By Sabrina Short and Darren Johnson
“You never know how strong you are until being strong is the only choice you have.” – Cayla Mills
Has your life ever been shattered? Have you ever experienced the mirror of life exploding into millions of fragments? How do you piece yourself back together as everything around you seems to be broken? What if one of these pieces of broken glass was breast cancer? After interviewing many women who have suffered the shattering of this painstaking disease, we discovered the artwork in their lives. These courageous warriors not only survived this illness that has affected over 230,000 women in 2015 alone, but they became overcomers. To survive means you merely go through the motions to rid yourself of cancer and move on. To graduate into overcomer status means that you not only survive it, but thrive afterwards. You begin to see life through a new set of eyes, and you are inspired to share your story. What was once a shattered pile of glass is now a beautiful mosaic. The journey to get to that mosaic isn’t easy and can paralyze you with fear. In order to make it through the darkness, these seven women had to make a choice to hold on.
A majority of people agree that pregnancy can be one of the most exciting times in a woman’s life. You embrace the ultrasound moments and many trips to the baby stores, and you cry happily when you listen to your baby’s heartbeat for the first time. But what if you and your child were at high risk during this entire process? What if you received that call from your doctor, his voice shaking, as he delivered the news that you had breast cancer? For Kandy Sullivan-Fairbanks, this horror became a reality.
Kandy went for her first mammogram in 2000, and like many women, she walked away carefree as she continued on with life. At the time, she had two daughters: Erin who was 11, and Kimberly who was 7, and was a local attorney with a small law office. A couple weeks after the exam, Kandy got the wonderful news that she was pregnant. Not too long after that, Kandy’s OB/GYN called to inform her that her mammogram was abnormal. Although it made her nervous, he reassured her that it was nothing to worry about. He ordered an ultrasound to avoid the radiation of another mammogram. Unfortunately, the ultrasound didn’t pan out, so Kandy found herself in a cold room wearing two radiation aprons to protect the baby. Kandy was now in her second trimester and the fragments of her life were beginning to shatter piece by piece – the results were troubling.
During her pregnancy, Kandy endured a needle biopsy that resulted in the most chilling phone call she ever received. “The world stood still for a moment, and the fear for my unborn child overcame me.” How could she embrace her pregnancy while being held captive by such a shocking diagnosis? In 2001, Kandy Sullivan-Fairbanks stared at the thousands of shards of glass that once mirrored her life – she had been diagnosed with breast cancer.
Time began to speed up as Kandy was rushed into procedure after procedure. She discovered that when cancer hits, there is no time to stop and think, you just react. Immediately, Kandy met with a surgeon and was forced to face many procedures, including a mastectomy, radical mastectomy, and removal of her lymph nodes. She was eventually diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer. Post-surgery, her oncologist wanted to commence chemotherapy right away, which would require Kandy to undergo two amniocenteses to determine if her baby could survive an early caesarean section. Fear surged through every inch of Kandy’s body. Would her child survive? Was she doing the right thing in going through with the treatment? Was her baby really okay? Terrified, Kandy agreed, and on September 24th, Danielle was born.
Ten days later, Kandy began chemotherapy and continued that treatment for the next six months. She had to temporarily close her law practice and seek the aid of family members, spending most of her time away from home. Her hope was in God and her wisdom was in discussing the cancer with her daughters with a positive attitude while doing her best to keep their lives as “normal” as possible. She stuck to their daily routines, taking the girls to school, helping with homework, cooking meals, running errands, and other motherly duties. It was this courageous activity that highlights the tenacity in Kandy’s survival. The perseverance in her parenting truly shines a light on the strength of a mother.
Through the rollercoaster of hair loss and vomiting due to the nausea of post-chemotherapy, Kandy still managed to keep a sense of humor when it came to wig shopping. “We made wigs a fun and entertaining adventure…and you never realize how important eyebrows are in shaping the face until you have none!” Her children never drowned in fear or doubt over her diagnosis due to her positive attitude and ability to maintain a daily routine.
Her most important gifts were faith in God, her friends, colleagues, and family. Now 14 years later, Kandy has reestablished her career in law, her children are healthy and happy and she feels exponentially blessed. Like many others, Kandy made a choice to survive and press on. She did not let the diagnosis define the outcome and did not let the word “death” leave her lips. When you experience a life shattering event, discover the art, and remember that there are mirrors to mosaics.
