 35 or below is normal. The doctor informed me that I had ovarian cancer!
The gynecologist referred me to a surgical oncologist, who scheduled a CT Scan, needle biopsy, colonoscopy and endoscopy. All the tests confirmed what both doctors believed. I had ovarian cancer and had to have surgery immediately. They informed me I needed a complete hysterectomy and I would have a temporary colostomy bag, due to the removal of the tumor mass attached to my intestinal area.
I had surgery on April 13, 1994. After 7 ½ hours on the operating table, my gynecologist had performed a complete hysterectomy and my surgical oncologist had removed the tumor mass, 22 cancerous lymph nodes and completed all the cancer de-bulking.
After surgery, I was informed they had also removed my appendix (to avoid any problems later on down the road), my gall bladder and a portion of my stomach, which were affected with cancer cells, and I now had a temporary colostomy bag. BUT, all my vital organs were fine…my liver, pancreas, lungs and heart were in great shape.
I spent 4 days in ICU (intensive care) and 6 more days in the hospital. I recovered very well from my surgery, but knew I was now facing chemotherapy treatments.
On May 16, a port-a-cath was implanted in my upper chest wall in order to more easily administer my chemo. I had previously met with my oncologist, who had outlined a very aggressive protocol. I was to have 5 rounds of chemo, which included Cisplatin, Cytoxan and Taxol and then high-dose chemotherapy and stem cell transplant, in which stem cells are collected from my bloodstream in advance of high dose chemotherapy. They are then reinfused into my system, where they develop into new cells. My oncologist said it was not going to be a rose garden and they would take me to the door of death and hope to bring me back.
I was in isolation at Hollywood Memorial Hospital for 20 days – from November 7 until Thanksgiving Day. I had every side-affect outlined possible from the high dose chemo and stem cell transplant including mouth sores, ulceration down my esophagus to my stomach, vomiting, ringing in my ears and hearing loss. My kidneys had shut down for two days and the doctors called my husband in to contact family because I was probably not going to live until morning, unless my kidneys started functioning again…which, by a miracle of God, they did.
Yes, I was a real sight! I had dropped from 115 pounds to 99 pounds. I was totally bald, had a port-a-cath on one side of my chest wall and a Hickman catheter on the other and a colostomy bag hanging on my right side. But through it all, my caregiver/my husband, still loved and cherished me.
Like so many others, I do not know the cause of my cancer. I am an only child with no siblings and no history of ovarian cancer with neither my mother nor her mother. And, I just recently tested for the BRCA gene, which I do not carry.
I believe things happen for a reason and that God never gives us more than we can handle, though I sometimes wish he didn’t have so much confidence in me! I have a powerful belief in God and the power of prayer, which was so important to me. And I always maintained a positive mental attitude. Don’t give up!
God has been so good to me. I was blessed with highly skilled doctors, a loving and supportive husband, family and friends and a loving cancer support group which became an extended family of friends.
I am doing very well and realize that this ovarian cancer, known as the “silent killer” because it rarely has any definitive symptoms, can recur at any time. But I am grateful for each new day God blesses me and I am so grateful for just BEING!
I advise anyone with a new diagnosis to read, educate yourself, ask questions and then make choices that are best for YOU! Be an active participant in your fight against cancer.
To read all of the submitted essays from our brave cancer survivor & caregiver writers, click on their names below.
LONG STORY SHORT, I HAVE SURVIVED!
by Liane Brito, age 48
It is amazing how cancer changes our perspective in life… our priorities… our vision of ourselves and the others… I have read that before, but now I am feeling it firsthand.
In October 2017, I went through a right breast lumpectomy due to some calcification, which was not cancer. After the biopsy, it did show cancerous cells. Neither chemotherapy nor radiotherapy was needed. What a relief!
In February of the following year, I felt a lump in my breast. Yes, you read that right – L-U-M-P! Same breast, different area. There I go again for the same series of unfortunate (but lifesaving) exams – mammogram, ultrasound, biopsy, which age you 10 years in 2 months. (I am being dramatic!)
