When Sean Skeehan mentions that a fall from a ladder helped save his life, he gets a lot of odd looks. But that fall, and the care he received as a result, helped diagnosis his neuroendocrine cancer and get him the treatment he needed.
It all started while Sean was working late on his farm in Chariton installing some electrical cabling in a barn back in the spring of 2012. He fell backwards off the ladder landing on the hard packed dirt below. He was able to call to his wife Jill who immediately took him to the emergency room. Sean sustained a broken arm and pelvis but did not require surgery. He was able to go home the next day and was walking with the help of a cane.
Within a couple of weeks of the accident, instead of feeling better and getting stronger, Sean began experiencing nausea and diarrhea, lost his appetite and all his joints ached. Upon his return trip to his physician, the doctor took one look at Sean and admitted him to the hospital for a battery of tests. It was during those tests that masses were found on Sean’s liver, pancreas, stomach and spleen. A biopsy was ordered and Sean’s concerns were confirmed: he had cancer.
Sean’s diagnosis was a unique in two ways. First, the neuroendocrine cancer he had is rare, making up less than 2% of all cancer cases. Second, Sean’s doctors believe he had carried the cancer for quite some time without experiencing many telling symptoms. Because his cancer affected his pancreas, chances are good that it was responsible for causing Sean’s type 2 diabetes diagnosis all the way back in 2006.
Treatment for Sean’s stage-four cancer was comprised of two very complicated surgeries performed by Jan Franko, M.D., a surgical oncologist from Mercy Cancer Center. Dr. Franko removed the tumors along with half of Sean’s pancreas, his gall bladder, spleen, 15% of his stomach and resecting 60% of his liver which has since grown back. Sean spent more than 60 days as an in-patient at Mercy during his cancer treatment. Aside from the surgeries, Sean also struggled with his recovery from the fall. His cancer was affecting his body’s ability to heal, limiting his use of his fractured arm. It looks months of physical therapy to regain his strength and stamina.
Through the ups and downs, Sean stayed positive and made quite an impact on his care team. The nurses on his floor got to know Sean and his family well, giving him the nickname, “the tall farmer”. According to Sean, “My interaction with everyone - from nurses, techs, doctors, residents, therapists, imaging staff, specialists, transporters, technicians, clerical staff, housekeeping, food service, counselors, students and volunteers – was compassionate and professional. I’m confident that everyone’s skill, attention to detail and smiling/positive attitude helped me recover so well from my multiple problems.”
Throughout his treatment, Sean set his mind to returning to the farm life with his crops, animals and beautiful views of his land. After recovering from surgery, Sean did exactly that. It took a while to get back his strength, but in the meantime, he had family and friends from near and far lend a hand with various chores and projects.
Reflecting back on his experience, Sean has some very particularly good advice for others going through a particularly long and difficult medical treatment. Some of those pointers include: Keeping a journal/log both during your hospitalization and your follow-up treatment; Learn the grace to accept offers of help from family, friends and neighbors; Take lots of time after your cure or treatment ends to get back to full speed; And finally, tell your friends and family what is in your heart as often as you can because none of us know when our last conversations will occur.
After being diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2006, Bill Throckmorton had a unique way of preparing for each of his radiation treatments. Some patients bring along a keepsake or wear a lucky shirt, Bill rode his bike. Not just once, or hoping on and off to say he did it, he rode his bike to every one of his 42 treatments, every time.
An active cyclist and RAGBRAI veteran, Bill used bike riding as his outlet for waging his own battle with cancer. "It's a sobering thing when a doctor tells you that you have cancer," said Throckmorton. "I decided to ride my bike to my radiation treatments every day as a way of saying to cancer, 'I can beat you’. I've always been a pretty positive person and always believed in a positive mental attitude. If you continue to grow the good things, the bad things just kind of disappear on their own" he said.
On the day of his final treatment, a cool morning in November, Bill was accompanied by a group of his rider friends for the trip from his home south-of-Grand in Des Moines to Mercy Cancer Center north of downtown. “I knew from the beginning that I needed to stay busy and as healthy and active as possible. That’s why I set the goal to ride my bike to every treatment. I met my goal and I credit my active lifestyle with helping me weather the radiation therapy with virtually no side effects.”
According to Richard Deming, MD, Medical Director at Mercy Cancer Center, it’s that commitment to being active that has helped to keep Bill healthy after his diagnosis. "When patients who will be undergoing radiation ask me if they'll be able to do the things they did before, I tell them about Bill and assure them they can," Deming said. "Bill has been an inspiration to patients he has never even met. I've never had a patient like him.”