“Courage is not the absence of fear, but the ability to move beyond fear.” -Anonymous
Toys are covering the living room floor. There is spilled milk on the high chair and a young woman is running around like a chicken with her head cut off trying to get a little girl and a baby ready for a doctor’s visit. Just 24 hours before, a four-letter word was about to change everything in the Stuart household. Nikki Stuart was a young and healthy mother of two who had just discovered a lump and needed a doctor’s opinion to check it out. Nikki had zero history of cancer in the family, and with routine checks in the past, this lump was dismissed as nothing serious. A hurricane of emotions hit when she found another lump in her armpit, and this time it wasn’t just any lump – it was cancer.
The sound of the air conditioning got louder, the doctor’s voice began to get muffled, the clicking of computer keys as the receptionist typed started to mimic that of a chicken pecking. Her heart beat swelled rapidly and her palms became sweaty. Images of the grim reaper flashed through her subconscious. Fear began to suffocate her thoughts and it was hard to swallow her own spit. Nikki felt as if the walls were caving in. Tears rushed out of her eyes like a thunder storm, “I completely fell apart in the doctor’s office! I knew how long that lump had been there and hearing those words felt like a death sentence.” The thought of her children and husband losing her plagued her spirit and depression set in. “It was a crippling pain that is so hard to put into words.”
Nikki revealed the news to her loved ones and there were many tears and even more hugs. Her family showed her a mountain of support. A light shined through the dark cave of crippling news as she felt the warmth of love surround her. Soon, Nikki’s entire lifestyle changed, and the reality set in. It became very difficult to take care of her two children. Post-surgery, she couldn’t even lift her arms. Walking in humility, Nikki adapted slowly at allowing others to help her which wasn’t something she was used to doing. “My perfect little life was no longer my own because everything had changed in an instant!”
Becoming filled with poison was not what Nikki had in mind but she had the mindset to do whatever she had to do to stay alive and be there for her family. Given the choice, she chose a double mastectomy. “All I could think about was getting the cancer out of my body as quickly as possible.” The journey to rid herself of this invasion included chemotherapy, radiation, and a follow-up year with Herceptin. To this day, Nikki still takes Tamoxifen, which is a synthetic drug used to treat breast cancer and infertility in women that acts as an estrogen antagonist. The changes a woman with breast cancer undergoes are horrendous, and Nikki suffered them all. She survived weight loss, the loss of both of her breasts, scars, hot flashes, loss of all hair, sickness, insomnia, and depression. It was a whirlwind of pain that attempted to take her out, but Nikki courageously held on. “I never realized how brave I could be until I had to walk in these shoes in front of my kids.”
God strategically knit together a team of earth angels to weave together a blanket of support. This blanket was her husband, family and friends. Her mother, in particular, was her rock who took a leave of absence from work to help her through to the road to recovery. A group of women from her Bible study would deliver meals every night to her family while she would undergo treatment. Her husband came to all of her appointments and held her hand in every hospital room and doctor’s office. Her faith was the foundation that held everything together. “I prayed a lot daily and really felt God with me through this entire experience. My faith gave me so much strength when I needed it most.”
As Nikki journeyed into remission, she pictured a huge “pink” party of celebration that would solidify her having her life back. Ironically, once her treatment was done, she didn’t have that same celebratory feeling. Of course, she was ecstatic to be done with the cancer, but she discovered at the end that she would never truly be “done.” She lived with the reality that every pain would cause her to fear that cancer had moved back in without paying rent. She accepted the medical fact that if it was to put up shop, it would do so within the first 3 years after treatment. It became challenging to live a new “normal life” post-treatment. Luckily she embraced a few key points. Nikki grasped that her strength had grown more now than ever before. She confidently knows that having her breasts removed didn’t make her less of a woman. She can promise that even in her darkest days, there is still joy to be found. She can also say beyond a shadow of a doubt that even after 10 years, she’s still learning from this experience.