We – my husband and I – went to the doctor. When Dr. Noori gave us the diagnostic – “It’s cancer” or “You’ve got cancer”, to be honest, I do not remember which one she said. At that moment, I got scared, sad, and deaf as I could not hear a word she said afterwards. I had a feeling it was cancer, but still, nobody wants it to be true. In a matter of seconds, I saw a movie of my life; past, present, and future. The only thing I remember I told my doctor is that I had decided to do a double mastectomy.
Accepting the diagnostic was a very important part of the healing process. I never played the victim or asked, “Why me?”. Why not me? Breast cancer can happen to anybody, and I was not better than anyone else. I decided I would be the most important participant in my health and in my survivorship. I was ready to fight. As they say, “Cancer messed up with the wrong chick!”.
I did not beat cancer alone. My healing was a teamwork. On top of my positive thinking, exercises of faith through prayers, I had a legion of angels with me. Celestial angels and earthy ones like my Mom, who left Brazil and stayed here with me for five months, my family, friends from all over the world, coworkers, doctors, nurses, and the support groups.
The only person who was not part of my healing process was my husband. It was his choice not to be with me. I did not know what hurt more – the cleaning of the four drains after the surgery or the fact that he was not there. And his choice made me fight even more as I had to survive both – cancer and divorce. And guess what? I did! I fought! I cried! I suffered! It was not easy! And I survived with flying colors and big smiles!
After that, chemo time! Sixteen sessions! I thought I was “Wonder Woman” and was certain my hair was not going to fall. But it sure did! Seeing my hair fall down was emotional, but even more emotional was realizing my eyelashes were falling as well. I clearly remember the very first one. It fell on my light blue shirt…That brought tears to my eyes. And slowly they were all gone.
On a happier note, it was amazing how many visitors, be well cards, flowers, phone calls, prayers I got. I had a very special visitor – my Godson Connor, who was three years young at that time. He came to the hospital carrying a “Get well!” balloon and a beautifully wrapped present. When he saw me, he gave me a hug, handed me the gifts, and started singing “Happy birthday”. Balloon plus gift equals to birthday! That moment is in my mind forever and it shows that we need people, good people around us. Even if you do not know what to say, sing a happy song! Be there for that person!
Something else that helped me a lot was being a part of support groups. We form a sisterhood. I made friends for life with amazing and beautiful ladies. We help each other with different experiences. We support one another. We have fun. We cry. We learn and we live and we celebrate life.
I was not sure what my mission in life was before cancer. Now I know. Now I want to help as many cancer patients as possible. I want to help them see that when we allow hope to be our companion, faith to be at our side to give us strength, determination to fight the bad days, acceptance of all the changes, we intentionally go through and grow through survivorship.
MEMOIR OF A CANCER SURVIVOR
by Arlene Joseph Cardone, age 69
Melbourne, FL 32904
It was February 13, 2020, in Point Pleasant, New Jersey. My husband, Anthony, fell in the bathroom. We assumed there was something wrong with his knee or hip, causing him to lose his balance. The next day, we went to our chiropractor, Dr. Rob. He adjusted Anthony and the weekend was upon us.
Anthony felt something was not right, as his equilibrium seemed slightly compromised.
On Monday, we went back to Dr. Rob, and he suggested going to a neurologist. We could not even get an emergency neurology appointment sooner than 6 weeks. On Wednesday, we returned to Dr. Rob again. He recommended we go to the hospital emergency room, where there would be “plenty of neurologists”. We went, clueless and completely unaware of what was about to happen and the turn our lives would take on this 19th day of February 2020.
We were put in a “room”, closed off by a curtain where we remained for at least 10 hours. Doctors and nurses came and went, testing began, and in the middle of the night, they admitted him. In the morning, a neuro oncologist came in and said Anthony had a brain tumor. How could this possibly be? He just lost his footing in the bathroom!
During the next week, he remained in the hospital, underwent a barrage of testing, more testing, and a 7.5 hour brain surgery. Anthony lost the use of his left side and became wheelchair bound. It was supposed to be temporary. Rehabilitation therapy followed and then COVID hit. I would no longer be able to stay with him at the rehab facility and they were going to move him to a nursing home, with no visitors allowed. Unacceptable and unthinkable.
