Jan 24, 2014 - 3:45 pm
Cancer: A True Story…
Millions of people throughout the world are currently fighting for their lives; fighting against a disease that far too often claims the lives of those it infects. Cancer is atrocious. It is a disease of insurmountable power and like the armies of the north and the south during the Civil War, it has unlimited potential to wipe out its victims. Not having battled cancer personally, I cannot relate to the shear pain and anguish this horrific disease causes to its victims; however, I can relate to the feelings and situations of the families that have a loved one currently battling cancer. Thus begins the true story of a woman who fought a hard battle with cancer and eventually lost the battle after 5 years. This article and blog entry is dedicated to the American Cancer Society and to all those people who are currently battling cancer, as well as the families of those who are infected by the disease. My heart goes out to all of you….
My Grandmother, Jeanette Wraa, was an eternal optimist; a woman who never complained a day in her life and who lived life with a carefree attitude. She was a woman who seemed to do everything right and who touched the lives of all those who ever had the pleasure of making her acquaintance. My Grandmother was and always will be my hero. She was a tender-loving person who was always quick to smile and laugh; she had such an infectious and memorable laugh. Her smile could light up even the darkest of places like the summers sun rising high above the mountains in the distance. She had this special way about her that everyone recognized and appreciated, as she could always find a way to put a positive spin on every situation. One specific instance always stands out in my mind, which sheds light on my Grandma’s level of optimism: I was in sixth grade at the time and I had a bad day at school, as I was suspended for flinging my pencil across the room and hitting a teacher in the forehead. I remember making the “walk of shame” back to my Grandparent’s house, which was less than a mile away from my middle school. I walked in the door and tears were streaming down my face. My Grandmother answered the door and immediately reached out her arms and embraced me right there in the doorway. She wrapped her arms around me and consoled me, telling me that we all make mistakes and that the best thing to do when we face troubling situations is to learn from the mistakes that we make. She may have been displeased with my behavior; however, she was able to overcome her frustration in order to provide me with support and love. Such was my Grandmother’s personality and level of kindness. She had such a unique way with words and she always knew how to make me smile, even amidst life’s pitfalls.
My Grandmother was and always will be a special person. She was quick to forgive and even quicker to forget. She did not hold grudges and she was always willing to listen. Days spent with my Grandma were like days spent in a magical place, a place like Disneyland, where smiles are prevalent and laughter can be heard for miles and miles. When I think about my Grandma today, I always recollect and relive one specific moment I had with her when I was two years old: I was on a family trip in Tahoe during the Christmas holiday. My family had rented out a cabin up in the hills near Heavenly Ski Resort and several members from my Dad’s side of the family came up to join in the celebration. I was an adventurous young lad back in my “glory days” and I remember begging my Grandma to take me out to the edge of the lake so that we could walk on the ice and play with the snow. She grabbed my jacket from the hook over the fireplace and bundled me up nice and tight so that I wouldn’t freeze. She made sure that my gloves were tightly fastened and that my scarf was wrapped around my neck, then we head out into the icy paradise that is Tahoe during the winter season. The temperature outside must have been in the low 20’s and it was snowing. The visibility was low and the sun was beginning to set. The moment we stepped onto the porch outside, she took my hand and placed it in hers, holding me tightly, warming my hand in the process. We walked for what seemed like an eternity and made our way to the edge of the lake, which was completely frozen over and covered with fresh snow. The one thing I remember most about this particular memory is that she allowed me to lead the way and trusted me enough to stay by her side. Although I know she wouldn’t have let go of my hand even if I tried to pull away, I remember that I appreciated having her by my side during our journey, so much so, that I continued to hold her hand regardless of the urge I felt to let go and run ahead into the distance. We walked along the shore of the lake together, with our hands clasped tightly together, laughing and talking as we ventured out into the unknown. This particular memory serves as an example of the bond that my Grandma and I shared from the time of my birth to the moment of her untimely passing nearly 22 years later. We shared a connection unlike any other and even during times when I was not physically with my Grandma, I could always sense that she was thinking about me. My Grandma was a special lady and I will never forget the day when I heard “The News…”
It was a normal school day. I was in middle school at the time and I remember walking in the front door of my Grandparent’s house and placing my backpack next to the kitchen table. My Grandparents were in the family room and they were watching “Law & Order,” my Grandma’s favorite TV show. I walked into the room to greet them and they beckoned for me to sit down. My Grandma looked me in the eyes and told me that she had just paid a visit to the doctors that afternoon and had found out some disappointing news. She told me that the doctor had found some lumps in her breasts and that she had been diagnosed with cancer. I will never forget that moment. My heart skipped a beat and my eyes began to tear up. My Grandma immediately took me in her arms and told me that everything was going to be okay. She said that lots of people get cancer and that the last thing I needed to do was worry about her wellbeing. She told me that I had more important things to focus on and that she didn’t want me feeling bad for her. Her humility altered the course of my life in that moment and from that moment on, I never once heard her complain about her condition or the excruciating pain she was in half the time.