Nikki Stuart has been cancer free for ten years now. Her recipe for survival was filled with nights in her closet crying out, visions of a celebratory pink party, and mountain of faith. Her advice to others is to stay as positive as you can. She encourages people who will face this same mountain or others like it to surround themselves with a great support system. Never forget to take one day at a time and do not under any circumstances listen to anyone’s cancer story that doesn’t have a happy ending. Let the waters and the fire flow as she mentions, “allow yourself to feel whatever you need to feel.” If she said it was going to be easy, she’d be lying but does admit where her greatest strength came from: “I did have days of strength – great strength and courage, but I also had times where I hid in my closet and cried my eyes out. I think both are ok and I would never beat myself up for having those raw moments. Sometimes that is where your greatest strength comes from.”
Julie Castruita could not believe that her life had come to this. Not long ago, she had been playing with her kids and feeding them dinner. They laughed with her, not knowing the anxious thoughts racing behind her joyous façade. Julie had discovered two lumps above and inside her breast: she knew for certain that something wasn’t right, but she couldn’t let her children worry. Two short knocks dissipate the image of her smiling children and bring her back to the dull white interior of the Urgent Care. She lets the doctor in. “I’m sorry Mrs. Castruita, but the tests came back positive. You have Triple Negative Breast Cancer.”
Julie felt like she had been sentenced to death. It seemed like just yesterday that she got married and became a mother. Her children hadn’t even started grade school. It was only the beginning of the newest and happiest phase of her life, but this cancer was going to end it. She would miss everything in her family’s lives, and she wouldn’t be there to support them when they needed it most. She was afraid of chemotherapy too, especially losing her hair and the psychological trauma that comes with it. When word reached her loved ones, they were shocked, sad, and angry, perhaps uncertain or confused by the possibility that they might lose Julie. Some, like her father, could never fully adapt to this reality, and sometimes became distant as she struggled through her treatment.
Though the news devastated her and her family, Julie wasn’t about to give up. She didn’t know about the process of chemotherapy, so she attacked the source of her fear: “I wanted to gather as much information as I could to understand the options for treatment available to me, and how to make the best decision for my type of cancer. This helped me understand what to expect and reassured me,” Julie said. “I chose a double mastectomy and 13 weeks of chemotherapy. I wanted the most aggressive treatment to remove the cancer, and also prevent any further occurrences.” She made serious lifestyle changes as well. Her diet was revised to include more fruits and vegetables and less sugar. She began to exercise regularly. In the midst of her tribulation, Julie began to discover an inner strength that allowed her to “overcome anything.”
Her newfound strength became crucial as she began her treatment. She faced a host of terrible ailments, including hair loss, difficulty swallowing, fatigue, yeast infections, staph infections, severe dehydration, constipation, numbness in her hands and feet, and dry mouth. Not surprisingly, the drastic shift in her lifestyle was difficult to cope with. “I was tired and annoyed because I didn’t like having to get my blood drawn weekly and going to doctor’s appointments constantly. I was very focused, like it was a job, to get through the treatments. There were often times too that I was disconnected from my own self, like it wasn’t me going through this. It’s my coping mechanism,” Julie explained.
Luckily, Julie’s family was there to help. Her mother volunteered to take her to appointments and treatments, allowing her husband to continue working. Her father-in-law and mother-in-law took care of her children while she had surgery and after treatment. Her sister, father, and aunt would buy her food. Their help made a huge impact on Julie. “I have a better appreciation of life now and the important people in my life. You really see who will be there when you need it most,” she said. She owed a lot to her family, but it was the thought of being there for her children that helped her fight and even overcome her pain. It was this love that gave her the strength to “act like mommy to them,” in spite of her immense suffering. “To this day, they don’t remember much about it,” Julie said.
Julie took the time to offer advice and words of encouragement for those who are suffering from cancer. “Go and see as many doctors you can to get different options to make the best informed decision. Also, question the doctors and ask why this is their course of treatment. Don’t go the easy way with treatment; be aggressive, it can save your life. Try to join a support group to discuss your feelings, or open a dialogue with another patient who is getting their treatment along with you,” Julie said. “I would like those suffering cancer to know that there are many resources out there to talk to someone going through the same experience or close to it, and please don’t feel alone or isolate yourself. Be informed. Nominate someone in your family, or a close friend, to be your advocate throughout the whole process. Take control of your life rather than let cancer control you.”
Julie has entered remission now and is enjoying life with her husband and young children.
