“Working with cancer patients during the most difficult time of their lives has changed my perspective about life,” reflects Reshma Kheptal, MD, an oncologist with Augusta Health in Fishersville. “It has taught me to appreciate life deeply and understand the fact that how fragile we human beings are and yet how strong we can be during these difficult phases of our lives.”
Everyone knows someone impacted by cancer. Whether it’s your grandfather, your mom, your next-door neighbor, your best friend, or even you, it affects not only the patient in profound ways, but people around them as well.
Wendy Hewitt, 40, describes the past four months of her life as a “whirlwind.” In March, Hewitt, who lives just outside Charlottesville, was diagnosed with breast cancer following a routine mammogram. Though two cancer tumors were discovered on her right breast, she opted for a double mastectomy, which came in April. The cancer then spread to her lymph nodes, requiring radiation treatment, which she started in May. Currently, Hewitt is undergoing hormone therapy, which could last five to ten years.
When Hewitt found out she had cancer, “I was in a state of disbelief about what was really happening,” she says. “I was worried because I have a husband and two young kids. It’s been an adjustment. You have to start looking for a new normal.”
YOU HAVE TO START LOOKING FOR A NEW NORMAL. – HEWITT
Carol Hurley, 63, of Farmville, agrees. Hurley discovered she had stage 4 lung cancer in January. Hurley, a former smoker, scheduled an appointment with her physician when she started having difficulty breathing. Doctors initially thought it was allergies, then tuberculosis. It turned out to be cancer.
“When they told me, I thought, ‘Okay, I have cancer,’” Hurley says. “I wasn’t upset. I just accepted it and thought ‘I just have to do what I have to do.’”
I THOUGHT, OKAY, I HAVE CANCER… I WASN’T UPSET… I JUST ACCEPTED IT. I JUST HAVE TO DO WHAT I HAVE TO DO… – HURLEY
On an early Sunday morning in September 2015, Mauricio Esperon, 46, of Staunton drove himself to the emergency room because he was having pain in his back and trouble breathing. The doctor ordered a chest x-ray, thinking it might be pneumonia, but it wasn’t. A series of additional tests revealed that Esperon’s condition was likely much more serious.
“When the doctor came in to tell me what was going on, he was sad, and he asked me if I had someone with me before he told me the news,” says Esperon. “He offered to call my wife, but I didn’t want to trouble her. It was a bad dream that had become real.”
The doctor scheduled Esperon an emergency appointment with an oncologist for the next day. When the diagnosis came back, it was Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma.
“I asked God, ‘How can this be?’” says Esperon. “I have three small boys and my wife. What would happen to them? I started having flashes that I would not see my sons graduate from school, get married or have kids of their own. But then a peace came over me, and I turned it over to God.”
HOW CAN THIS BE? I HAVE THREE SMALL BOYS AND MY WIFE. WHAT WOULD HAPPEN TO THEM? - ESPERON
It is never easy, hearing the news that you have cancer. Minds start racing with questions and possible outcomes, even worst-case scenarios. Once the initial shock wears off, patients must focus on treatment plans, which may require spending multiple hours or days in a hospital, away from their homes and their daily routines. Life may never be the same again.
“I recommend that patients have a good understanding of where they are in the disease process, but not dwell on numbers or bad prognoses,” says Ryan Gentzler, MD, an oncologist with University of Virginia Cancer Center. “Instead, I urge them to set goals for themselves at each stage of the treatment process, be optimistic that they will have good outcomes with treatment, and take things one step at a time.”
Esperon’s treatments included six sessions of chemotherapy, one every three weeks. After he finished the chemo sessions, he had radiation 30 minutes a day for 30 days. He recalls the first chemo session at Augusta Health, which lasted twelve hours.
“That first chemo treatment was horrible,” he says. “But every session got better and better. The good thing about those days is that even though I was at the hospital, when I passed the oncology door, I would act like I was going to the beach. And everybody around me was so great too – the nurses, the office staff, other patients, everyone. I made a lot of close friendships. It helped me develop and keep a positive attitude.”
Hewitt spent a great deal of time researching her options after receiving the news she had cancer.
“The best thing you can do is inform yourself,” she says. “Empower yourself with information.”
…INFORM YOURSELF. EMPOWER YOURSELF WITH INFORMATION. – HEWITT
Hewitt underwent 28 radiation treatments for roughly one to two hours a day for five days a week at Sentara Martha Jefferson Hospital. She suffered severe side effects, including burning, fatigue and nausea, and eventually had to cut back on her work hours.
“My boss was great at working around my scheduling of doctor’s appointments,” says Hewitt.
She also relied on her family for support.
“All of my siblings and my parents have been supportive and helped me recuperate,” she shares. “My husband has also been amazing in helping me stay positive, and supporting all my decisions through this process.”
Hurley’s whole family also rallied around her during her time of need; one daughter temporarily relocated from her home in Florida to assist Hurley as she underwent treatment while a nephew made weekly trips from Washington, DC to help out. Hurley went through a 12-week experimental clinical trial this past spring that included sessions of chemotherapy as well as chemotherapy combined with immunotherapy using the antibody Pembrolizumab, or Keytruda.
“I couldn’t go from my bedroom to my bathroom without having a hard time breathing,” she says. “Then one morning, I woke up, went from the bedroom to the bathroom and back and thought ‘Oh my God, I can breathe.’ I felt so much better. The treatment was phenomenal.”