She progressed normally, living life the same way she always lived it, with a carefree attitude and a huge smile on her face. The one thing I remember from her first round of cancer is that she never spoke about it in front of me. When my Mom would come and pick me up from my Grandparent’s house, they would chat about my Grandma’s hospital visits, but the conversation never lasted for more than 10 minutes at a time. I was only maybe 11 years old at the time so I didn’t remember being overly concerned about the cancer because in my mind, I thought that the chemotherapy would wipe it out and that eventually it would just disappear. My Grandma fought her first round of cancer for over a year and eventually her treatment began to effectively wipe out the cancerous cells that had invaded her body. After several months of treatment, I remember the day when my Grandma came home from her surgery. I of course was not kept in the loop about anything that was going on with her treatment because my Grandma didn’t want me worrying, so when she came home one day without a breast, it was in that moment that I realized that she had gone through surgery and had gotten a mastectomy. The surgery altered the course of the cancer, as it wiped out a large proportion of the cancerous cells; so much so, that the cancer eventually went into remission.
On the day of “victory,” when my Grandmother broke the news to the family that the cancer had been thwarted, we were OVERJOYED and ECSTATIC. The feeling was unlike anything any of us had ever experienced before. We cheered as loud as 49er’s fans after their victory during the ’94 super-bowl against the San Diego Chargers. We threw our hands in the air and breathed a deep sigh of relief; the cancer was gone and my Grandma was officially free from needles, treatment, and constant testing. Once the cancer was wiped out, my Grandparents took several trips and decided to travel around the world together. They visited Australia, New Zealand, Scandinavia, Europe, Hawaii, etc. My Grandma had fought the hard fight against a disease that usually wins and would live to see another day. The moments I spent with my Grandma after her victory were extra special because every time I was with her, I knew in my heart and in my mind that she was going to live a long life and that I wouldn’t have to grieve for her loss. I knew in that moment that I would always have her by my side and that one day when I had kids that she would get to meet her Great Grandchildren and shower them with the same level of love she showed me and everyone she met. My Grandma was a cancer survivor and although she was a short woman with a gentle personality and persona, she sure as Hell showed the cancer who was boss. I give credit to her Italian side, that stubborn side, that just wasn’t willing to give up or to succumb to the ailing effects that cancer can have on the body. She refused to let herself go and because she had the utmost will to live and survive, she won the fight against cancer and continued to live life according to the highest standard possible.
