Surviving against the Odds

Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), June 1, 2011 | Go to article overview

Surviving against the Odds


Byline: Janice Youngwith

Survivorship is a badge of honor for suburbanites Pat Smith, Phil Swartz and Joe Scala. They say treating the physical, emotional, social and spiritual aspects of a cancer diagnosis is something they live with every day.While each faced an initial cancer diagnosis and treatment, the battle to manage symptoms, side effects and challenges is ongoing.

Surviving & thriving

"The doctors may say cure, but I don't because it can always come back," says Smith, 66, a Bolingbrook resident and 13-year ovarian cancer survivor. "I prefer to think of it as long-term remission."

According to the American Cancer Society, ovarian cancer, the leading killer among women's gynecological cancers, is difficult to detect, especially in the early stages because many women are unfamiliar with its symptoms, the vague risk factors and have never discussed them with their physicians.

"For nearly six months I knew something was wrong," says Smith, a former kindergarten teacher and avid musicianwho plays clarinet in the Naperville Municipal Band as well as saxophone and clarinet with the Free Notes and with a 10-piece Big Band group. "There was relentless back pain, I was exhausted and found myself staying in bed sleeping away the weekends, my waist was increasing, my back hurt and I had reflux."

Smith's diagnosis involved multiple trips to her primary care doctor and much persistence, especially after seeing an ovarian cancer checklist in the local newspaper.

An ultrasound screening and pelvic exam helped cinch the ovarian diagnosis.Surgeons removed a self-contained mass and Smith learned of her stage 1C status.

"Pathology reports later showed some clear cells in the mass and doctors also stated it could become a very aggressive tumor," recalls Smith, who followed up with six months of chemotherapy. "I believe the only reason my cancer was labeled stage 1 was because I was persistent and became my own advocate in seeking answers to the vague symptoms. The earlier the diagnosis, the better."

"Losing my hair did bother me, but the treatment hit me hardest in terms of fatigue," she says. "I forced myself to walk and challenged myself to remain active."

Cancer, she says, insisted on becoming a partner in her life.

"I dealt with the physical issues during treatment, but it was only later that I recognized my own need to address the fragmented mind, body and spiritual aspects of the disease," Smith says.

Sheembraced the therapeutic writing activities at Wellness House, a community cancer resource center in Hinsdale. She is now combining many of those reflections and inspirational writings in a book, Spiritual Mosaic, which she says documents her healing journey and which she hopes to publish.

For nearly eight years, support groups and a special Healing Winds Native American flute circle have also helped Smith with emotional and spiritual healing.The flute circle plays for luminaria ceremonies and six to eight area Relay For Life events each year.Today she is back to making music, gardening, bike riding, health club work outs and says she is especially enjoying a new cardio fighting exercise class.

Three times is the charm

"Boom, there it was." That's how shocked Vernon Hills testicular cancer survivor Phil Swartz, 60, says he felt upon first hearing the diagnosis 15 years ago.

"I had no idea what was causing my abdominal and back pain," says the corporate travel counselor who loves gardening, bicycling and playing guitar. "It seemed like it was a million tests later before I learned of a tumor lodged between my stomach and spine.Doctors told me I had testicular cancer and that the germ cell tumor would have to be removed following four months of aggressive chemotherapy."

According to the American Cancer Society, some 8,480 men learned of their own testicular cancer diagnosis last year. …

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