By Darren Johnson
Every woman should be familiar with their own body, and many engage in routine self-breast exams this day and age. For Kelly Aldecoa, this self-exam was a gunshot that began a marathon she never asked to run. On July 3, 2007, she performed a self-exam while pregnant when she discovered a plum-sized mass under her left arm. Though this may have seemed alarming for most women, Kelly was pregnant and dismissed it as being a blocked milk duct. This was no clogged duct, and as her doctor delivered the words, “you have cancer,” to her, the world shut down. “The doctor’s words were like the sounds of Charlie Brown’s teacher,” was Kelly’s interpretation of the news. The fear of death ran past her in this marathon, like the paralyzing sense of existential dread that some runners experience after a race, only this time, the race had just begun.
“I was 26 weeks pregnant,” Kelly recalls. This was not how she envisioned her pregnancy would go. Her cancer developed from a tumor seven centimeters large to two more four-centimeter sized tumors in her lymph nodes. She was diagnosed with Stage III Breast Cancer HER-2 Positive. As reported by an article titled, HER2-Positive Breast Cancer Survival Rates and Other Statistics, HER2 is a “protein that stimulates the growth of breast cancer cells. It can be found in your blood and urine. Sometimes it’s referred to as a ‘tumor marker.’” While tumor markers like HER2 cannot be used to diagnose cancer, they are very productive in providing important information, such as a clue to how a person’s breast cancer is likely to respond to treatment. In Kelly’s case, her survival rate was not the only thing at risk – she had a growing baby inside her as well.
Everyone who loved Kelly was in complete shock and grief-stricken as no one imagines a 35-year-old woman who was already 26 weeks pregnant should have to suffer breast cancer. “It seemed like a bad country song,” is how Kelly describes this unpredictable and alarming situation. Luckily, Kelly’s family and friends immediately offered to help out. “Many of my husband’s firefighter coworkers came to the house to help set up the nursery.” Everyone around her was very supportive. The school PTA where she worked as a teacher even made dinners nightly and delivered them with love. No one ever made her feel “sick,” “I was just Kelly, and I liked that feeling,” she said.
As the race went on, Kelly’s mental legs grew tired as she had to wrestle with thoughts about undergoing treatment. She broke down hearing phrases like, “Four to six months of chemo,” and “You will lose your hair.” Crippled with anxiety and distress, she realized that this was not going to be the typical doctor’s advice of “take a couple of pills every six hours and I will see you in 30 days.” Kelly’s breast cancer was going to be a long marathon filled with many struggles throughout. After accepting the idea of treatment, Kelly jumped hurdles as she had to contend with the time frame of beginning the actual process. She recalls this portion of the race filled with oncologists and obstetricians. “I was a 2-in-1 package deal.” She was 26 weeks pregnant, and there were not enough studies completed at the time on the effects of chemo on unborn babies. After visiting the neonatal team at UCI, Kelly and her husband made the excruciating decision to deliver her son Ryan right away so she could begin chemo.
Ryan was born six weeks early on September 10, 2007, just three months after that life-changing self-exam. Sadly, Kelly wasn’t able to enjoy the blessing that took place that day. Ryan was rushed to the NICU immediately to treat his respiratory issues. Left alone in the birthing room, thoughts of despair, guilt and sadness went through her mind like thousands of dust particles in a windstorm. She explains her heartache, “I could hear the new cries from neighboring newborns in other rooms. I was angry at cancer for taking a moment that should have been magical.”
On September 12, 2007 she was forced to walk away from her newborn, leaving him in the hands of the NICU, to begin chemo. She remembers after the epidural and delivery, her heartbreaking visit to the NICU. “I saw a small baby attached to numerous wires lying in a glass bassinet. I felt so guilty at that moment because I placed him in the NICU. I chose to deliver Ryan six weeks early. I know that cancer placed Ryan [there], but at the time, I couldn’t help the guilty feeling.” Today, Ryan is a healthy, active 8-year-old boy, and she treasures every moment with him.
Kelly’s treatment consisted of chemo, surgery, and radiation. She lost her hair, eyebrows, and eyelashes. She was plagued with nausea and insomnia. The day she lost all her hair, she immediately called her mother realizing that she didn’t own any hats of scarfs. Her mother rushed to the mall to fill her closets with them. The love and support from her family were like a basket of love during her treatment, and staying busy with three small children kept her occupied. At the time, her children were five, two, and Ryan had just been born. She acknowledged the fact that her children did not fully understand the magnitude of the situation. “I made sure that I remained upbeat around my kids,” she recalls, as she didn’t want them to be concerned.