The director of the rehab center agreed to help me learn as much as I could from the therapists in two days, before the new COVID regulations were implemented. We were advised of the equipment needed at home. Family and friends were very supportive. On March 14, we went home to begin the process of learning to live and function, with Anthony confined to a wheelchair. Every day was a challenge. Anthony took chemo medication orally and began at physical therapy at home. He received thirty days of radiation at one hospital followed by chemo infusions and cell replacement therapies at another hospital. We went back and forth to hospitals, the very last place one would want to be, with COVID in full bloom. Disinfecting was practically a full-time job.
When the weather warmed up, we went to the boardwalk and I pushed Anthony in the wheelchair. This was the same boardwalk we had walked on together, just months prior. It was surreal. Our lives changed drastically, but thankfully he was alive. He was set to retire from his job of 35 years. His dream and our plan was to move to Melbourne, Florida.
In order to continue with this plan, we would have to get new doctors and physical therapists in Florida. Infusions would have to be scheduled there. We would need handicapped accessible accommodations, while traveling. The task of packing up and emptying the house we lived in for so many years was monumental, in itself. Movers would have to be hired. We would have to secure a rental in Florida that was wheelchair accessible. This seemed far too much to accomplish, especially in the middle of COVID. Not to mention, we would have to move before winter set in. Anthony was concerned, and rightfully so, that he would be unable to receive his infusions, if it snowed. Florida, here we come. We settled in Melbourne, as planned.
New doctors, physical therapists, infusions therapies, and a rental home with our belongings in it, were all in place by our early October arrival. Divine intervention, family, and friends helped to make what seemed impossible become possible, all in the same year. We celebrated our first Christmas in Florida. I took a photo of Anthony the day after Christmas, and he looked fantastic! We made it!
By mid-January, the tumor had grown bigger than ever, despite the double infusions he was receiving. How could this be? When the neuro oncologist says, “it isn’t good”, you know it’s very bad. Anthony was losing the mobility on his right side. He could no longer hop and pivot to get in the car. I hired people to help me because he had to get to Orlando for his infusions. Every day he seemed to lose more movement. We needed a miracle.
Anthony passed away peacefully at home on February 9, 2021, just shy of one year since his original diagnosis of stage 4 glioblastoma. It was a loss like no other, for me. Unimaginable, yet only the tip of an iceberg of grief. His mom and dad lost a son. His brothers lost a brother. His sons lost a father. His stepchildren lost a step-father. His nieces and nephews lost an uncle. His friends lost a friend. Through crying, mourning, and grief counseling, Anthony deserved commemoration.
So, it began. I moved to a smaller house where I positioned two memorial stones on the front lawn. Mementos and pictures of Anthony were placed in every room. Many of his favorite things were integrated into the home. Bud Light and 49-er keepsakes were displayed in the garage, as it was one of his favorite spots. All of these remain in place. An official “Celebration of Life” was held in his honor on February 9, 2022. Through the ever-present memories and remembrances, Anthony lives on in spirit. Some call it crazy. I call it survival.
SHE WORE MASCARA – FOR THE FIRST AND LAST TIME
by Ana Carlsgaard, 62
Before the pandemic began, the last time I had seen my mom was late February of 2020. My mom lived in Panama. The subsequent quarantine robbed us from seeing each other for 1-1/2 years. The next time I could see her she was laying in hospital bed in August 2021. She looked 10 years older looking debilitated, and the diagnosis was unexpected: CANCER!
In our family I had only heard the word CANCER once before – 5 years earlier it was my sister, Les, who had lung cancer and was successfully treated. We celebrate every July 29th her new birthday – after cancer. But for my mom the prognosis was not good, at her age of 88.
My mom had been the picture of health up till then. She was a very simple person, never wore makeup or dressed up, and she avoided social scenes. She loved being at home with her cat and dog. Now as I watched her confined to a bed, looking so aged and helpless, the doctor’s words: “6 months to 1 year” felt as a bucket of cold water – what about the almost 2 years we missed in between? No time to recover them now!
