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Cancer Interviews

Sharing the Journey

Episode 9 - Chad Andrus - Denver, Colorado - USA - Survivor - Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma

SHOW NOTES:


Bruce Morton: Greetings and welcome to the Cancer Interviews podcast. I’m your host, Bruce Morton, and on this segment we will graced by the energetic presence of Holly Witulski, from Denver, Colorado. Holly was diagnosed with, and beat, Hodgkin lymphoma. We hope you will find Holly’s story to be informative and inspirational. So now, from the splendor of her backyard, here she is. Holly, welcome to Cancer Interviews.


Holly Witulski: Hi. How’s it goin’?


BM: Just fine, Holly, and the first thing we want to do, standard procedure on these interviews, we want to know more about you, so, if you would, tell us where you are from, your life’s work and some of the stuff you like to do in your leisure time.


HW: I am originally from New Jersey. I have lived in Colorado since 1990, I live in Northwest Denver, have a lovely yard that I am talking to you from today, one of my passions and my dear loves is where we live and our home. I am married and we have a son. My previous corporate life is that I quit my corporate life to be a stay-at-home mom when my son was born almost eleven years ago, which would be 2009, and I was a stay-at-home mom for the first 18 months of my son’s life, then became a barista at a large chain, green apron corporate coffee company since 2010, and I am the benefits provider for my family, and we have a good little system, so there you go.


BM: So we have a common bond. We both moved from New Jersey to Colorado. What brought you to Colorado?


HW: My father lived here. My parents divorced when I was in seventh grade, around 1984, so I went back and forth to Colorado for many years. So after my freshman year of college, I came out here for the summer and didn’t want to leave. I found myself in Colorado.


BM: I want to ask you about being a barista. I used to have a co-worker at a previous job who decided she needed some supplemental income and became a barista, but she couldn’t keep pace with the other baristas who could make fancy designs atop their caffeinated beverages. She would try to make a heart and it come out like an octagon or some sort of blob. I am guessing after all these years, you are pretty good at making these designs atop your beverage, yes?


HW: I am terrible at it, I don’t even try. But you know what? I make a darn good drink! So, for me, I know how to steam milk, and that’s a really important thing in how your drink tastes. I have worked for my company for almost ten years, and I still coffee with half and half. I just a coffee with cream kinda gal, and people think that is so surprising, but I never drink the other stuff.


BM: But for the stuff you do drink and make, you do put your heart and soul into it.


HW: Absolutely. My job is like a community. It’s my adult life away from home. This is my day family, my morning people.


BM: Now let’s jump ahead to the days just before you were diagnosed. Describe your life at that time, because I am guessing you were in pretty good health.


HW: I was in great health, but I didn’t know what I was doing with my life, I was in my mid-20s, I-have-got-to-get-my-act-together phase. I was actually unemployed when I found out I had cancer. I had just lost my job, but I had a prospect in the works, I had an application in for a job with a satellite television company and that got cut short by my diagnosis. I actually found out I had cancer in 1996 about three months after I had lost my job and I didn’t have health insurance. It was crazy. Life changed when I was 25 years old.


BM: You’ve described a stressful situation, between lack of work and suddenly your health. How difficult was that?


HW: It was very difficult. There was that level of fear and despair is very real for every scenario, so it was scary.


BM: Did you receive any kind of warning signs from your primary care physician that something was not normal?


HW: I don’t think so. I had so much stress in my life, and the way I was living my life at the time, I chalked every possible symptom up to, it could have been something other cancer. The signs and symptoms of night sweats and low-grade fever coming and going, unexplained weight loss. I had an explanation for everything. I had some stupid 25-year-old crazy diet in which I would eat one meal a day and just pack it in. It was the dumbest thing, but I tried to regulate my calorie intake, so I thought I was losing weight because of this diet I was on. And then, low-grade fever? I thought maybe I was aware of my body and I was ovulating. Exhaustion? I was working little odd jobs here and there at weird times of the day or night, and I chalked up my exhaustion to that. Those symptoms, they don’t just go away, they come and go, then they all come at the same time, and that, I believe, is when I started to not feel well. My neck was swollen, and someone else pointed it out to me.

