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The Right to be Hopeful

Carolyn, cancer survivor
Photo by Edda Pacifico

One patient's story of recurrences in the midst of a rich life

If you ask Carolyn C. about her 2005 cancer diagnosis or her recurrences since that time, there's a good chance she’ll bring up the "hit by the bus theory."

"Nobody is promised tomorrow," says the 51-year-old wife and mother of three sons. "People with cancer happen to be reminded of that more strongly. We can't let our fear of the bus get in the way."

Carolyn does not like to talk about her specific diagnosis. The last thing she wants is for people to worry or search for statistics.

"Our family views cancer as a chronic disease that needs to be managed," she says. "We talk about living with cancer. I am cancer free today and look forward to many more cancer free days. Every day is one day closer to finding a cure."

The Whitmore Lake resident has worked at the Ann Arbor Chop House for 10 years, a job she loves that accommodates her schedule as a mom and cancer patient. Her new gig as a consultant for Thirty-One Gifts is a way for her to transition out of the restaurant business, which is "for the young at heart."

Jane Deering, a social worker at the U-M Rogel Cancer Center, says that no matter what cancer brings, patients always have the right to be hopeful.

"It's always that balance of reality and being hopeful. Hope can mean different things to different people," Deering says. "Hope gets shifted when you're living with advanced cancer to more immediate goals."

Carolyn C.'s tips for living with cancer:
  • Exercise if you can. Walking around at work counts!
  • Wear hats and big earrings if you lose your hair. Own it.
  • Use humor when possible.
  • At your scans, drink the prep through a straw.
  • Focus on living with cancer, not the dark days.
  • Empower yourself however you can, through services, therapy and help from friends.

Carolyn's children were young -- only 6, 9 and 13 -- when she had a proactive hysterectomy to remove a lump in her abdomen. When the pathology report came back, she was shocked to learn she had cancer.

"The thought of not being able to raise my boys was what I struggled with the most. I prayed I'd be able to see them graduate from high school. Now I have set my goals on seeing them get married and holding grandbabies."

Carolyn's treatment over time has included surgery, radiation, chemotherapy and oral medication. She recommends accepting help when it's offered.

"My husband is my good luck charm and always goes with me for test results. It was wonderful to have help and prayers from friends and family. My mother went to chemo with me. My inlaws took our kids up north. All this help made a tremendous difference."

Deering adds that patients can take advantage of additional resources at the Cancer Center, such as counseling sessions with a social worker, Patient and Family Support Services, PsychOncology and support groups.

Cancer isn't a forbidden word in our home, it just isn't the main topic.”

"Everybody brings to their cancer experience a set of coping strategies they've used their whole lives," she says. "Acceptance is a back and forth process and coming to terms with the losses experienced along the way. It's learning how to manage the uncertainty and anxiety about the future."

Carolyn, who has worked with Deering and also practiced guided imagery, has found ways over time to make the cancer experience less stressful. She no longer panics before scans.

"Since getting my scan results is challenging, I try to see Jane (Deering) that week to talk through my fears and purge them. Anyone recently diagnosed with cancer owes it to themselves to use these services.

"Therapy has enabled me to live a positive and joy-filled life as a cancer survivor. I can go into Jane's office and cry, scream, complain and just plain feel sorry for myself. When my session is done, I pack up my proverbial cancer box and put it on her shelf. Then I go out into the world and live a happy life -- with no bus in sight."

Make an appointment with a social worker, call 877-907-0859.

Continue reading the Summer, 2014 issue of Thrive.

Continue reading about hope and cancer recurrence

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Thrive Issue: 
Summer, 2014