Cancer- a word no person wants to hear. Just over a year ago our family sat together as a doctor informed my grandmother that she had Stage 4 Ovarian Cancer. The doctor had tried unsuccessfully to surgically remove the tumors, but due to the spread of the cancer, all he could do was close her abdomen and deliver the bad news. Along with the other members of my family, the feelings of shock, disbelief, and devastation surfaced. My grandmother, Pat, had been so active and healthy! She had never been hospitalized since the birth of her children in the late 1950’s. Now our whole family faced the grim truth that Pat was in an advanced stage of cancer.
At first, Pat felt that her diagnosis was a death sentence. She lamented for days, deciding that denying chemotherapy and going home to die was her only choice. But at the last minute, an angel in the form of Nurse Judy entered her room. Judy’s positive energy and spirit lifted my grandmother and gave her hope. Judy was able to bring light into the darkness and convince Pat to at least try chemotherapy. The idea was that by trying chemo, she could make a more informed decision about whether to continue or not. With that decision made, chemotherapy was administered the next morning.
From the moment the first IV of Taxol entered Pat’s vein, her attitude changed from pessimism to optimism. She asked me to help research her cancer and treatments as much as possible. Together, we became a team, attempting to conquer this monster of a disease. Hours upon hours in the hospital room we used the internet, other patients’ stories, and especially the excellent nurses to glean information about the cancer. We grabbed onto every bit of information, no matter how small, that might help us to understand treatments, side effects, current research and future prognosis. When cancer affects you personally, you can spend days upon days surfing the internet for information and guidance to get ammunition against the invisible monster inside your body.
Little by little, Pat and I became walking encyclopedias of surgery procedures, chemotherapy, side effects, and medications. Knowing what to expect, Pat’s attitude was always energetic and positive. She took charge of her treatment, knowing what she needed to do to survive her diagnosis. The nurses loved her friendly face, and both the doctors and nurses appreciated a patient that tried to be informed and concerned for their own care. As Pat and I became knowledgeable about her care and treatment, we both felt hopeful that she would gain her life back. As the chemotherapy reduced the size of the tumors, we gained more knowledge about choices in treating cancer.
Specific foods, vitamins and exercise were our arsenal of weapons. We followed the suggested treatment protocol, but also tweaked the medications and advice without being disrespectful or undermining the doctor’s orders. Pat had felt so ill after her first surgery, she chose not to use any pain medication after a second surgery. Such a brave woman! As I sat with her for days, she seemed to not even notice the fourteen inch incision that ran through the center of her torso. That treatment decision helped her to avoid nausea, recover days sooner and return home quickly. I was inspired by her strength and mind over matter when it came time for pain tolerance and treatment rigors.
One positive aspect of having a cancer diagnosis is how the lines of communication can open up between family members. Coming together to help care for Pat, brother and sister, father and children, grandchildren and grandparents, we banded together often. The stories, laughter and camaraderie surfaced quickly among family and carried us through the hard days. One of the most memorable evenings was when my cousin, who has a clean shaven head, helped Pat shave her head. As we looked on, she at first sported a Mohawk before finishing with a complete shave. During the process of shaving, we took group family photos and ended with a “thumbs up” photo of a clean shaven Pat.
Throughout the yearlong ordeal, internet resources, doctors and nurses gave the best information. Each patient is different, with their own physical and psychological levels, but what seemed to be the best medicine was a positive attitude. Looking cancer in the eye and deciding that no matter what, you will survive is the best medicine. A second surgery removed all shrunken masses and proved that we were on the right track for treatment. The next type of chemotherapy, intraperitoneal chemotherapy, was nicked named “the washing machine” due to the 2 hour flipping process to wash the chemo drugs over internal organs. That difficult set of chemotherapy rounds was the last obstacle in her quest for survival. A CA125 blood test would clear Pat of cancer for now, but even if the cancer returns, we have come to a new realization that it is not the quantity of days you spend on earth but the quality of life you spend with loved ones.
Rhio O’Connor’s story parallels our own story of cancer and survival. Although he was diagnosed with mesothelioma and given a year to live, he used research to make informed choices and outlived his prognosis by more than six years. My family faced the same challenge that Rhio faced, and because we seem to have shared the same optimistic spirit, we chose the same path for survival. My story began even before I knew about Rhio, and yet when I found information about him at Cancer Monthly, I immediately felt a kindred spirit. I was amazed that we were living the same story as Mr. O’Connor. Through our research, we were able to succeed with an aggressive treatment. Now, instead leaving flowers at Pat’s grave, I am able to give them to her personally, along with a big hug! Rhio would have been proud not only of Pat, but of our entire family. We were handed a challenge and overcame the difficulties associated with cancer by keeping informed and staying hopeful. The future is still an option for Pat!