I wish I could tell you that this story has a happy ending. I wish I could continue writing about my Grandmother’s adventures or tell you that she is currently on a cruise-ship somewhere traveling the world with the love of her life, my Grandfather. I am sure many families wish that their personal experiences with cancer were a success, but according to the statistic on the American Cancer Society’s website, www.cancer.org, over one million people are diagnosed with cancer each year in the US alone. Out of those million, only 49% are expected to survive their cancer. Currently, approximately 1, 600 people die from cancer everyday, which amounts to nearly 580, 350 deaths every year in the US alone. The reason so many deaths occur in the US on an annual basis is that far too many Americans are uninsured. According to facts posted on the American Cancer Society’s website, approximately 50 million Americans were uninsured in 2010. What this reveals to us is that cancer would not have a snowflakes chance in Hell to wipe out as many people as it does if it weren’t for those people who can’t afford health insurance. More people would survive if health insurance were made more affordable to Americans. Period. If more people who are currently battling cancer were afforded cheaper health insurance, there is a good chance that they would win the fight against their disease; however, because many American’s cannot afford to pay for proper treatment, the cancer far too often wins the fight and comes out as the victor. In my Grandmother’s case, health insurance was not the problem. In fact, my Grandparent’s were fortunate enough to be able to afford the best coverage imaginable. And even though my Grandmother went to every appointment and never missed a single day of treatment, the cancer eventually got the best of her; thus begins part two of her story…
Just when my family thought that the cancer had been completely wiped out, I got “the phone call.” My Dad called me and he told me that he had some very bad news. He said that Grandma had recently gone to the doctors and that the doctor had found cancerous cells in her brain, her spine, her bones, her stomach, and her remaining breast. To make a long story short, the cancer came back with a vengeance. Nearly ten years had passed from my Grandma’s initial “victory” and for all those who have ever experienced cancer or for those people who know someone who has battled cancer, I am sure that you can relate to the emotional toll that cancer can have on a person. I was only 11 years old when my Grandma went through cancer the first time and to find out that the cancer had come back even worse than before was like the feeling of having a thousand daggers stabbed into my heart, piercing me deeper than I could have ever imagined. I was devastated. I began to question the evidence because in my mind I thought that once cancer was “wiped out” or sent into remission that it meant that it wouldn’t show up again. My theory was wrong and my Grandmother was now facing yet another battle, except unlike the first round, this battle was more like a war. Her percentage for survival plummeted and the doctor told her that there was a good chance that they would not be able to forestall the cancer this time around because it had spread to multiple parts of her body. Being that my Grandma is a fighter, she went through the motions again in order to keep on keeping on: She went to the hospital twice per week for radiation therapy to start things off. Then once the radiation no longer worked, she moved into chemotherapy treatment. Then, once the chemo stopped working, she moved into another form of treatment, which I like to call, “Prayer, Hope, and Belief.” And just like the first time around, her optimism and will to live persisted. Although she was in more pain and was literally drained of every ounce of energy she had left, my Grandma never complained. She kept smiling. She kept laughing. She maintained her spirit. My Grandma fought a hard fight for the second time in her life and she never lost hope.
I went through a lot of emotional ups and downs the second time around because I was trying to ignore the inevitable. I tried so hard to block the thought of her perishing from her second round of cancer from my mind that I often found myself in fits of uncontrollable sadness and despair. I went into a period of denial and didn’t want to believe that she was suffering again or that she may not live through this. I couldn’t imagine a life without her by my side. I couldn’t fathom calling my Grandparent’s house and not having my Grandfather pick up the phone and hand it directly to her, as was the typical case whenever I contacted my Grandparent’s. I didn’t want to think about holidays spent without her sitting on the couch at my Great Aunt’s home, holding one of the younger members of the family on her lap and laughing joyfully. I had a lot of flashbacks of times we spent together in my childhood during those last few years of her life. I remembered the times when we would take the dogs on a walk in the creek that was located behind their house in San Jose. I remembered times when we would be shopping in a store in Capitola and I would see something that I liked and would sweet-talk my Grandma into buying me something. I remembered the times we would sit and talk for hours on end about anything and everything. I remembered the times when my Grandma and I would hop in her red Ford Explorer and head to her work at good ole’ Prospect High School, where she was an administrator. I remember those times as if it were yesterday because when I would go to school with my Grandma she would always have country greats like Alan Jackson, Garth Brooks, Brooks & Dunn, and Trace Adkins playing on the radio. My Grandma and I had such a special connection and it will always remain that way until my dying day.