There were times during the race when Kelly found herself falling, and triumphantly she’d get right back up. “The day I lost my hair, I cried and felt sorry for myself for a couple of hours.” She allowed herself time to grieve, but disciplined herself not to stay in that dark place. She knew, “I needed to move on with life.” She recognizes that any form of cancer is devastating, but realizes the danger of not allowing yourself to finish the race because you have become a victim of hopelessness.
The blue sky opened up for Kelly as the news of remission refreshed her like ice cold water: “I can do anything! I fear nothing!” A garment drenched in doubt, fear, anxiety, grief, anger, depression, and sickness had been ripped off, and she could run free! She and her loved ones felt blessed. Knowing that both she and Ryan would be fine was the greatest feeling, and this marathon would encourage her to appreciate what she had. She embraces the notion that life is too short, that people should remain positive, and to live each day to its fullest. As she reminisced on the one thing that kept her going, she was filled with empathy. She will never forget hearing in the news about the Cobel family tragedy. This family’s car was rear-ended by a big rig on the I-5 freeway. They lost all three of their children on that tragic day. Kelly’s heart broke for this family: “I always thought about them when I started to feel sorry for myself. Nothing that I went through would be worse than what that beautiful family went through that day.”
Kelly’s story is one of bravery, revelation, and a race that she completed with strength. Even through almost losing her son and her own life, she was able to feel deeply for a family she never knew. She embraced the notion that life is precious and some will deal with it worse than others. She made it through decisions that took faith to make, like delivering a child at 26 weeks, and in doing so, God blessed her with favor. This bad country song playing through her marathon ended with a sweet symphony of triumphant horns as she made it to the finish line. Fear is a thing of the past, and her test has now blossomed into a testimony.
Amelia Riggs is married to a loving husband and has two sons. She eats a healthy diet, exercises regularly, and doesn’t smoke or drink. Imagine her surprise, then, when she discovered a lump in her breast while she was in the shower. Amelia dropped everything that day to see the doctor, who diagnosed her with breast cancer.
She was terrified of the diagnosis – so scared that she began to research all the outcomes of her treatment before she realized it was only making things worse. “You’ll be planning your funeral in your head if you do,” she warned. She let her oncologist decide on her treatment and suggested that other patients do the same: “They should listen to their doctor and ask him or her questions; don’t listen to the well-meaning people who want to tell you about their experience. Each of us are different and the treatment for each of us is different. What worked for them may not be good for you.” Her treatment included a lumpectomy, four chemo treatments, and thirty-six radiation treatments.
Amelia was lucky to have an incredible support group to make things easier. Her immediate family acted as her “supporters and protectors.” Her husband Steve even earned the nickname “cheerleader” from her doctor. Her large extended family and her friends who had survived breast cancer were also very encouraging. She wanted breast cancer patients to know that other survivors were a great source of encouragement. “Look to all the women you know who have survived it – you can survive it too,” Amelia said. To this day, Amelia shares a special bond with her fellow survivors.
But the most important thing for Amelia’s recovery was her faith in God, which allowed her to cope with and even learn from her suffering. “I just have a whole different outlook on how things affect me. That life is too short,” Amelia said. With her new outlook and loved ones behind her, Amelia was able to maintain a positive attitude throughout treatment, which she believes is essential to surviving breast cancer. Amelia lost all of her hair, and even after she finished surgery and radiation, she still had to recover from a lumpectomy. One can only imagine the immense wave of relief she felt when she finally entered remission!
Breast cancer may be behind her, but Amelia’s experience compels her to do more: “I feel there is a reason God let me survive this and I want to give back” Amelia said. She has already done remarkable work for breast cancer charities as the co-chair for a local Breast Cancer Walk. She worked there for seven years, helping to raise thousands of dollars for local women. Currently, she works with the Corona-Norco Settlement House, helping low-income families and individuals in her community.
Most of all, Amelia is grateful that she has been given the chance to see her sons grow: “I wanted to get to see them graduate high school and college, get married, have kids, and grow into good strong men. I have gotten to do all of that! Now I want to see that for my grandkids.”