BM: So in the midst of all that, did you go to a specialist, an oncologist?


HW: I first went to my primary care physician, and remember, I didn’t have insurance. He looked at my neck and said I could have a clogged hair follicle. You could have an ingrown hair that is causing some kind of blockage resulting in an infection in your lymph nodes and that is likely what it is. So he sent me home with a prescription for antibiotics, then sent me for a chest x-ray. He said it could be lymphoma, but that was unlikely, and a worst case scenario, so I will call you the next day, he said. I went for a chest x-ray and thought if I am going to die, I’ll find out tomorrow, and I said this to myself sarcastically, I really didn’t have a fear of it in my heart and soul. Then the next day, the call didn’t come right away, so at 2:30pm, I called the doctor’s office, let them know I was waiting for a call, and three hours later, my doctor gave me a call. He said he had been on the phone throughout the day helping to set me up for an appointment at University Hospital with a caseworker to take care of my health needs, financially, because I was unemployed and I needed to be in the charity care system. I had worked since I was 14 years old. I am a worker. At age 25, you just don’t think about your life falling apart from not having health insurance, until you need it. My doctor thought it was Hodgkin lymphoma. I had a golf ball in my neck where the swelling was, and I had a grapefruit in my chest where my organs were, pressing against them. So I started to see a doctor at University Hospital. I was really well taken care of.

BM: So what was the first phase of your treatment?


HW: So I wasn’t treated in Colorado. I was unemployed, had a roommate and needed care. My whole family, my whole network, was back in New Jersey, so I moved back there. My mother had a friend who was allergist at UMDNJ, University of Medicine and Dentistry, which is in Newark, New Jersey. I grew up in Springfield, New Jersey, which is in the New York metro area. This allergist shared an office with Pedro Gascon, who is an oncologist. He is a brilliant man, who is looking for a cure for sickle cell anemia. He was my oncologist, and that’s where I was treated. I had an amazing experience there.


BM: At some point, did chemo become part of the regimen?


HW: Yes. I had eight rounds of chemotherapy over an eight-week period, every two weeks, followed by five weeks of radiation therapy, five days a week.


BM: For you, how tough was the chemo?


HW: I just feel lucky, I mean, I am really lucky. I had a textbook case of Stage 2B Hodgkin lymphoma. I was diagnosed in 1996, my last radiation treatment was in September of that year. As for the chemo, it was an experience. I never threw up. I didn’t get sick. I knew I was going to lose my hair, and I lost my hair, and that’s one of the most emotional pieces. The shadow of the shape of your head changes when you lose your hair, you notice it. I slept a lot. With the beginning of each chemo round, I would come home and sleep for almost an entire day. I ate and I got really fat, because they put steroids in the chemotherapy and there’s anti-nausea medication. It is so much more than losing your hair and throwing up, which is what people associate with chemo. Steroids make you uncomfortable and throw up, and you feel terrible and exhausted and you look weird and you can get mouth sores. I had terrible, terrible mouth sores. So chemotherapy for me was terrible for 24 to 36 hours, but then I came out of it. And then on the off weeks, I worked at a restaurant in New Jersey where one of my girlfriends got me a job as a hostess. So while I underwent chemotherapy I would not work the first three days of the week after getting the treatment and then work the remaining four days of the week, then the next week I would work 40 hours. I wanted to work. I wanted to be in contact with people. That was a time in my life in which needed people to not treat me differently. I needed people to be in my life. I needed tenderness and kindness and a little more forgiving, but I needed to be me and I wanted to be a human being and live my life. I was able to do that. I was so grateful that I went home to Springfield. I had my family, my friends, the town I grew up in, 25 minutes from New York City, plus this whole family of people that I worked with, that became my rock, my emotional platform. In addition, I had these incredible doctors in this teaching university. I needed to know where I stood with people, and I am so glad I was back East for my treatment. At the same time, I was glad that afterward I was able to move back to Colorado, because this is my home.

