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.Experts say one of every 270 men will face a testicular cancer diagnosis sometime in their life.
With a reputation as one of the most curable forms of cancer, testicular cancer frequently is diagnosed in young men between the ages of 20 and 54.Nine out of 10 cancers of the testicles start in the sperm-producing cells known as germ cells.
"Cancer is something I had never considered," Swartz says; at age 44, a testicular cancer diagnosis wasn't on his radar.
After much research, Swartz headed to Indianapolis University Medical Center, the same hospital where Tour de France cyclist Lance Armstrong would later be treated, for surgery to remove the cantaloupe-sized tumor.
After completing five years of follow-up monitoring, Swartz was pronounced cancer free and began to relax. "Doctors were 90 percent certain I wouldn't have another tumor."
That prediction was proved wrong when Swartz found himself heading back to Indianapolis for removal of a secondary encapsulated teratoma abdominal tumor in 2009 and a year later in 2010 when an additional tumor was found in his upper chest.
In addition to tumor removal and before recurrence, Swartz also faced triple bypass open heart surgery. Additional surgery this past month is expected to alleviate chronic back pain, a condition which aggravated recovery from previous procedures.
"Each time following surgery I was able to recover, but found I had slowed down," says the father of three who has been married to wife, Susan, for 27 years. "For me, the cancer is somewhat of a chronic illness which doctors monitor closely and for which I may or may not need additional surgery."
The three-time, 15-year testicular cancer survivor says the thought of recurrence is always at the back of his mind, but not something he dwells upon. "The best advice, I've learned, is to pay attention to your body and don't ignore symptoms."
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Living every day to the fullest
Joe Scala, 55, an Elk Grove resident and 20-year quality control specialistsays his 2004 liver cancer diagnosis, treatment, transplant and survivorship has left him with a new title of "Blatant Miracle."
"It was hepatitis Cthat caused the liver cancer," says Scala, who also suffers from diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis. His doctors gave him three months to live following the discovery of three tumors. "Twenty-seven days later I was fortunate to receive a living donor liver transplant at Northwestern Memorial."
According to the American Cancer Society, 24,120 new cases of primary liver cancer and bile duct cancer were diagnosed in 2010. More common in men than in women, experts say an average man's lifetime risk of getting liver or bile duct cancer is about one in 100.
Scala's survivorship celebration was short lived as doctors detected a lung tumor in 2007 and scheduled a six-hour procedure to remove one-third of his right lung and surrounding lymph nodes.
"Chemotherapy wasn't possible as it would likely kill my liver," Scala says. He suffered respiratory failure within the first 24 hours after surgery and remained in the intensive care unit on life support and in a coma for six days with a temperature of 105.
Scala's first thought upon awakeningAug. 20 in the ICU was to propose to his second wife, Joan, who had been at his bedside and first alerted nurses to postoperative signs of respiratory distress.The couple has now been married three years and together have nine grandchildren.
Scala celebrated his seven-year liver cancer survivorship anniversary on March 30 and has been cancer free for three-and-a-half years, living every day to the fullest.
"Cancer recurrence is always at the back of my mind," admits Scala, who plays drums professionally as a member of The Mustangs, a Woodstock tribute band.
Despite monthly blood tests, periodic MRI or CT scans, and side effects like shortness of breath, chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder and ongoing medical bills, Scala says survivorship truly is a chance at new life.
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Surviving against the Odds. Contributors: Not available. Newspaper title: Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL). Publication date: June 1, 2011. Page number: 2. © 2009 Paddock Publications. COPYRIGHT 2011 Gale Group.