For all those who have ever had a loved one who suffered or is currently suffering from cancer, I’m sure you can relate to this article. This article is being offered up to you and it is my hope that you will take some time to reflect on your personal experience with cancer. I chose to share the story of my Grandma because she inspired me to my core. She knew me better than I know myself and she recognized the good in me. She recognized the good in everyone. My Grandma was such a unique and beautiful woman inside and out and her legacy will live on, just as the legacy of your loved ones will continue to burn brightly throughout the years. We can keep our loved ones in our hearts forever by sharing their stories and by being open about discussing what they went through because for anyone whose ever experienced what I’ve experienced, as I watched my Grandma go from being a fully functioning human being to someone who eventually lost all motor functions, I am sure their story will inspire people. My Grandmother was an inspiration to everyone who knew her. She touched the lives of everyone in my family in ways that I can’t even explain in words. Her love and compassion for others flowed through her like the Siberian wind. We all knew how much she loved us and her sincerity was as thick and as real as the wood of a Sequoia Tree: her passion was the water that flowed up through the trunk and into the branches; her tenderness were the branches themselves; and her kindness was the trunk of the Sequoia that stands tall and firm, like a Queen in the forest. She was my tree, my rock, the feet that I stand on and the legs that hold me up.
To continue the story, my Grandma was re-diagnosed with cancer in 2009. The doctors revealed to her that the chances for survival were much lower the second time around and that there was a good chance that the treatment would not work. As I said previously the cancer had spread to several areas of her body with the “red flag” areas being in her brain and in her stomach. I will never forget my Grandma’s second round of cancer because it went back and forth like the changing of the ocean’s tide. There were months where the tumor in her stomach would shrink, creating the illusion that her cancer was being forced back into remission; however, just when hope seemed to shine through, the cancer would pop up in another area of her body, thus requiring treatment in that specific area. And then like the stop and go traffic one might see on interstate 405 in Los Angeles, the tumor in her stomach would swell up and then it would shrink and then it would swell up and then it would shrink again. My Grandma was in so much pain the second time around: She could barely walk without assistance; she had to have her stomach drained through a tube every other day because of the amount of fluid that was produced by the tumor; she had to live with the notion that she may not pull through the second time around; she had to take a medicine cabinet full of pills ranging from pain killers to antibiotics; and she had to cope with everything as a whole. I still to this day cannot fathom what must have been going on in her head: I wish I could sit down with her once more and ask her: Grandma, what is going on inside of your head about all of this? I wish I could tell her that she is my Earth-Angel and that I love her so very much. There are a lot of things I would say to my Grandmother at this exact moment if she were still physically present in this world.
I remember the second round of her cancer more vividly than her first round and although I was not around her nearly as much as I was when she had breast cancer, I always felt as though my heart and my mind were with her at all times. I’m sure for anyone who has a loved one currently fighting for their life that you experience the same thing. It’s like that moment when you are doing one thing, but thinking about something completely different than what you’re doing. For instance, there were moments when I would be sitting in my classes back in college and the teacher would be lecturing about something important and although I would be taking a copious amount of notes, my brain was not fully committed to the teacher’s lesson. My body was physically present in the seat and at the desk and in the classroom at California State University, Los Angeles, but my mind and heart were sitting next to my Grandma in her home back in Sacramento. The experience of watching my Grandma deteriorate more and more throughout her last few years was like the most painful form of torture imaginable. I watched her go from walking around as if nothing was wrong with her at the beginning of 2009 to watching her lose complete control of her motor functions in October of 2013.