BM: Holly, how good were your family and friends in terms of taking care of you because when one is diagnosed with lymphoma, they cannot take care of themselves by themselves.


HW: I moved back into my mother’s home and I lived with my mom in the house I grew up in. Springfield is close to Newark, New Jersey, where I was treated, but it was traumatic. My mom and I have a difficult relationship and I love my mother very dearly, but we just get along better when we don’t live together. So it was really hard and I felt like being 16 years old, and I was constantly arguing with my mother, but we figured it out. We would drive to Newark together and go for my treatments. She was amazing, and my chemotherapy. For me, when I went for chemotherapy, it was regimented. As long as your blood count is okay, and you are well enough to receive treatment, you kind of see the same people every week. So that was my hive, my hospital people, the people in my chemotherapy unit, the nurses. Chemotherapy nurses are angels.

BM: If you would, elaborate on that, just how angelic these nurses were. What was their presence like in this phase of your treatment?


HW: I think you have to be soft as a pillow on the inside and tough as nails on the outside, which is what they were. They are just amazing people. I cannot explain and I hope not too many people have to experience it. There’s just something special about someone that is that selfless. If you could look through the window into a chemotherapy unit and you were looking through the glass and you saw nurses caring for patients, you would have no idea, the joy in the conversation, and they become your people, and they became my mom’s people, too. My mom would bring them food.


BM: Holly, did this experience bring you and your mother closer?


HW: No, it actually didn’t bring my mother and I closer. I admit I didn’t have the proper perspective for what my mom was experiencing as a parent, whose child has cancer. I had no empathy for my mother’s emotional need because I had to be present for myself, so I could gain strength and be as healthy as take care of my mental state as well. We really had to take care of ourselves, so it did not bring us closer together, but we are closer together now than we were then, so that’s good.


BM: So there’s the chemo phase and the radiation phase and I want to get to the radiation phase in just a sec, but how would you describe your sense of triumph once the chemo phase was done?


HW: After a big chunk of my chemo treatments, I went in for a CT scan to see how the mass in my chest had reacted to the chemotherapy. And I remember they told me I needed another round of chemo. After that, I think my feeling of jumping from chemo to radiation was a little bit of worry. There was frustration as I was tired of chemotherapy. I did not have a port in my neck for the chemo to go through. When you receive chemo on a weekly basis, it is really hard on your veins, and I just felt so poked and prodded with everything that had been done that I didn’t want a port. So they used my veins and it wasn’t a good experience. So between the experience of having to do this again and the fear that could this be something else, that type of fear? I wasn’t completely settled, but once I got into the radiation phase, I could see a home stretch coming, and it was pretty good, and a whole new set of doctors. I was moved to the radiation therapists and the radiation oncologists. They became a whole new family to me, which was pretty awesome.


BM: So the radiation treatment was easier on you than the chemo, correct?


HW: In a sense, yes. I could drive to the radiation therapy by myself, and I did. My mom is a nurturer, and I need a little bit from my mom, but not a lot. Going to the treatments, five days a week, 25 minutes away in downtown Newark, is stressful. We just don’t need to spend that much time in a car together, so driving by myself, I felt like I could spread my wings a little. And I now was starting to feel better. Night sweats, fever, all of that goes away, while the chemo is wreaking havoc on the rest of your body. So I started to feel better. Again, textbook case, Hodgkin lymphoma. So, radiation was my home stretch, but it was really hard on my skin. I was radiated from the bridge of my nose to the bottom of my ribcage. My radiation came from a machine called, I think, a linear accelerator. It’s weekly, it’s quick, but they have to take the time to get you in just the right position. They gave you these pin prick tattoos, so they could precisely aim where the radiation was supposed to go. So I had these horrendous sores on the side of my tongue, so you don’t realize how the slightest movement, or if you begin a swallow, the pain was excruciating. I couldn’t move my head. If I moved to stand up, there was tremendous pain and it depleted my salivary glands. So, the hair loss was bad, but this mouth pain was worse. I couldn’t even be social, I couldn’t talk with people, and talking is my chicken soup, so that was tough for me, physically and emotionally. I still have dental issues, which I have had since the radiation treatment, but I am still cancer free.