Now retired, Bill has organized countless rides and events to raise cancer awareness and continues to inspire others waging their own battles with cancer by volunteering at Mercy Medical Center – Des Moines on the inpatient cancer treatment floor. “It’s my way of giving back !”
Jennifer was diagnosed with stage IIIC breast cancer and Paget’s disease in April 2012 at the age of 34. She had discovered a lump only a week earlier while removing her bra preparing for bed. As the mother of three children, her diagnosis was a whirlwind for her family. One moment, they were preparing for a long-awaited family vacation to Florida. The next, Jennifer and her husband were explaining cancer, going to doctor visits and preparing for the battle that lay ahead.
In May 2012 Jennifer underwent a bi-lateral mastectomy and started 20 weeks of chemo therapy shortly thereafter. Chemo was extremely difficult as Jennifer was receiving 2 drugs in each treatment. “I experienced terrible nausea and everything smelled awful for a few days. Lucky for me, I never went to treatment alone. There was always a friend or family member there.” said Jennifer.
During her chemotherapy, Jennifer met a fellow breast cancer patient named Pam. They had similar diagnosis and became fast friends. Mercy Cancer Center coordinated their chemo and radiation therapy sessions to take place on the same day and time so they could be together. Pam and Jennifer drew support from each other, and talked through their experiences. Jennifer remarked, “Pam really understood what I was going through and was quick to call or text, asking how I was feeling. Because of her friendship, those treatments were something I looked forward to, as opposed to dreading.”
In February 2013 Jennifer completed her treatment and was cancer-free. In March, Jennifer and her family finally were able to take the vacation to Florida they had wanted, with a bread new perspective. She explains being in remission is sometimes scary. “I try not to dwell on the dreaded question of when or if the cancer will come back. I just take it one day at a time and do my best to move forward with my life.”
While suffering through bloating, menstrual pain and fatigue in 2011, 47-year-old Robyn chalked up the symptoms to the onset of menopause. With two adult daughters, a 12-year-old son and a 1-year old grandson, what else could it be? “I didn’t think going to the doctor to hear ‘you are just getting older’ was necessary.” However, one morning, Robyn could not go to the bathroom at all and wondered if it was something more than just age.
After meeting with her doctor and undergoing a battery of tests, a large mass was discovered on her right ovary, which was affecting her bladder. Blood tests were inconclusive so a hysterectomy was recommended to find out if the mass was cancer. “Two things really scare me: first is the thought of losing a child or grandchild, the second is the ‘C’ word.” After waking up from surgery, one of those fears came to fruition. Robyn had ovarian cancer.
Chemotherapy was recommended to contain the cancer. For 18 weeks, her routine revolved around driving to Mercy Cancer Center for treatment, then returning to Audubon County Memorial Hospital to receive fluids.
“Ovarian cancer does not have good statistics. After my diagnosis, I thought about my grandbaby and whether or not I was going to die.” What carried her through that difficult time was Robyn’s faith, strength and family. “I have always been independent and stubborn. I came to realize I could not do this on my own. Cancer does not give you that option. My husband was unbelievable through the process. He took care of our son, our home and me.”
Robyn had her last chemo treatment in May 2012 and now undergoes testing every three months and submits to monthly blood test as well. Robyn says it is easy to question things after cancer. “I think it’s simple to ask ‘why?’ But, I think for me it’s so I can be a voice. If my story and my journey can help even one person, then it was all worth it.”
Marcelino a.k.a “Marce"
Marcelino, or “Marce” as he is called by his many friends, never seems to have met a stranger. Serving in the Navy and working 31 years for the Federal Aviation Administration – his travels took him all over the world, crossing paths with countless people he is proud to call friends. Maybe it’s due to his warm smile or ability to weave a good story. If you ask Marce, it’s all about treating others as you want to be treated. After all, even perfect strangers could wind up being your best friend in the right situation.
That positive attitude has served him well – even when facing the impact cancer has had on his life and the lives of his loved ones. In 2004, Marce’s mother died of cancer and in 2007 his wife of 30 years lost her battle with ovarian cancer. Even in that time of grief, Marce choose to help others before helping himself. He started a grief support group at a local hospice. It was there he met Ginny, who was mourning the loss of her husband to a brain tumor. They each helped the other through their loss, became close and fell in love. They got engaged and now celebrate the lives of the loved ones they’ve lost far too soon.
In Marce’s own battle with metastatic merkel cell, his positive attitude has not changed. He views his appointments with Dr. Voynov at Mercy Cancer Center as an opportunity to visit with friends and spread some cheer to other cancer patients. According to Marce, “If I can bring a little joy or hope to someone else, it makes my day.”