Going for an annual mammogram is a typical visit for women at some point in their lives. For Sarah Atkinson, it was the visit that covered her with fear and numbed her mind. In 2013, a ductal carcinoma in situ was found in Sarah’s left breast. A ductal carcinoma in situ, or DCIS, is referred to as “the most common type of non-invasive breast cancer.” This was far from “non-invasive” for Sarah as it not only resulted in her having a bilateral mastectomy and reconstructive surgery, but she also suffered a nasty pseudomonas infection in one of her breasts. This experience highly interfered with Sarah’s life and was not the only stress she had to manage. Sarah’s husband had been diagnosed with Lymphoma the same year and had just finished his chemo therapy and radiation just months prior to her diagnosis. Cancer was the abusive houseguest that no one invited, and it was crucial to get it out fast!
To choose to remove both breasts can be one of the toughest decisions a woman may ever have to make. Sarah’s mentality was set on removing the cancer at all costs: “I wanted the cancer gone with no possible way for it to return.” Her annual mammogram began in November of 2013 and by Christmas she was undergoing a surgery that would change her life forever. Sarah recalls a distinct revelation during the healing process prior to reconstructive surgery, “I came to realize breasts are just body parts.” Sarah was blessed by her husband’s compassionate love and support throughout the entire process. Though she remembers having meltdowns, she also remembers reminding herself that the cancer was gone.
She walked down the shaky road of reconstructive surgery by June 2014, just months after treatment. It began to pour rain again in Sarah’s life as she developed an infection in one of her breasts. This pseudomonas infection caused her to fly home from Paris to meet with her breast surgeon immediately in an emergency room and was rushed into surgery to remove the implant. She was confined to an Acute Care Center for a week and suffered as she went home with heavy duty drugs that were administered through a pic line. As her life storm was raging, she expresses deep concern, “It was frustrating as I felt like I was starting over.” Luckily, after some recovery time, Sarah healed and was able to go back months later to have the implant reinserted.
This downpour of events plummeted Sarah into a depression: “I started to struggle with my thoughts and felt sadness.” Concerned, she immediately reached out to a friend who happened to be the CEO of the Cancer Support Community in Redondo Beach. She also spoke with a therapist for a couple of months which was comforting. Through therapy, she discovered more and more about herself, “I was in denial of the cancer. It happened so fast and I handled it like a lot of working women…I had my steps to take, complete and move on.” Reality hit her like a bolt of lightning once treatments were behind her, “I had cancer!” This was a huge issue for Sarah, and she found peace in working through these issues over time.
As the storm cleared, Sarah learned to embrace not only peace, but happiness as well. “I appreciate life so much more and don’t sweat the small stuff, which is just about everything.” She has made a choice to surround herself with people she enjoys and are drama-free. “Time is very precious, don’t miss a minute of it, and try everything,” is a motto she lives by today. In sharing advice, she encourages others to really take their time in choosing doctors and courses of treatment. She says with warning, “Do NOT read the internet,” as it is frightening. Sarah is firm about suggesting that people surround themselves with people who love you and know that it is okay to ask for help. Finally, she always acknowledges the soldiers in the war of cancer, “There is a HUGE community of cancer warriors and survivors who can offer hope and encouragement.” As Sarah lives in peace with her family now, take a piece of her advice in your own personal journey, and when it rains, get out your umbrella and dance!
The phrase, “that took my breath away”, is usually something we think of when picturing one of God’s amazing sunsets. For Rhonda Miller, this phrase sums up a trip to the hospital where she went through a painful procedure of having her lung drained due to a piercing case of pneumonia. There was fluid in the line of her lung, but the pneumonia and the fluid were not what took her breath away; it was the news that followed. That evening, not only would Rhonda be forced to use a drain tube that she would use for six months, but she would also find out she had breast cancer that had metastasized to her lung. After this chilling visit to the emergency room, Rhonda’s life would change – ironically, for the better.