BM: That’s a good to hear. Now earlier we were talking about indicators that something might be wrong. Can you recall indicators that made you feel as though you were getting the upper hand on this cancer?

HW: Yes, there were. Everything was behaving the way it needed to. After radiation therapy was complete, I continued to work. September 19 was my final treatment, and I remember in November I had a doctor’s appointment with my radiation oncologist, and that’s when I was given the green light to move back to Colorado. I was then passed back to the doctor who diagnosed me at University Hospital, and remains my oncologist who has never treated me. Isn’t that crazy? I have seen for CT scans, blood draws, chest x-rays, anything else I have had over the years, any scares I have had. So I moved out less than 30 days later, in December.


BM: So, Holly, how awesome was it to put all this behind you and resume a normal life?


HW: For me, it was amazing. For my mom, it was really tough. Of course, my mom wanted me to be well, but my mom is a nurturer. My mom knew I was leaving. I was home for nine or ten months, then I was right back to being 2,000 miles away, so that was really hard for my mom, and until I had a child of my own, I had no idea what it was like to be a parent of a child. I am a crier, and I come from a long line of criers, which is really hard, but really great, also.


BM: You might have already answered because you already becoming a mom, but once you got past cancer, is there anything you did to celebrate this accomplishment?


HW: Yeah, I got a job! I called the HR recruiter I had spoken to at the time I was diagnosed, which was a crazy story in and of itself. I was diagnosed in March of 1996, and I was offered a job and going to start in two or three weeks. Then I had to call this recruiter and tell her that I had cancer and was moving back to New Jersey for treatment. My fear was immediately was how do you hire someone who has cancer? How do you get a job again? Do people think you are going to die on the job? Thank God I was not a health risk, and I am not, but I called the recruiter to make sure I had a job. So I moved back to Colorado, lived with friends, started my job, got on my feet, and I had a whole new tribe. It was a mix of my friends from before I had cancer, and then people I met when I moved back close to a year later. It’s hard to imagine in a year’s time what you go through and put up with and put behind you. I am lucky, I am just so lucky.


BM: And how great is life now? You have a family, you have your health, you have a job you like, and a great circle of friends. How great is it to have all those things going for you now?


HW: It’s great. I have a great life. We are not big and fancy. We are really fortunate. I have an amazing husband that I met at the job I got when I moved back to Colorado in January 1997, the job with the satellite company. I have known him since three months after I beat cancer, and I was really fortunate that I was able to have a baby. Chemotherapy can keep that from happening, so I feel very lucky. I love our son’s school, we love where we live, we have the most phenomenal neighbors and community. We have never expanded our lives and our dwelling to become something beyond what we could continue to afford, and I feel very thankful that we can stay put and be happy and be healthy. We are okay, we are tight and we are good. I’m lucky, I am so lucky, I feel very happy to work in a coffee shop and work for a large company that allows me to be home on catastrophe pay because I am a mother of a child of school age.


BM: Holly, we want to wrap up now, but as you look back on your cancer experience, and if can visualize talking face to face with somebody who has just been diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma, if you would like to share one takeaway from your experience, what would it be?


HW: Well, there is no shame in whatever it is you are going through, so let people help and you have to learn how to say ‘thank you’, and if you need somebody’s help, let them help you. And get comfortable with saying ‘thank you,’ and not apologizing for having to say ‘thank you.’ That’s a big piece of advice. You need to be your own advocate. Ask questions, take notes, understand why you are taking medication. It may be good or bad, but you have to understand why you experience certain side effects. You have to stay on top and be in touch and listen to your body. Try not to live in fear, try to be self-aware, and nurture your body, your mind and your soul.


BM: Okay, Holly, thanks for your story, your advice and a story with a happy ending. Once again, Holly, thanks so much.


HW: Thank you. I have really enjoyed getting to talking about this.


BM: And as you listen, we remind you, we join you as a team, as you address your cancer journey, so until next time, we’ll see you on down the road.