There is a quote that says that “when someone has cancer, the whole family and everyone who loves them does too.” One minute you’re a son or daughter, next you become a caretaker. My sister and I went into action, procuring a 24-hour nurse, visiting doctor, meds, diapers, hospital bed, bed pans, oxygen, you name it…because it is not just the care, it’s all the equipment, supplies and the patience and unconditional love required to handle a person who is confined to a bed and dying. By the way, she never knew she was dying. She enjoyed a few months feeling much better, before a stroke caused her demise.
No one could adequately prepare you to become a caretaker for someone at the end his or her life. I’m now amazed, inspired, and have a deep appreciation for those who have taken care of a dying family member. To them I dedicate this paper. I now know what you may have gone through. There is sorrow and there is regret. The lost time, the words not uttered, the questions not answered. Yet a few good days bring hope. Perhaps you may have been the target of someone’s uncaring acts or words. “You will receive much unsolicited advice,” the doctor said. “You do what you think it’s best.” He added. You may have even experienced the unexpected apparent rise of “opposing teams” and drama during this painful time. It may feel like you’re rooting for the Seminoles, at the Gator’s turf. A life-ending, hope losing, sad time, now becomes the battlegrounds for discord and selfish decisions, or harsh words articulated without a filter. That on top of the pain of the situation and the fact that our loved one’s life is slipping through our fingers. No one is ever prepared for this!
Yet, we must forgive and forget. Caretakers go through emotions that are hard to describe, and no one knows the strength they have until it is tested. We suffer through our own form of cancer in the process. Everyone grieves differently. We weren’t meant to handle everything in our lives perfectly, nor are we expected to handle this situation any better. We do our best even when our best may not seem enough to others. But we will carry the satisfaction that we were there to help our loved ones in their last days, and lovingly usher them into their new life.
Seeing a person take his/her last breath leaves a scar that only God can heal, yes only God! Mom died in November 2021. I had never seen a person die in front of me, and that is a life trauma that takes time to heal. Her agonizing breaths, and not being able talk to express herself before dying, are scenarios that I was never prepared to witness. I am sure there was a lot she wanted to say but was not able to, and she seemed desperate to speak.
If you have taken care of a dying loved one and are grieving from your loss, please remember that there is help there for you. Be brave to seek help and share your pain with someone. And forgive others that may have seem to harm you or offend you in the process. I beg you to not try to do this alone.
The last time I saw my mom she was all dressed up, she seemed asleep in her casket. The first words out of my mouth were “She looks so pretty!”. Her “new” care takers at the funeral home had treated her to a makeover session. Thank God for the work of funeral homes – they provided us with ease of planning and peace knowing they were taking care of everything.
She did look beautiful, dressed up in her long black gown embellished with black beaded flowers which she had worn only a few times. Her face was glowing with makeup she had never worn before and a beautiful smile that had not been there earlier. And I chuckled because I had never seen her buy, let alone, wear mascara. But today she was wearing mascara, for the first and the last time in her life.
IT’S PROBABLY NOTHING
My Brush with Cancer
by Wayne Gales, age 71
It started with an innocent wet cough that wouldn’t go away. My wife (now my ex), was concerned I was developing pneumonia. Against my wishes (I hate hospitals, ) we went to Jackson Hospital in Miami, near my work, and after a short examination by the staff, went in for a chest X-ray. We sat in the waiting room for a half-hour until the doctor called us into a room. “There’s no pneumonia,” she said “but” pointing to a cloudy spot in the lower lobe of my right lung on the film, “There’s something there we want to look at a little closer” With another, smile, she added, “It’s probably nothing,” and she directed me to contact my primary in Boca Raton. Half my age, she sent me for another X-ray, just to confirm (or disregard) that what they saw was real. “There’s something there alright” She confirmed. “It’s probably nothing, but I think we should do a needle biopsy.”
Again, with a confident smile, she added. “It’s a simple procedure. You come in and lay on your stomach. They inject a numbing solution and go in under an X-ray so they can see what they’re doing. When they find that little spot, there’s a little ‘click’, and they take a little sample. You might cough up a drop or two of blood, but it’s not too bad.”
