Finding Hope After a Cancer Diagnosis
Rhonda 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.”
Living with a Discipline of Gratitude
Before she was diagnosed with breast cancer in August 2019, Monica Castellanos didn’t know anyone with the disease or what their experiences were like.
Her diagnosis was the start of an education that she neither expected nor was prepared for.
“I was helping my partner get his house ready to sell when I got the phone call telling me I had breast cancer. The news was absolutely stunning because I was feeling really healthy,” she says. “I was exercising and feeling really good about where I was going professionally, so the news cut to my core. I kept waiting for them to tell me they had made a mistake.”
Every cancer journey is unique and Monica’s was made so, in part, because of the rheumatoid arthritis (RA) condition she has lived with for years. In fact, when she first discovered what she thought was a breast lump, she thought it was related to an RA flare-up she was having at the time.
“When I had the ultrasound, the radiologist said it probably was related to my RA because the lump wasn’t actually in my breast but rather in my lymph node. Because of my flare up, it made sense that I’d have an enlarged lymph node in my underarm,” she says, adding that a follow-up ultrasound several months later showed that the lymph node had shrunk.
But then, in early 2019, the lymph node began to grow again at a time when Monica had her RA under control. That led to another ultrasound, another mammogram, a biopsy and then her diagnosis. More tests followed – an MRI, a CT scan and a bone scan – to determine if the cancer had spread beyond her breast and lymph nodes. Fortunately it hadn’t, but Monica still faced the reality of a very aggressive form of cancer.
Six rounds of chemotherapy from September to late December 2019 were followed by surgery and then five weeks of radiation therapy, which ended in April 2020.
She now takes two immunotherapy drugs every three weeks and will continue until the end of October. And, aside from some hormone therapy, Monica hopes it will be the end of her treatment for many years to come.
While she wishes cancer wasn’t part of her life narrative, Monica, one of three cancer survivors chosen as marshals for MaineGeneral's 2020 Day of Hope, said the experience has made her more appreciative of the important things in her life. She now employs a daily “discipline of gratitude.”
“What I realized was that what was important stayed, and all of the other things just fell to the side. These were things I didn’t need, emotional stuff or physical stuff, which I got rid of,” she says. “And I started practicing the discipline of being grateful for the blessings in my life.”
“It was one neighbor cooking me things, or another coming to my house to clean the cat box regularly. It was my partner doing all the shopping and cooking,” she notes. “There was something to be grateful for every day. I don’t know if I would have gotten to this point in my life as quickly if I hadn’t had cancer. And now, on the other side of it, I feel I’ve kept the things that are really good.”
Monica also says she’s grateful for the wonderful gift of having an excellent cancer center close to home.
“I’d like to say thank you to MaineGeneral for running an amazing cancer center,” she says. “The staff is incredible and I can’t speak highly enough about this facility. I’m glad it was here when I needed it.”
Charting a different cancer future through genetic testing
Amanda White’s life experience with cancer is different than most people’s.
To hear her describe it, her cancer journey actually began in 1975 – years before she was even born.
Amanda, sadly, represents the third generation of her family to be treated for a genetically-prevalent type of breast cancer that has always appeared in the left breast and was diagnosed when the family member was relatively young.
Her grandmother was diagnosed in 1975 at age 35 and, because so much less was known about the disease nearly a half-century ago, her diagnosis came too late for her disease to be effectively treated. She died a year later.
The family’s cancer story continued years later when Amanda’s aunt was diagnosed at age 32. Six months later, it was her mother Pam’s turn. Pam fought the disease valiantly for 14 years, receiving treatment first at MaineGeneral Medical Center’s oncology unit and later at the Harold Alfond Center for Cancer Care (HACCC) when it opened in 2007. She was only 50 years old when she died in 2010.
Two years later, at age 28, Amanda discovered a lump during a breast self-exam and began her own personal experience with the disease.
“I was six months pregnant with my daughter and found a lump in my left breast while taking a shower. I assumed it was just an enlarged milk duct because I was six months pregnant; I didn’t know who to ask or talk to,” she recalls. “I brushed it off for a few weeks before I spoke with a friend about it and she encouraged me to get it checked.”
Amanda’s ob/gyn scheduled an ultrasound and, shortly after, a biopsy.
“I got a phone call a week later to meet with the surgeon. It was then I learned I had breast cancer,” she says.
Amanda consulted with Dr. Andrew Hertler, who treated her mother and formerly was medical director of oncology at the HACCC.
“I asked him what he’d recommend if I was his daughter and he recommended I have both breasts removed because of my strong family history.”
Amanda had surgery in Portland, followed by reconstructive surgery, and then chemotherapy treatment for a full year at the cancer center, followed by six weeks of radiation therapy. And all of this started two weeks after she gave birth to her daughter.
“Throughout this process, I was very proactive and could hear my mother’s voice telling me I needed to do something,” she says. “My mom was my rock and meant everything to me. She had done some genetic testing during her cancer journey and while her results were negative, Dr. Hertler and I knew there was a link because all of us had breast cancer in the left breast. So we decided to have more advanced testing done.”
Her comprehensive genetic testing results showed an abnormal link to a gene called Li-Fraumeni syndrome (LFS) – and a natural connection to many other forms of cancer beyond the breast cancer that was so prevalent in her family. One of those types is kidney cancer, which Amanda’s aunt also had later in life.
With the knowledge that her genetic testing gave her, Amanda has become a strong proponent of it – for herself, other family members and, most importantly, for her eight-year-old daughter Taylor.
“A few of my family members are afraid of genetic testing, thinking that if it comes back positive they’ve been given some sort of a cancer sentence,” she says. “I don’t feel that way. I feel I can be more aware of the cancer risks that I have in my family.”
“And now, we take a lot more precautions with regard to other types of cancers,” Amanda adds. “I would like to have genetic testing done for Taylor when she’s a little older and can better understand what it is and why we’re doing it. I want her to be aware of it but also be able to make her own decision.”
In the meantime, Amanda and her family are cherishing each day and the blessings it brings. And one of those blessings is being able to serve as one of three cancer survivors chosen as marshals for MaineGeneral's 2020 Day of Hope.
“Thankfully I’ve been cancer free for seven years. I like to think that I’m striving to go further than my Mom was able to,” she says. “Life is too short so I live it day by day and enjoy every day with my daughter.”