Bruce Morton: Greetings and welcome to the Cancer Interviews podcast. I’m your host, Bruce Morton, and on this segment we will graced by the energetic presence of Holly Witulski, from Denver, Colorado. Holly was diagnosed with, and beat, Hodgkin lymphoma. We hope you will find Holly’s story to be informative and inspirational. So now, from the splendor of her backyard, here she is. Holly, welcome to Cancer Interviews.

Holly Witulski: Hi. How’s it goin’?


BM: Just fine, Holly, and the first thing we want to do, standard procedure on these interviews, we want to know more about you, so, if you would, tell us where you are from, your life’s work and some of the stuff you like to do in your leisure time.


HW: I am originally from New Jersey. I have lived in Colorado since 1990, I live in Northwest Denver, have a lovely yard that I am talking to you from today, one of my passions and my dear loves is where we live and our home. I am married and we have a son. My previous corporate life is that I quit my corporate life to be a stay-at-home mom when my son was born almost eleven years ago, which would be 2009, and I was a stay-at-home mom for the first 18 months of my son’s life, then became a barista at a large chain, green apron corporate coffee company since 2010, and I am the benefits provider for my family, and we have a good little system, so there you go.


BM: So we have a common bond. We both moved from New Jersey to Colorado. What brought you to Colorado?


HW: My father lived here. My parents divorced when I was in seventh grade, around 1984, so I went back and forth to Colorado for many years. So after my freshman year of college, I came out here for the summer and didn’t want to leave. I found myself in Colorado.


BM: I want to ask you about being a barista. I used to have a co-worker at a previous job who decided she needed some supplemental income and became a barista, but she couldn’t keep pace with the other baristas who could make fancy designs atop their caffeinated beverages. She would try to make a heart and it come out like an octagon or some sort of blob. I am guessing after all these years, you are pretty good at making these designs atop your beverage, yes?


HW: I am terrible at it, I don’t even try. But you know what? I make a darn good drink! So, for me, I know how to steam milk, and that’s a really important thing in how your drink tastes. I have worked for my company for almost ten years, and I still coffee with half and half. I just a coffee with cream kinda gal, and people think that is so surprising, but I never drink the other stuff.


BM: But for the stuff you do drink and make, you do put your heart and soul into it.


HW: Absolutely. My job is like a community. It’s my adult life away from home. This is my day family, my morning people.


BM: Now let’s jump ahead to the days just before you were diagnosed. Describe your life at that time, because I am guessing you were in pretty good health.


HW: I was in great health, but I didn’t know what I was doing with my life, I was in my mid-20s, I-have-got-to-get-my-act-together phase. I was actually unemployed when I found out I had cancer. I had just lost my job, but I had a prospect in the works, I had an application in for a job with a satellite television company and that got cut short by my diagnosis. I actually found out I had cancer in 1996 about three months after I had lost my job and I didn’t have health insurance. It was crazy. Life changed when I was 25 years old.


BM: You’ve described a stressful situation, between lack of work and suddenly your health. How difficult was that?


HW: It was very difficult. There was that level of fear and despair is very real for every scenario, so it was scary.


BM: Did you receive any kind of warning signs from your primary care physician that something was not normal?


HW: I don’t think so. I had so much stress in my life, and the way I was living my life at the time, I chalked every possible symptom up to, it could have been something other cancer. The signs and symptoms of night sweats and low-grade fever coming and going, unexplained weight loss. I had an explanation for everything. I had some stupid 25-year-old crazy diet in which I would eat one meal a day and just pack it in. It was the dumbest thing, but I tried to regulate my calorie intake, so I thought I was losing weight because of this diet I was on. And then, low-grade fever? I thought maybe I was aware of my body and I was ovulating. Exhaustion? I was working little odd jobs here and there at weird times of the day or night, and I chalked up my exhaustion to that. Those symptoms, they don’t just go away, they come and go, then they all come at the same time, and that, I believe, is when I started to not feel well. My neck was swollen, and someone else pointed it out to me.