A few days later I found myself face down on an operating table at Broward Hospital. I was in good spirits, confident this was a waste of time and joked with the staff while they prepped me. As promised, I felt a little sting as a needle of fluid was injected to numb the area. Placing a scope over me, I could hear the mumbled voice of the doctor and staff as they worked a prob deep into my body and into the lung. Then came the soft words, “Okay, you will hear a little snap while we sample the spot.” A nurse put a clean towel under my mouth to catch the promised few drops of blood. I heard the snap and instead of a few drops, I literally filled the towel. It felt like a cup of blood in my mouth, even though it couldn’t have been more than a few tablespoons. It was definitely more than a few drops, but I was done joking for the day. I dressed, went back to work, and waited for the ‘all clear call.
You remember certain moments in your life, where, when, and even the time, like the day John Kennedy was gunned down, the beginning of desert storm, the tragedy of 911. I can recall the moment, almost 25 years ago. I had just pulled into the parking lot at Pier One imports in Boca Raton. Just a few minutes before noon my phone chirped. I recognized the number as my primary physician. We greeted and there was a brief pause. I recall her exact words. It felt like a gut punch. “Wayne, you have cancer.” That’s all I remember. My ears were roared with blood as my blood pressure spiked and I could feel myself hyperventilating. All I could think of was that I was going to die, with so much of my life still unlived. I finally started paying attention to her words. “It’s called a Carconid Tumor,” She said. “It’s very rare. Only about one to two percent of cancers are this type.”
“What’s the prognosis?” I asked, shaking.
“It’s such a rare form of cancer there’s not much history” Dr. Domingues answered a little cautiously. I think we need to do some more testing, then schedule you to get it removed.”
The next few weeks were a blur of appointments, and tests, including a PET scan, (Positron Emission Tomography) that shows if the tumor has metastasized, and meetings with multiple surgeons, including one who recommended we go down through a nasal passage to reach the bottom of the lung and remove the tumor. That sounded as practical as changing the spark plus on my car through the exhaust pipe, and about as appetizing.
The last call was to Dr. Rivera at Holy Cross Hospital in Fort Lauderdale. The X-rays and lab work were sent to him in advance and the meeting set me at ease. “It’s a relatively straightforward surgery,” He reassured me. “Go in through the back, remove the whole lobe, and stitch you up.” He also felt sure I would not need chemotherapy or radiation.
Just a week later I checked into Broward Hospital, where I met with Dr. Rivera, prepped, briefed on the procedure, whisked into an operating room in less than an hour, moved to an operating table, wheeled into a brightly lit room, and sedated into a deep sleep.
When you are under a general anesthetic, it’s unlike regular sleep. No dreaming, no sense of time passing, no midnight waking. You’re out, then your awake. As I came two, I could feel a bulky bandage on my back, I tried to move and was welcomed to a searing pain in my arm, but less pain than I expected. Like most operations, the nurse gets you out of bed and walking in hours, and instead of an expected protracted stay in the hospital, I was sent home in a day. Recovery for this kind of surgery is measured in weeks, but my vacation and sick leave expired in two weeks and two weeks later, I was back at work, popping pain pills to get me through the day, and more to help me sleep at night. Recovery was slow but steady, with only a dull scar on my back, and permanent numbness in my chest as a reminder.
That was twenty years ago. I get a chest X-ray every few years, and after two strokes and a heart attack, I have changed my lifestyle to a healthier diet. How did I contract this cancer? I raced Motorcycles in the desert in the late 80s downwind of the nuclear test site in Nevada. All I can guess is I may have breathed a spec of Uranium dust.
A distant memory and a life lesson never to forget.
EXPERIENCING CANCER . . . THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY
by Marleen Goldstein, age 73
I must begin by complimenting Complementary Cancer Care and acknowledging the part it has played in my journey. It is truly heaven sent, with the ability to help my cancer ‘sisters’ and me move forward after being hit with the emotional and physical impact of experiencing breast cancer. Although the punch lands solidly, this organization helps people to understand that it is not a TKO. It motivates us to stand shoulder to shoulder with those whose humanity gives us support, patiently answers our questions, sympathetically relates to our concerns, and, finally, guides us to self-discovery and the healing process.
