- Above and Beyond: Cancer Survivor Trek to Africa
- Above and Beyond: Cancer Survivor Trek to Everest
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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.
In July 2012, Paige’s symptoms began with intense migraines and progressed to bouts with double vision that eliminated her ability to drive. Physicians suspected an abscess, infection or tumor, and brain surgery was the only way to pinpoint the cause. Surgery at Mercy Medical Center revealed a tumor, melanoma of the brain.
The tumor was removed and Paige underwent weeks CyberKnife radiation and chemotherapy treatment. Although to Paige, even after surgery and an intense regimen of treatment, she doesn’t feel like she has cancer. Upbeat throughout treatment, Marrero received extra help from Mercy’s palliative care program. The program helps to fill a need for patients who do not have to be admitted but still need to manage pain associated with their treatment.
Because her pain has been kept under control, Paige is able to keep an active schedule. She is a reminder to us that all cancer patients are heroes regardless of whether their cancer is curable. Paige shows us that its always about living the life to the fullest.