BM: So in the midst of all that, did you go to a specialist, an oncologist?


HW: I first went to my primary care physician, and remember, I didn’t have insurance. He looked at my neck and said I could have a clogged hair follicle. You could have an ingrown hair that is causing some kind of blockage resulting in an infection in your lymph nodes and that is likely what it is. So he sent me home with a prescription for antibiotics, then sent me for a chest x-ray. He said it could be lymphoma, but that was unlikely, and a worst case scenario, so I will call you the next day, he said. I went for a chest x-ray and thought if I am going to die, I’ll find out tomorrow, and I said this to myself sarcastically, I really didn’t have a fear of it in my heart and soul. Then the next day, the call didn’t come right away, so at 2:30pm, I called the doctor’s office, let them know I was waiting for a call, and three hours later, my doctor gave me a call. He said he had been on the phone throughout the day helping to set me up for an appointment at University Hospital with a caseworker to take care of my health needs, financially, because I was unemployed and I needed to be in the charity care system. I had worked since I was 14 years old. I am a worker. At age 25, you just don’t think about your life falling apart from not having health insurance, until you need it. My doctor thought it was Hodgkin lymphoma. I had a golf ball in my neck where the swelling was, and I had a grapefruit in my chest where my organs were, pressing against them. So I started to see a doctor at University Hospital. I was really well taken care of.


BM: So what was the first phase of your treatment?


HW: So I wasn’t treated in Colorado. I was unemployed, had a roommate and needed care. My whole family, my whole network, was back in New Jersey, so I moved back there. My mother had a friend who was allergist at UMDNJ, University of Medicine and Dentistry, which is in Newark, New Jersey. I grew up in Springfield, New Jersey, which is in the New York metro area. This allergist shared an office with Pedro Gascon, who is an oncologist. He is a brilliant man, who is looking for a cure for sickle cell anemia. He was my oncologist, and that’s where I was treated. I had an amazing experience there.


BM: At some point, did chemo become part of the regimen?


HW: Yes. I had eight rounds of chemotherapy over an eight-week period, every two weeks, followed by five weeks of radiation therapy, five days a week.


BM: For you, how tough was the chemo?


HW: I just feel lucky, I mean, I am really lucky. I had a textbook case of Stage 2B Hodgkin lymphoma. I was diagnosed in 1996, my last radiation treatment was in September of that year. As for the chemo, it was an experience. I never threw up. I didn’t get sick. I knew I was going to lose my hair, and I lost my hair, and that’s one of the most emotional pieces. The shadow of the shape of your head changes when you lose your hair, you notice it. I slept a lot. With the beginning of each chemo round, I would come home and sleep for almost an entire day. I ate and I got really fat, because they put steroids in the chemotherapy and there’s anti-nausea medication. It is so much more than losing your hair and throwing up, which is what people associate with chemo. Steroids make you uncomfortable and throw up, and you feel terrible and exhausted and you look weird and you can get mouth sores. I had terrible, terrible mouth sores. So chemotherapy for me was terrible for 24 to 36 hours, but then I came out of it. And then on the off weeks, I worked at a restaurant in New Jersey where one of my girlfriends got me a job as a hostess. So while I underwent chemotherapy I would not work the first three days of the week after getting the treatment and then work the remaining four days of the week, then the next week I would work 40 hours. I wanted to work. I wanted to be in contact with people. That was a time in my life in which needed people to not treat me differently. I needed people to be in my life. I needed tenderness and kindness and a little more forgiving, but I needed to be me and I wanted to be a human being and live my life. I was able to do that. I was so grateful that I went home to Springfield. I had my family, my friends, the town I grew up in, 25 minutes from New York City, plus this whole family of people that I worked with, that became my rock, my emotional platform. In addition, I had these incredible doctors in this teaching university. I needed to know where I stood with people, and I am so glad I was back East for my treatment. At the same time, I was glad that afterward I was able to move back to Colorado, because this is my home.

BM: Holly, how good were your family and friends in terms of taking care of you because when one is diagnosed with lymphoma, they cannot take care of themselves by themselves.