I particularly enjoy the reflection activities, as I recognize the need for spirituality in my life. It is important for me to find peace and turn the ordinary moments of my life into extraordinary ones, simply by pushing myself to do something new, and a bit out of my comfort zone. I say, ‘YES’ to new adventures! I have learned to view a new experience as an opportunity to extend myself through creative expression.
The chosen name, Complementary Cancer Care, ends with a word that can be a noun, as in “the provision of what is necessary for the health, welfare, maintenance, and protection of someone or something.” But I prefer to think of it as a verb, as in, “serious attention or consideration applied…”. The former definition is, of course, vital, but the latter evokes what every soul craves – to realize someone cares about him. This CARING, comforting environment makes it so much easier to open ourselves to new ideas and technology. Our dreams, our goals, our hopes, all seem to spill out when we feel safe and secure.
We share ourselves in different ways, for different reasons. I am a retired Florida teacher. My administration trusted me with any decision concerning making my middle school students aware of my breast cancer diagnosis. I needed to go through surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation. I felt the need to hide this from all of my classes, feeling this was too much of a burden for that age group to lift. I went to school with my drain and a smile.
A couple of years went by, and one morning one of my girls walked into my room and started to weep! I asked her to step into the hall and gave an assignment to the class. As I joined her, she started sobbing that her mother was going to die, as she had received the news of the discovery of the dreaded breast cancer!
This was my time. There didn’t seem to be an option. Explaining that great strides had been made in technology, or that I wished her well, would not have been sufficient. Would she really even hear me? So, I put my hands on her shoulders and told her that seeing is believing. I related my story, and as I did, the tears disappeared. Her eyes cleared, the sniffles abated, and her lips parted into a toothy grin! I was awarded with a big hug.
Although we have different values, we must all stay real. We have to be ourselves and reap our own power, and, at the end of our individual journey, hope we were able to live the authentic life we had envisioned for ourselves. Hope, folks! Yes, hope! Keep your dreams! Believe! Never, ever, give up hope.
by Dawnella Hudec, age 61
For pretty much most of my life, I knew I had some kind of health problem. I was 45 with two boys at home and a daughter who had two kids of her own. The night before Thanksgiving 2006, I had a doctor’s appointment. For three days my abdomen was hurting to the point I would double over, could not eat but I had to keep going. So finally, after years of doctor visits complaining, the doctor said with a deep sigh, “I guess you can go get a CT Scan. Later that day, I had my youngest son at an appointment. While he was at his appointment, I laid down on their love seat to help my abdomen not hurt so bad. I called the doctor’s office and told them I was sorry for whining, but when would I get a CT Scan, that I was in a lot of pain. The lady called me back and told me I could go to the ER because they sent the orders over. To back up to 2005, the doctor told me I had to see a psychiatrist before he would see me again. I did and was able to get some medicine, but that did not cure my abdomen problems. So back on Thanksgiving eve, I told a friend I needed to go to the ER because my belly hurt. She thought that was stupid but never doubted me again. When I got to the ER, the triage nurse asked me about my pain level. I told her 75. She said no, between one and ten. I told her 75. She did not believe me because I was still talking. Then I get to go to a room. The nurse in the back was upset that I even came in for a test. Trying to find out what is wrong with someone sure seems to be an inconvenience for everyone. The scan comes back showing there was a mass on my pancreas. Oh gee, I wonder what that means. They admitted me to the hospital to do more tests. My mom and brother came in the next day for a Thanksgiving gathering. The gastrologist doctor had more tests run. Since it was a holiday weekend, it took twice as long to get it all done. There was one test they could not perform, and I had to go to a bigger facility to have it done. The doctor talked about doing exploratory surgery just to find out what it is. No thank you and glad I didn’t have it done. Monday finally comes around. I had started to tell nurses and maybe the doctor I had to be out of the hospital by Tuesday morning or I will go missing for a few hours. My oldest son was having his Eagle Scout banquet on Tuesday, and I was determined it would still happen no matter what. I insisted I would be gone and that may be why they let me go by Tuesday morning. No matter what my health situation had been, I knew I had to keep going and do what needed to be done for my family. My son had always been determined to become an Eagle Scout. So, he was not going to let anything get in the way of