Cancer can be consuming, and it is typical to have ups and downs while undergoing treatment. Some people seek out their faith to cope, while others turn to nature, their friends and family, or use humor as a mechanism to get by.
“The best advice I can give is to be moderately active,” shares Anthony Crimaldi, MD, an oncologist at Sentara Martha Jefferson Hospital. “It helps keep the fatigue away and lessens the side effects. Also, try to keep your daily routine. There is life outside of this hospital. Journaling is good. It helps a lot of patients. Patients write down their feelings, their needs and wants, their fears, and then we can help them if we can.”
Hewitt, a Jehovah’s Witness, turned to her faith especially on bad days.
“Prayer has been a big help,” she says. “It’s made me mentally stronger. Exercise also helped me. I kept remembering that there is light at the end of the tunnel.”
“Everyday, I would repeat to myself, ‘I am not letting cancer consume me’,” says Hewitt.
I AM NOT LETTING CANCER CONSUME ME. – HEWITT
There were times, however, when, lying in bed at night, “I would cry, but I would let myself have those moments,” Hewitt says. “I would cry and then I would take a minute to let everything sink in and then think that everything is okay. That it could be worse.”
Nighttime also was difficult for Esperon, as his mind would go into overdrive thinking about the worst outcomes. During these times, he also turned to his faith in God to give him guidance and strength.
“I read my Bible every day,” says Esperon.
Esperon says that his family received a lot of help and support from people in their church, which allowed him to focus on doing what he had to do in order to get better. While his treatments took a lot out of him, he still tried to fill his days will small things when he could to keep himself busy.
“I began doing little chores around the house. Go to breakfast with men from my church. Pick up my sons after school and spend time with them,” explains Esperon. “My family and I would take walks together, laughing and being happy. I focused on the good things in my life, not my disease.”
I FOCUSED ON THE GOOD THINGS IN MY LIFE, NOT MY DISEASE. – ESPERON
Esperon says he also joined a support group at the hospital so he could learn what others were going through and in turn, share his own story in hopes it would help them.
“I know what it’s like to have bad days,” he continues. “So many other people have had it worse than me. I talked with people about how my faith in God made me stronger, made me better. To live every moment like it is the last. How building a strong spiritual foundation for your life today will prepare you for difficult situations in the future. I just hope my story helped others as much as theirs helped me.”
Esperon credits his faith in God, the support he received from people in his church, the doctors and nurses who cared for him and most of all, his wife and boys for making the darkest days of his life, brighter.
“I wouldn’t have beat cancer without God and so many wonderful people by my side,” he says. .
Hewitt agrees. “You should speak to other people about it,” she says. “Don’t hide it. Share your experiences. There are a whole bunch of people going through the same thing.”
…SPEAK TO OTHER PEOPLE. DON’T HIDE IT. TALK ABOUT IT. THERE ARE A WHOLE BUNCH OF PEOPLE GOING THROUGH THE SAME THING. – HEWITT
And try not to dwell on the negative, no matter how awful it may seem.
“I see myself as a positive person and feel that whatever happens, happens,” Hurley notes. “A few times, it has gotten to me, but I just turn on the music in my kitchen and dance, go tend to my roses, or go shopping for a new blouse. Buying a new blouse makes me happy.”
A FEW TIMES, IT HAS GOTTEN TO ME, BUT I JUST TURN ON THE MUSIC IN MY KITCHEN AND DANCE. – HURLEY
When she lost her hair as a result of the chemotherapy, Hurley turned it into “a diva moment,” she says. “I would match my caps to my outfits, and put on makeup, even if I was just going to Food Lion. That made me feel like I was going to be alright. To get up, put on my clothes, and have somewhere to go is an inspiration.”
Hurley’s cancer will never go into remission; the tumor may shrink, but it will never fully disappear. On the days when she does not have treatment, she tries to check off items on her Bucket List. She’s been to see her favorite jazz singer, Jeffrey Osborne, and visited the National Museum of African History & Culture in Washington, DC.
“I’ve always had a Bucket List,” Hurley shares. “When I first found out I had cancer, I didn’t think it possible to fulfill it, but now I feel like I can accomplish anything.”
…I FEEL LIKE I CAN ACCOMPLISH ANYTHING. – HURLEY
It’s important for patients to take each day as it comes.
“My best advice is to attempt to maintain some sense of normalcy,” Dr. Gentzler says. “A cancer diagnosis can be quite a devastating shock to an individual’s way of living. Too many changes at once can be difficult.”
The word “cancer” evokes emotions we dread the most. Fear. Uncertainty. Panic. Despair. But the one emotion that matters, the one that trumps all others, always rises to the top. Hope. Every day, people are delivered the unfathomable news of a cancer diagnosis, and every day, each finds a strength they may never knew was inside of them, and using it, they pick themselves up and prepare for the fight of their lives. It’s not easy, as Wendy, Carol and Mauricio all attest. But with people by their side – family, friends, doctors and sometimes even strangers – all sharing their pain, their plight, their purpose, a day can get better and give us new hope that another will certainly follow.
- Anthony Crimaldi, MD with Central Virginia Radiation Oncologists
- Ryan Gentzler, MD with the University of Virginia Cancer Center
- Reshma Khetpal, MD with Augusta Health Cancer Center