HW: I moved back into my mother’s home and I lived with my mom in the house I grew up in. Springfield is close to Newark, New Jersey, where I was treated, but it was traumatic. My mom and I have a difficult relationship and I love my mother very dearly, but we just get along better when we don’t live together. So it was really hard and I felt like being 16 years old, and I was constantly arguing with my mother, but we figured it out. We would drive to Newark together and go for my treatments. She was amazing, and my chemotherapy. For me, when I went for chemotherapy, it was regimented. As long as your blood count is okay, and you are well enough to receive treatment, you kind of see the same people every week. So that was my hive, my hospital people, the people in my chemotherapy unit, the nurses. Chemotherapy nurses are angels.

BM: If you would, elaborate on that, just how angelic these nurses were. What was their presence like in this phase of your treatment?


HW: I think you have to be soft as a pillow on the inside and tough as nails on the outside, which is what they were. They are just amazing people. I cannot explain and I hope not too many people have to experience it. There’s just something special about someone that is that selfless. If you could look through the window into a chemotherapy unit and you were looking through the glass and you saw nurses caring for patients, you would have no idea, the joy in the conversation, and they become your people, and they became my mom’s people, too. My mom would bring them food.


BM: Holly, did this experience bring you and your mother closer?


HW: No, it actually didn’t bring my mother and I closer. I admit I didn’t have the proper perspective for what my mom was experiencing as a parent, whose child has cancer. I had no empathy for my mother’s emotional need because I had to be present for myself, so I could gain strength and be as healthy as take care of my mental state as well. We really had to take care of ourselves, so it did not bring us closer together, but we are closer together now than we were then, so that’s good.


BM: So there’s the chemo phase and the radiation phase and I want to get to the radiation phase in just a sec, but how would you describe your sense of triumph once the chemo phase was done?


HW: After a big chunk of my chemo treatments, I went in for a CT scan to see how the mass in my chest had reacted to the chemotherapy. And I remember they told me I needed another round of chemo. After that, I think my feeling of jumping from chemo to radiation was a little bit of worry. There was frustration as I was tired of chemotherapy. I did not have a port in my neck for the chemo to go through. When you receive chemo on a weekly basis, it is really hard on your veins, and I just felt so poked and prodded with everything that had been done that I didn’t want a port. So they used my veins and it wasn’t a good experience. So between the experience of having to do this again and the fear that could this be something else, that type of fear? I wasn’t completely settled, but once I got into the radiation phase, I could see a home stretch coming, and it was pretty good, and a whole new set of doctors. I was moved to the radiation therapists and the radiation oncologists. They became a whole new family to me, which was pretty awesome.


BM: So the radiation treatment was easier on you than the chemo, correct?


HW: In a sense, yes. I could drive to the radiation therapy by myself, and I did. My mom is a nurturer, and I need a little bit from my mom, but not a lot. Going to the treatments, five days a week, 25 minutes away in downtown Newark, is stressful. We just don’t need to spend that much time in a car together, so driving by myself, I felt like I could spread my wings a little. And I now was starting to feel better. Night sweats, fever, all of that goes away, while the chemo is wreaking havoc on the rest of your body. So I started to feel better. Again, textbook case, Hodgkin lymphoma. So, radiation was my home stretch, but it was really hard on my skin. I was radiated from the bridge of my nose to the bottom of my ribcage. My radiation came from a machine called, I think, a linear accelerator. It’s weekly, it’s quick, but they have to take the time to get you in just the right position. They gave you these pin prick tattoos, so they could precisely aim where the radiation was supposed to go. So I had these horrendous sores on the side of my tongue, so you don’t realize how the slightest movement, or if you begin a swallow, the pain was excruciating. I couldn’t move my head. If I moved to stand up, there was tremendous pain and it depleted my salivary glands. So, the hair loss was bad, but this mouth pain was worse. I couldn’t even be social, I couldn’t talk with people, and talking is my chicken soup, so that was tough for me, physically and emotionally. I still have dental issues, which I have had since the radiation treatment, but I am still cancer free.