To conclude this article I want to describe to you the final two months I had with my Grandma, as I’m sure many of you who’ve ever lost a loved one to cancer or a serious illness can relate. This article is being offered up to you. It is my way of reaching out to all those who are currently facing difficult times. My heart goes out to you and your families. I know exactly what you are going through and if there is anything I learned from my personal experience with having a loved one suffering from a serious illness, it’s that we should never take life for granted. These were the words of a dying woman who I always recognized as being one of the strongest and most positive people I ever met in my entire life. These were the words of a woman who recognized from a very early age that life is a precious thing, the most precious thing of all and that a life lived with happiness, fulfillment, and love is a life well lived. My Grandmother taught me so much about life through her actions. Had she chosen to never utter a single word about how life should be lived, I would have known every single day of my life that she was a person who truly valued life and who possessed the utmost will and desire to live…
I went to China for 10 months back in 2012 and that was one of the most difficult transitions I’ve ever made in my young life because it meant that I would be leaving my Grandmother and my family behind. I knew that I would not be able to connect with my Grandparents as frequently as I was accustomed to and I felt guilty for leaving. I thought that my decision to travel abroad was selfish because there I was, a healthy 23-year old who was taking off to have the experience of a lifetime, while my Grandma was practically ailing day by day. To make a long story short, I believe to this day that my Grandma waited for me to come home from China in July of 2013 before passing away nearly two and a half months later. She was one of my biggest supporters from the get go and although I was 10, 000 Kilometers away, I was always sitting right beside her, holding her hand, and embracing her. When I returned to the US on July 22, 2013, I found out some very disturbing news: My Grandma had been taken off her treatment because it was no longer working. It was in that moment, that I knew that my Grandma was going to die. I was floored. I felt like I could barely walk, as my legs turned into rubber at that moment. Words cannot describe the emotional state I was in for the last two months I spent with my Grandma because how does one really feel when they have to live with the inevitable that someone close to them isn’t going to live for much longer? I don’t think there’s any way to cope with that feeling. I was fortunate enough to be there for her last few moments: I was there to hold her hand during her last week of life. I was there to kiss her forehead and to feel the warmth of her smile as it lit up the family room. I was there to witness her last few words. I was there to listen to her last song, as she lip synced “Music of the Night” and “Wild Horses.” And although I was not there to witness her final breath, I could feel her in my heart and in my mind at the exact moment when she passed from this world into the next. I knew My Grandma lost the fight to cancer on October 5, 2013. She was 71 years old.
If you are a person who is currently battling cancer or another serious disease or if you are a family member of friend of a person who is battling a serious disease, my prayers are with you. I share this story because it’s similar to what others have gone through. It is my way of keeping the fire-the energy-of my Grandma alive. I chose to share my personal experience in hopes that it will serve as an inspiration for all those who are going through the same thing. You are not alone and there are people in the world who are thinking about you and who are praying for your well-being. The American Cancer Society is a foundation aimed at spreading the word about the effects that cancer can have a person and on how to recognize the signs and symptoms of cancer so that you can catch the disease before it’s too late. I myself am no expert on cancer, but I am a person who believes that cancer is one of those diseases that can be stopped before it starts. I believe that with a positive outlook, proper treatment, and a will to live, that anyone currently suffering from cancer will have a much greater chance for survival. I would like to conclude by thanking the American Cancer Society for all of its efforts in keeping us in the loop. By visiting the website, www.cancer.org, you can read a variety of different articles and educate yourself about cancer and about the possible treatments that are available out there. Health insurance may be unaffordable for many Americans, but with organizations like the American Cancer Society, there are ways to afford treatment and there are people out there who live their lives in service to those people and families who are battling cancer together. Lets spread the word and come together as a community so that we can fight the fight against cancer as a team and provide aid to those who don’t have anyone to support them. Volunteer or donate to the American Cancer Society today! With your generosity, more people will survive and live to see another day!