his banquet either. He prepared most of his food. I helped out some. Then we had to set up the hall where the ceremony would take place. I was surprised the word got out about me having a mass on my pancreas and many people came to help out. I kept trying to help but was told numerous times to go sit down. Now back to life. Continued to work, take care of my kids, etc. I went to a counseling appointment that week. I told the counselor I had a mass on my pancreas, and I needed one more test. The expression on his face, I thought, he looks more depressed than I did. He wrote down the word Whipple and told me to go home and look it up. All I could find was that ferrets have a Whipple because of pancreatic cancer. He made sure I made an appointment to get the test as fast as possible. I got into the Mayo Clinic within two working days. Actually, they wanted me to come the next day, but I told them I had to ask for the day off from work. The doctors at the Mayo Clinic confirmed it was pancreatic cancer. They told me statistics were low for survival, but they can perform a Whipple. They told me to go home and get my affairs in order. I thought that meant figuring out where my boys will go and get packed up. The surgery was scheduled two weeks out. The surgeon called me a couple of times at my work to ask if I could come tomorrow for surgery. I told him I had to ask for the extra time off and I could be there in a couple of days. The surgery took sixteen hours, and most people take less time. I was there for three weeks. I still have no idea how bad pancreatic cancer is. Why did I need to worry? The doctors told me they do this all the time. When I went back to see the gastrologist, he said he was surprised to see me alive. I looked at him and said what? I did not know that is what the doctors had said or even thought that. I know God had his hand on me all the way.
MAMA AND ME
By Tracy Jensen-McGrath, age 64
Palm Bay, FL
We don’t have many guarantees in life. Death is in everyone’s future. Having a parent diagnosed with cancer can be a shock, but for me knowing gave me an opportunity to spend quality time with Mom and make merry memories. Not too long after Mom became a widow, after 57 years of marriage, she was diagnosed with chronic leukemia. She took Sprycel daily and her numbers were steady. Over time she was losing weight, had less energy, became forgetful and contracted COPD from 60 years of smoking. We lived 16 miles apart but saw each other twice a week and I called her twice a day. My mother did not drive, so I took her to doctor appointments, for labs and tests, to the hospital, the bank, church, 7-11, grocery shopping, hair salon, out to eat—whatever she needed and wanted. She put on a good face, but I knew it wasn’t easy for her to depend on someone else. I had to be careful not to mother her too much and let her make her own decisions even though I might not agree with them. I found myself waking up in the morning thinking what can I do special for Mom if not today then tomorrow. My goal was to make her smile as often as possible. I didn’t want to buy her gifts that weren’t meaningful anymore. Mom loved rainbows. I bought her address labels with a rainbow background. She loved the song “Amazing Grace.” I bought her a wallet embroidered with the words Amazing Grace. I took her for the first time to an all-female Roller Derby. She smiled the whole time watching the action. She met our dad at a skating rink in 1955 and it was love at first sight. We attended a city hall meeting where she was awarded a proclamation declaring Great-Grandparents Day in the town. She was thrilled. On her last Valentine’s Day, her neighbors had a pizza party which she attended with her best friend. While she was gone, I snuck in her bedroom and placed a three-foot chocolate man in bed next to her (still in the box). When she came home, she called me laughing her head off. Even though she had a sweet tooth, she never ate him. As a little girl Mom would visit relatives in Canada. Her favorite candy from there was a MacKintosh caramel bar. You can’t get them in the US. I had to special order it for her each Christmas. When she became too tired to go to church, I was able to bring her Communion (Jesus) because I am a Minister of the Sick. I’m the oldest of four. When we each turned five years old, our folks had very large portraits professionally painted of each of us. They were proudly displayed on the living room wall as we were growing up. Soon after our dad retired, they sold their home. We each received our paintings. Needless to say, mine ended up covered in my closet for years and my siblings in their basements. I asked my siblings to take a photo of their portraits and send it to me. The year before mom’s last Mother’s Day, I developed the photos on a postcard collage at Walgreens for 26 cents. She had tears in her eyes when I gave it to her. It brought her back to the early days. She loved it. A simple gift, but powerful. In her last month, I flew her from Florida to Western New York for my sister’s 60th birthday party. Four days later she was admitted to a Hospice Facility. All her children were with her as she took her last breath. She knew she was loved, appreciated, and cared about. MISS YOU MOM!
