How did you feel when you first were diagnosed with cancer?
I first had cancer in 2007 while living in Alaska. Hearing the words “ you have ovarian cancer” was surreal. Afterward, there is so much medical information to learn, crucial decisions to make and dozens of practical matters to arrange – all while you’re still in a state of shock. It’s extremely overwhelming. After treatment I remained cancer free for nine years.
Then in 2016, a couple of months before I was set to move back to California, I developed a deep cough and extreme fatigue. I saw a doctor, but I just couldn’t kick it. I thought it was the stress of preparing to move. A week before I was leaving I learned the results of a CA125 blood test were sky high. The test is a tumor marker, not specific to a particular type of cancer.
I found an oncologist as soon as I got to Cali. First appointment was 3 weeks away. Meanwhile I could barely eat, even water tasted bad, and then I couldn’t keep anything down. Thankfully, I got in a week early. My oncologist, Dr. Julie Taguchi, ordered labs, which were drawn the next morning. Later that day she called and told me the results were alarming – my calcium level was really high, my kidney function was low, and I was severely dehydrated – so I should go straight to the local ER.
I did as I was told, thinking I’d be back home soon. So I was shocked when I was told I was going to be transferred (by ambulance!) to Santa Barbara and admitted to Cottage Hospital. Next thing I knew, I was on a heart monitor, undergoing all kinds of tests. It was 4am by the time they were through with me for the night. My head was spinning from all that had happened in such a short span of time.
I was stunned to learn just how close I was to kidney failure, and that I wasn’t out of danger yet. That really shook me up. After a lymph node biopsy and PET scan, the diagnosis was in: Stage 4a Diffuse Large B-Cell Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. Chemo was set to begin as soon as my kidney function improved enough to tolerate it. I was hospitalized 12 days.
I was strangely resigned to going through the ordeal all over again. I felt like I knew what to expect. And after coming so close, I was also acutely aware that I did not want to die yet.
How did Organic Soup Kitchen’s soups help or heal you on your cancer journey?
A dear childhood friend who lives in Santa Barbara is the one who found out about OSK’s nutritional therapy for cancer patients. She signed me up and brought the soup to me each week. Back when my taste buds changed and I couldn’t eat and nothing much appealed to me, soup was one of the only foods I could tolerate. Getting such nourishing soup was an incredible gift as I struggled to endure my treatment regimen and regain my health and strength. OSK soups became the staple of my diet.
What inspired you to take actions or steps towards healing?
At first I was more terrified by the possibility of kidney failure than I was about having to battle cancer again. Hearing there was no guarantee my kidney function would improve and dialysis was a possibility rocked me to my core. When so much is out of your control you have to look to what is in your control, so I knew that I needed to do the things that have been proven to be so important to our health: eating nutritious food, being physically active, reducing stress, getting adequate sleep, etc.
Plus, the cancer/chemo wreaked havoc on my immune system, leaving me with a new chronic disease: hypogammaglobulinemia, an immune deficiency that is treated by weekly self-administered subcutaneous infusions to replace the B cells my body no longer produces. So now I am learning how to support my immune system. OSK’s soups are part of that effort. In addition, my form of lymphoma is prone to relapse, and I’ve been told I have a 25-50% chance of remaining cancer free for the rest of my life. A recurrence would almost certainly mean a bone marrow transplant, so that’s a powerful motivator to do what I can to remain healthy.
I’m not where I want to be; I am still a work in progress.
How has the entire healing process changed your outlook on life?
I’d say I am more aware of my own mortality and the fragility of life. So I choose to work at remaining positive and practice an “attitude of gratitude” every day. I also try not to sweat the small stuff. I mean, when you’ve been bald twice, there’s really not much reason to stress out over a bad hair day, right?! Too much of what we usually focus on just isn’t that important. I don’t want to waste my time on drama and negativity; I want to do things that are meaningful and can make a positive difference in the world. Being able to give back to OSK and volunteering at the OSK Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners in 2017 has been a privilege and a joy. I am semi-retired now, and one of the great blessings of this stage in my life is the increased freedom to give and to serve.
What advice would you share with others who find themselves battling cancer?
Accepting and asking for help is important. This was very hard for me – especially the first time I had cancer. For example, I had friends offer to drive me to chemo. My thinking was that if I’m able to drive, why should someone else do it? Then it occurred to me that I was denying people the opportunity to feel useful. People want to do something, so even if you’re used to doing things yourself and feel you still can, let people help. Plus, fatigue during cancer treatment is unlike anything you’ve ever experienced. Although it was hard for me to watch friends wash my dishes while I just sat there, or have people cook or shop for me, I was grateful not to have to do those things myself. Believe me, you’re not going to feel like cleaning the house. It takes a village!
Do what you need to do to nourish your body, mind and spirit. OSK soups are great for your body, of course, and the Cancer Center offers a variety of supportive programming at low or no cost, such as yoga, therapeutic massage and art therapy. I also participated in the LIVESTRONGprogram at my local YMCA, which helped me to regain strength after I completed treatment. Participating in activities with others who’ve faced cancer can be very helpful, since you are among people who truly understand what it’s like. Cancer is a tough physical battle, and it is also very tough mentally, so it’s good to have an outlet for your grief, fear and anxiety. Sometimes it’s hard to talk with your loved ones for fear of scaring or upsetting them. And it’s just so freeing to hear someone say, “me too!”
Finally, although battling cancer is serious business, maintaining a sense of humor is crucial! Not only is laughter healing, but there are plenty of absurdities you’ll likely encounter along your cancer journey. Closely related, I think, is positive thinking and gratitude. No matter what you’re going through, there is always, always something to be grateful for!