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On coping with cancer

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Posted: Sunday, October 19, 2008 10:00 pm

I wear many hats at the Lodi News-Sentinel. After being a columnist for the newspaper for nearly six years, I wrote my last column in November 2003. At the time, readers, co-workers and friends expressed concern for me. Was everything okay? Was my health good? Would I still be working at the Lodi News-Sentinel?

Touched by their concern, I assured them that I was okay, my health was good and, yes, I was still employed. My decision to quit writing a regular column had more to do with the lack of time to focus on writing rather than any specific turn of events.

So, I stopped writing and continued to live my rather normal, but busy, life.

Little did I know that six months later, I'd be faced with one of the biggest battles of my life - breast cancer.

Once the words "you have breast cancer" were uttered, I felt as if I'd been forcibly shoved down the rabbit hole. I entered a world that no longer looked, felt or sounded familiar. For months after the initial diagnosis and through the beginning stages of treatment, everything was tainted by the disease. I woke up thinking about cancer, and I went to sleep thinking about it. The idea of having cancer clouded my thoughts and it played with my emotions. I felt that if anyone looked real close, they'd see the ghostly specter of cancer oozing out of my eyes, ears and every pore of my skin. I may not have chosen the rabbit hole, but fear kept me lingering there longer than it should have after the words were uttered.

Several months after my treatment began, I suddenly realized I had to make a choice. I could continue to live my life in fear, or fight like hell. I came out of that rabbit hole with fists raised. The fight wasn't an easy one. I lost my hair, eyelashes and eyebrows. I'd always enjoyed the stamina and endurance of good health, but that was replaced by an all-consuming fatigue and weakness that was difficult to endure. I gained weight from steroids. I suffered a bout of congestive heart failure. And that all-consuming fear threatened to turn my world upside down and inside out.

I survived 21 months of treatment that included surgery, radiation treatments and two rounds of chemo. Now, four years and five months after those awful words were uttered, I am happy to report that I am cancer-free. And, more importantly, cancer no longer rules my life. I do.

But this journey hasn't been all bad. In some aspects, it's been surprisingly rewarding.

I've met some of the most remarkable people along the way. My wonderful doctors gave me cutting edge treatment. Chemo nurses are compassionate earthbound angels who willingly extend their advice, expertise and support. My contact with other breast cancer survivors, all of them truly amazing, kept me afloat when I thought I'd drown. And I am humbled to this day by the show of support extended to me by my family, friends and co-workers.

Because of my ordeal, I've been given the opportunity to put a name and face on the disease and, in turn, raise funds for the cause. I've modeled in the Pink October Survivor fashion show and my picture has appeared in the Pink October Survivor's calendar. I'm on the label of hundreds of bottles of wine for Cleavage Creek Cellars - a winery that donates 10 percent of their gross proceeds to breast cancer research and treatment. And I now speak publicly to groups about surviving breast cancer.

Who could have predicted this surprising twist of fate? Certainly not me.

In July 2005, we published a five-part series in the Lodi News-Sentinel on my breast cancer journey. I wrote the series while I was undergoing my second round of chemotherapy. I wanted readers to understand what surviving breast cancer really meant. I wanted to offer hope to the newly diagnosed. I wanted to offer, in one comprehensive guide, all the information needed to get through those first awful moments of diagnosis.

Surprisingly, writing this series was one of the toughest things I've ever done. Trying to put words together while suffering from "chemo brain" was like sucking bowling balls through a straw. But it was the emotional aspect of writing that affected me the most. It forced me to face my experiences head-on. I couldn't just let them drift away, never to be dredged up again. And, initially, the task froze me in my tracks. I found that trying to write about my experiences brought back, with vivid clarity, the sights, sounds, tastes and feelings of those early days. It was like being traumatized all over again. My epiphany came when our publisher, Marty Weybret, reminded me that the past could no longer hurt me. That freed me to write in a way that I hoped would help other women endure their own battle or their families to better understand the trials they were facing.

After hundreds of requests for reprints, we decided to reprint the series in booklet form. We began giving away free copies of the newly printed booklet in September 2005. To date, we have given away over 8,000 copies to women and organizations all over the United States. Despite our dwindling supply, we are still getting requests for copies. I don't want to disappoint anyone, so we've chosen to have the booklet reprinted again. Just the like the first time, I face the challenge of raising a little over $5,000 to cover printing costs. Last time, thanks to the generosity of some very fine people, I was able to raise that money in just three days. So enthusiastic was the response, I even had to turn financial offers of support away.

Imagine that.

This time, despite the financial uncertainty of our economy, I am no less dedicated to raising the funds to cover the cost of reprinting. The booklet helps. It educates. It comforts. It gives hope. Take my name and face out of the story and it could be the story of any woman facing the same ordeal in any part of this country.

Eventually, due to the changes in technology, medical science and breast cancer statistics, parts of my story will become out dated. But the basics of my story - the initial fear, the dawning of hope, and ultimate survival - will continue to resonate.

And I thank God every day for the opportunity to be part of it.

Theresa Larson is the administration manager at the News-Sentinel and may be contacted at 369-2761 or at theresal@lodinews.com.

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