Survivors One And All
By Kay Stellpflug
Photos by Travis Pohl of E&M Photography
Tina Swain was having mammograms every six months when her doctor caught her breast cancer in the early stages. Tina recalls, “I remember saying to the doctor, ‘But cancer doesn’t run in our family,’ to which he replied, ‘It does now!’ My mom and her sisters never had breast cancer, but my sister did and it too was caught early.” When chemo and radiation were prescribed and treatment began, Tina said she had her dukes up and came out swinging.
“I wasn’t going to let a few dribbles of poison get the better of me. I called my mom, my sister and my daughter and asked for all their big sassy hats and scarves and I was ready. But when I took a shower and shampooed my hair and saw what appeared to be a dead poodle in the bottom of my tub, I was shocked.”
Despite that shock, Tina was upping her attitude with humor and a support system. Tina is now ten years free of cancer and feels like that experience is behind her, but also with her. She says it reminds her to tell and show others how much she loves them and to appreciate the little jewels of everyday life.
Deanna Disch also had her breast cancer detected early and admits the news took her breath away. Initially, she wasn’t going to tell anyone. “I needed to come to grips with my situation for myself before I could talk to others about it. I didn’t think I could handle talking about it until I was over the shock and in the mindset that I would be fine.”
Once she did decide to tell, she found a circle of family and friends just waiting to give her the wonderful support system she needed. “My family, Mitch, Hilary and Jake were my closest support group. My sisters were always checking in on me, as were my close friends. My brother was a big support and inspiration. He’d been diagnosed with bone cancer and had endured so much, but always kept his sense of humor and stayed positive.”
“My co-workers at Nancy’s Notions were very supportive as well. I was able to leave for appointments as needed and continue to work throughout treatments,” added Disch.
Both Tina and Deanna have been grateful for the support networks and the prompt and caring treatment they have received. Each cancer survivor has a unique set of circumstances, but all agree that they are grateful beyond words when they are told they will live to see another Christmas, another summer, another year. They rejoice when they are told, “You are clear.”
It doesn’t stop them from being haunted by the what ifs, but it does make them appreciated every day ahead. Cindy Spangler has been cancer-free now for eleven years, and she still has days where she wonders if it will return. That’s when she focuses on what she can do to be of service to others, to think beyond herself. At the same time, she says she looks death in the eye and says with humor, “I better clean my closets.”
Cindy had uterine cancer in 1999, breast cancer in 2003 and 2007, and is acutely aware of the need for a focus on health. Food, stress management and quality sleep top her list as she reiterates, “The body is not indestructible. Paint more, complain less, and live mindfully with intent,” is her advice. She adds, “And of course, clean the closets.”
Jamie Kratz-Gullickson is two-and-a-half years out from breast cancer treatment and finds herself wondering what the world would be like without her. The little things pass through her mind, like what would her husband be having for lunch and who would make the jambalaya? What cancer has done for her is made her slow down. “I take on less, say no more and do so without guilt. I enjoy the quiet for the first time in my life,” said Kratz-Gullickson.
Jamie kept journals, wrote daily about her experience and shared with others to assist those in her same position. She readily spoke of the ups and downs and is a true advocate of finding a medical team to support and inform patients all along the way. “It’s your health and your choices, but it helps when you have an insider who can help you get what you need and want.”
Ellen Sushak says, “I was diagnosed just before the start of Breast Cancer Awareness Month and I was bombarded with the words breast cancer. Of course, I was scared and it was overwhelming, but with great treatment and strong support from friends and family, I came through it all.”
“When you are in the midst of it all, it completely fills your life. It seems like it will never be gone. But then it is and life goes on, if you let it. When my treatments were over, my radiation oncologist said, ‘Now just go ahead and live your life. Put the worry behind you and don’t let it get in the way of living anymore!’ That was six years ago and priceless advice. I go religiously to my follow-ups of course, but I do not obsess about cancer on a day-to-day basis.”
Having breast cancer and treatments changes lives significantly. It’s not just the physical effects on the body like infections, skin burns, sickness, and hair loss, either. It is the fear and uncertainty that can consume. It can also make survivors feel fully alive.
For Ellen, one change now is just knowing that she gets to decide what is important and make time for it. Her too-busy life can make room for community, family and friendships as she chooses.
For Crystal Boling, who is five years cancer-free, cancer taught her to use the good China NOW. “Don’t wait to do the good stuff, do it now. I will not live forever, so I better get my priorities straight.”
She learned that she is stronger than she thought, that people are basically good and they use every opportunity to express that goodness. “People came out of the woodwork to help and support me,” Crystal said.
“I have also learned to live each day to the fullest and on my terms. I have also learned that we all have hurdles to jump, each and every one of us. So, when someone seems grouchy, don’t judge them. Give them a smile,” said Boling.
Crystal charges everyone to be a little more compassionate, knowing that there are so many hardships people face and that the challenges of others are sometimes unseen. She is so grateful for all the cards and phone calls from close friends and also from people around the community. “I know what a greeting card means; I now send more of them because a kind thought goes a very long way,” she added.
“We (women) need each other. We are good at supporting each other and we should reach out more and be there for our sisters.”
Crystal also said that women need to be vigilant and pay attention to changes in their bodies. As Cindy Spangler said to her sister Tina Swain, “Listen to your body. If you don’t, it has a way of turning the volume up!” Deanna Disch adds, “Never miss a mammogram. Cancer is easier to treat when caught early. Find a medical team you can trust and stay positive.”
Triumph over cancer and life on the other side, is what each of these strong women tell about. When Tina says, “Count your blessings, not your problems,” you know she does. Family, friendship, positive attitude, laughter, and as Cindy put it, ‘exquisite self-care’ assist in meeting the challenges of breast cancer.
Jamie Kratz-Gullickson spoke of being more cognizant of “the little ways I add so much to the world, and my worth needn’t be gauged by my output.” Each of these women add so much to the world, more than a little, and sharing their stories is part of that gift.
Tina Swain reminds us all: “My favorite part of the day is when I wake up. I know how glorious it is to see the sun, hear the birds, throw off the covers, and get out and live!”