Published on September 16, 2020

Finding Hope After a Cancer Diagnosis

Rhonda GarberRhonda Garber's cancer journey started in 2014 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent radiation therapy and surgery as part of her treatment plan.

An uneventful five years passed and Rhonda felt she was in good health. Then in September 2019 she started having symptoms – mild pelvic pain, abdominal bloating and a unshakeable cough – that initially she didn’t find overly concerning.

By late October, however, her symptoms worsened and she made an appointment with Erika Hall, PA-C, her primary care provider.

“Erika determined very quickly that I needed to go to the emergency department that day,” Rhonda recalls. A CT scan and blood work helped determine that she had ovarian cancer. The news brought a whirlwind of activity.

“Two days later, I was at the cancer center seeing Dr. Richard Polkinghorn. He and my surgeon, Dr. Laurie Small in Scarborough, were encouraging and gave me hope. They explained that I had a long road ahead but told me I could get through this and they would help me,” she says.

Rhonda’s treatment started with a diagnostic laparoscopy to take biopsies and confirm her diagnosis. Through the process, Rhonda learned that her cough was caused by abdominal fluid pressing on her diaphragm. During the laparoscopy, the medical team drained it to bring her relief, a process known as paracentesis that she would have done three times.

Nine weeks of chemotherapy treatment began in mid-November 2019, followed by surgery in January 2020 and then nine more weeks of chemo.

“I had my last treatment on May 6 and have been doing great since. And I rang the milestone bell! I joked that I rang the bell off the wall, but I didn’t break anything,” Rhonda says, laughing, adding that her final treatment was celebrated by a special gathering awaiting her at the end of her session.

“I knew my husband Greg would be outside by the milestone bell with my Mom and daughter, but I was blown away when I walked out and all of my kids and grandkids were there,” she says. “That was a big deal and it was really special. Even (MaineGeneral Health President & CEO) Chuck Hays was there, and my boss and friend Margaret Naas, so that was definitely a milestone for me!”

Rhonda, one of three cancer survivors chosen as marshals for MaineGeneral's 2020 Day of Hope, could have been leveled by the news that she had cancer a second time. Instead, she used her diagnosis to take stock of her life and make some meaningful changes.

“I evaluated all aspects of my health – physical, mental, emotional and spiritual – and I started educating myself to learn what I could do to give myself every chance for healing. I changed my diet to be primarily a whole food, plant-based diet and started exercising every day, even though some days I could only do it for 15 minutes.”

“I started thinking positively and journeling about my whole cancer journey and documenting the kindnesses and blessings I experienced along the way,” she adds. “People sent me texts and scripture verses and books. They’d visit me before COVID, and they’d cook for me, knowing I was eating a very special diet. All these things were very meaningful and uplifting, and I felt supported by even the smallest gestures."

“I also have an amazing work family in MaineGeneral's Ethics and Compliance Department. Each week, I’d barely be in the treatment chair when I’d start getting their texts cheering me on, or they’d send me photos of ‘heart hands.’”

Rhonda’s takeaway to share with others facing their first cancer diagnosis is to always look for signs of hope.

“There’s hope beyond a cancer diagnosis. Nobody can take that away from you,” she says. “No matter how sick I felt or how hard things were at times, I had hope and it was such a reassurance to me.”