When Pam was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 2002, she fought tooth and nail to beat the disease. It was an exhausting process, but in the end, she was proud to call herself a cancer survivor. When she was diagnosed with cancer for a second time in early 2012, she immediately feared the worst. She recalls, “Leading up to my second cancer diagnosis, I was working long hours and had delayed my routine screenings as a result. I was told I had stage III breast cancer in February 2012 and at first, I didn’t think I’d be around come Christmas.”
Between Pam’s diagnosis in February and her mastectomy in March, she dealt with the stress of not knowing what her future held. Once her mastectomy was complete, Pam, her husband Richard and her physicians were able to lay out a treatment plan that gave her the best chance at recovery. It included 20 weeks of chemo and 38 radiation treatments. Being a meticulous planner, it was difficult handing over control to someone else. “When you are diagnosed with an advanced cancer, you have to make decisions quickly with people you don’t know. I learned to trust my doctors and nurses at Mercy to put together a plan. They did a phenomenal job and bent over backwards to accommodate my input.”
It was during her radiation treatments that Pam met another breast cancer patient named Jen. They had a similar diagnosis and treatment schedules. Having another patient to visit with during her chemo and radiation treatments made the grueling process easier to handle. They became fast friends and became their own support group. If Jen was having a bad day, Pam was there to cheer her up. Jen returned the favor anytime Pam was down.
Pam also received unexpected support from coworkers and friends during her treatment. “There were people that called to check in on me or sat with me during treatment I never would have guessed cared as much as they did. All that support gave me strength.” On Jan. 13, 2013, Pam had her final radiation treatment and is currently cancer-free. She is now focusing on regaining her strength through classes at the YMCA Healthy Living Center and attends the LIVESTRONG Cancer Education series each Wednesday evening at the Y. She also plays a new role as a cancer advocate, offering support for other survivors and assisting with different cancer causes.
Dana was a normal 19-year-old before she diagnosed with melanoma. She had graduated from high school, gotten a “real job” and was thinking about what her future held. She was healthy, active and never really one to get sick. She had no noticeable symptoms until a coworker noted that her neck looked a bit swollen. Shortly after, Dana could feel a small ball forming in her neck. It scared her, so she didn’t go to the doctor until she started to feel light-headed whenever she would turn her head.
Hearing that she had cancer was truly a worst case scenario for Dana. When you’re a teenager, you don’t and shouldn’t have to think about being diagnosed with cancer. Telling family was difficult, but proved to be a blessing. “Once I realized what was happening, I was terrified. I called my mother right away. I needed their support and am blessed to have such a wonderful family.”
Another source of support after her diagnosis and during her treatment was her employer and co-workers. “I looked forward to having someplace to go every day where I was important and normal. My co-workers raised money to help pay for living expenses and my company was flexible with my hours. They showed plenty of concern, but didn’t baby me, which I really appreciated.”
As she went through treatment and her condition improved, Dana gained a new perspective. “Through this process, I’ve learned to listen to my intuition more. If you believe everything will turn out for the best – it probably will. Her advice for others struggling with a cancer diagnosis? “Eat when you’re hungry, sleep when you’re tired, have fun when you want to, and cry when you need to. Being sick doesn’t omit you from the human experience.”
In Jan. 6, 2011, Madonna received the devastating news she had breast cancer. What followed was a bilateral mastectomy, 20 weeks of chemotherapy, followed by weeks of radiation. Her mantra during her treatment was, “Courage isn’t always a lion’s roar. It is sometimes the heart at the end of a day saying I will try again tomorrow.” No matter how difficult the challenge or how many times she might have stumbled, Madonna always rose up to face the challenge, never backing down.
Exactly one year after her diagnosis, Madonna undertook an entirely different, but equally difficult, challenge. She and 18 other cancer survivors, ages 29 to 73, and 21 caregivers trekked through five ecosystems to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, the highest peak on the African continent and the tallest free-standing mountain in the world. The journey was coordinated by Above and Beyond Cancer, a nonprofit organization established to reduce the burden of cancer. “That was a very emotional experience,” Madonna Nichols says. “I’m so glad I did it. Cancer changes your perspective on things. We bonded as a group and have kept in touch since.”
Determined to overcome even more obstacles, Madonna participated this past June in Coast to Coast for Cancer, a 4,000 mile marathon across the country. She, her husband and son ran a 26.2 mile leg of the journey to raise funds and awareness for cancer. Madonna certainly has shown that no matter the challenge, be it cancer, a tall mountain or a long road, she has the courage to rise to the challenge.