BM: That’s a good to hear. Now earlier we were talking about indicators that something might be wrong. Can you recall indicators that made you feel as though you were getting the upper hand on this cancer?

HW: Yes, there were. Everything was behaving the way it needed to. After radiation therapy was complete, I continued to work. September 19 was my final treatment, and I remember in November I had a doctor’s appointment with my radiation oncologist, and that’s when I was given the green light to move back to Colorado. I was then passed back to the doctor who diagnosed me at University Hospital, and remains my oncologist who has never treated me. Isn’t that crazy? I have seen for CT scans, blood draws, chest x-rays, anything else I have had over the years, any scares I have had. So I moved out less than 30 days later, in December.


BM: So, Holly, how awesome was it to put all this behind you and resume a normal life?


HW: For me, it was amazing. For my mom, it was really tough. Of course, my mom wanted me to be well, but my mom is a nurturer. My mom knew I was leaving. I was home for nine or ten months, then I was right back to being 2,000 miles away, so that was really hard for my mom, and until I had a child of my own, I had no idea what it was like to be a parent of a child. I am a crier, and I come from a long line of criers, which is really hard, but really great, also.


BM: You might have already answered because you already becoming a mom, but once you got past cancer, is there anything you did to celebrate this accomplishment?


HW: Yeah, I got a job! I called the HR recruiter I had spoken to at the time I was diagnosed, which was a crazy story in and of itself. I was diagnosed in March of 1996, and I was offered a job and going to start in two or three weeks. Then I had to call this recruiter and tell her that I had cancer and was moving back to New Jersey for treatment. My fear was immediately was how do you hire someone who has cancer? How do you get a job again? Do people think you are going to die on the job? Thank God I was not a health risk, and I am not, but I called the recruiter to make sure I had a job. So I moved back to Colorado, lived with friends, started my job, got on my feet, and I had a whole new tribe. It was a mix of my friends from before I had cancer, and then people I met when I moved back close to a year later. It’s hard to imagine in a year’s time what you go through and put up with and put behind you. I am lucky, I am just so lucky.


BM: And how great is life now? You have a family, you have your health, you have a job you like, and a great circle of friends. How great is it to have all those things going for you now?


HW: It’s great. I have a great life. We are not big and fancy. We are really fortunate. I have an amazing husband that I met at the job I got when I moved back to Colorado in January 1997, the job with the satellite company. I have known him since three months after I beat cancer, and I was really fortunate that I was able to have a baby. Chemotherapy can keep that from happening, so I feel very lucky. I love our son’s school, we love where we live, we have the most phenomenal neighbors and community. We have never expanded our lives and our dwelling to become something beyond what we could continue to afford, and I feel very thankful that we can stay put and be happy and be healthy. We are okay, we are tight and we are good. I’m lucky, I am so lucky, I feel very happy to work in a coffee shop and work for a large company that allows me to be home on catastrophe pay because I am a mother of a child of school age.


BM: Holly, we want to wrap up now, but as you look back on your cancer experience, and if can visualize talking face to face with somebody who has just been diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma, if you would like to share one takeaway from your experience, what would it be?


HW: Well, there is no shame in whatever it is you are going through, so let people help and you have to learn how to say ‘thank you’, and if you need somebody’s help, let them help you. And get comfortable with saying ‘thank you,’ and not apologizing for having to say ‘thank you.’ That’s a big piece of advice. You need to be your own advocate. Ask questions, take notes, understand why you are taking medication. It may be good or bad, but you have to understand why you experience certain side effects. You have to stay on top and be in touch and listen to your body. Try not to live in fear, try to be self-aware, and nurture your body, your mind and your soul.


BM: Okay, Holly, thanks for your story, your advice and a story with a happy ending. Once again, Holly, thanks so much.


HW: Thank you. I have really enjoyed getting to talking about this.


BM: And as you listen, we remind you, we join you as a team, as you address your cancer journey, so until next time, we’ll see you on down the road.

LINKS TO RESOURCES AND INFORMATION REFERENCED IN THIS EPISODE:

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