A DIFFERENCE KIND OF LABOR
By Lori Licker, age 52
I never dreamed that I would be writing an essay about my personal experience with cancer. That’s the irony of it. You never think it’s going to happen to you until it does.
Everybody’s experience with cancer is different, but there are some things that are similar. For example, most of us remember where we were when we were told “You’ve got cancer.” I was asleep early on a Saturday morning when my doctor called and said “Lori, you have leukemia, and we need to admit you to the hospital right away.” The wind was knocked out of me. It was as if I was hearing her from a distance. She was telling me about where she thought the best program was for me and that I should get a bag packed. That was it. My world would never be the same.
I was in shock. I didn’t expect the reason for my symptoms to be cancer. Regardless, my mind went into automatic mode as I heard her say I would be in the hospital at first for several weeks. My spouse and I looked at each other as I hung up the phone and then said, “We’ve got this.” We didn’t know what the journey would be like, but we focused on the things that we could do. That’s something I’ve learned to do while dealing with other challenges in my life.
It almost felt like the stories you see on TV of women who didn’t know they were pregnant but were suddenly going into labor. There was no mental preparation, and we didn’t have time to do much. So, my first thought was that I wanted to be as physically (and emotionally) comfortable as possible. I grabbed comfy pj’s and fuzzy socks. I wanted to normalize things as much as I could and at least wanted my own pajama bottoms to go with those awful hospital gowns. I certainly didn’t want to be showing my tushie needlessly. Yes. Those were my thoughts.
I also included several other things to my bag. I grabbed a throw blanket that had sentimental value and would give me comfort. I didn’t want my room smelling like a hospital, so I grabbed essential oils. I knew I wouldn’t be feeling well so I grabbed my favorite box of tea. By now you can see how my mind was working. This is how I decided I was going to find control where I could. So much was out of my control, so the seemingly little things made a big difference.
I discovered that a lot of battling cancer is a mind game. Outlook and attitude matters. Here’s how it played out for me. I was initially given a 20 percent chance of survival. My mind quickly reframed it to a familiar perspective – test taking. Coming in the top 20 percent meant I needed an “A or B.” As a former honors student, I felt that was doable. When my chances were increased to 30 percent, I felt I could relax and slide in with a “C.” I held fast to that mindset and that’s where I put all of my energy. I was blessed to have a spouse who felt the same way. I’ve overcome a lot in my life, and we were determined that this was going to be just one more thing.
Here it is today, just one month short of my five-year anniversary. I’m still in remission and grateful for every day on the planet. I hope that telling my story gives others hope or help. My number one piece of advice has always been “never give up.” We ALL have purpose. Maybe you needed to hear that today. May this be my gift to you. Pass it on. Xo
by Lois Schiessl, age 89
I retired as a Health and P.E. teacher. One day, before I retired, I was writing some information on the blackboard. Unfortunately, because I was very short and had to stand on a chair to reach the top of the board, I lost my balance and fell off the chair. I thought that I had broken a rib, so I called Doctor Graff and made an appointment. He took an x-ray. He then said, Oh, lets do an MRI. When he received the results he said,” Oh let’s do a Cat Scan. He then said, “I think that we need to do a Cat Scan. Oh, I don’t like the results, let’s do a Pet Scan.
As a result of his wisdom and knowledge, he found a pea-sized tumor on my Lung which was cancerous. He was able to remove the pea-sized tumor and left the Lung alone. That was 28 years ago. I will be forever thankful to Doctor Graff.
MY LUCKY CHARM
by Christina Tecson, age 45
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.
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