After the doctor left the hospital room, Rhonda recalls feeling a peace that has surpassed most people’s understanding. “There was a calm that came over me, and I felt God’s presence.” Her first thoughts post-diagnosis weren’t about death, but rather, she was filled with a perseverant attitude: “I am going to beat this!” Rhonda immediately sought wisdom through prayer and came to the conclusion that this battle was going to be fought on her knees and that she wasn’t going to undergo typical cancer treatment. With chemo out of the picture, a spirit of fear began to lurk around the family members as they were filled with concern. When hearing the news, they were in shock. Her sister-in-law stood over her bed in dismay. “You’re not in reality, Rhonda,” she said quietly. Rhonda’s mustard seed of faith had grown into a gigantic watermelon and she knew that she was confident in her decision. She needed to leave the hospital, and within hours everyone was on the same page. Despite the circumstances of a misdiagnosed lump from years ago, and a stress- and environmental-induced cancer, partnered with suffocating pneumonia, Rhonda hadn’t given up and entered the battleground as she covered herself in armor. The battle began as a team of prayer warriors visited this courageous woman around the clock. Everything was about to change.
The first thing that changed in Rhonda’s life was her eating habits. She changed her habits immediately; after leaving the hospital, she decided to follow the lifestyle of being 80% vegetarian with small amounts of meat. Everything she consumes is organic, gluten-free, dairy-free, and wheat-free, and as a result she feels healthier than ever before. Rhonda takes over 250 supplements a day as well as indulges in occasional coffee cleanses. “The typical oncologist wouldn’t even give it credit, but I look at as God’s chemo,” is the way she puts it when asked about her special treatment.
The search for a doctor that aligned with her beliefs took two and a half months and was an exercise in faith. “I had to lead me to the right doctor and treatment for me.” Rhonda didn’t believe that everyone is the same and yearned to find someone who was not only going to address the obvious diagnosis, but look at her mind, body, and food intake as well. “I knew I wanted to find a doctor who was going to address my entire body.” After interviewing four other doctors, the fifth one was the charm. Rhonda had found Dr. Leigh Connealy from Irvine.
The approach taken was a natural health approach. Dr. Leigh’s philosophy speculates that there are serious flaws with the mainstream approach to health care, which is a result of health practitioners focusing more on treating disease and trauma and less focus on the root causes of these conditions. As an answered prayer for Rhonda, she’d found a doctor that was dedicated to discovering a healthier way to heal. Together, Dr. Leigh and Rhonda began to explore homeopathic, nutritional, and lifestyle approaches to her treatment, while still staying plugged-in to the latest developments in cancer treatment.
Rhonda was able to decide what treatment was best for her, rather than being forced into the norm. “I decided on hormone therapy with a lot of different natural vitamins and supplements.” She continues to undergo acupuncture, infrared heat treatments, and lymphatic massage. “I also do rebounding which is jumping on a trampoline to move your lymphatic system.” Rhonda has also had the opportunity to try out a treatment from Europe called GcMaf which is a part of Dr. Leigh’s integrative approach. When asked about the physical and physiological changes that she has endured throughout this process, Rhonda smiles and expresses that she feels physically better than she has in a couple of years. When reflecting on any psychological changes, she shares, “My spiritual growth is huge, and I feel closer to God than ever before!”
Though Rhonda’s journey has been filled with blessings, and everyone is now on board with her attitude of survival, her heart ached when sharing how her children took the news. She recalled the fear in their eyes, and her voice shook as she remembered the pain they felt in thinking that they may lose their mother. Even though her children were older when receiving the news, no parent ever wants to tell their children that they have cancer. Thanks to Rhonda’s and her husband’s faith, honesty, and positive attitude, her children adopted the same outlook and are on the battlefield with her cheering her on.
Through God’s hand in all of this, Rhonda has been blessed with a team of people who stick by her side through thick and thin. She is surrounded by love and faith as they support her through this journey. Her family and friends not only help her with practical things like chores, errands, and cooking, but also assist her with any treatment-related issue. She is never alone during any appointment and through it all, God is by her side. When asked what has helped the most during her treatment, she shares, “My faith, my friends, and my family have helped. God is first, and after that, my husband is number 1!”
A story that comes to Rhonda’s mind during this battle is the story of the woman with the issue of blood in the Bible. When struggling with this issue for over 12 years, it wasn’t doctors or medicine who healed her, it was God. “Daughter, your faith has healed you,” is a quote from the Bible that has strengthened Rhonda’s journey, and she attests it is her faith that keeps her going. Her advice to other people suffering with cancer is not to be afraid, not to be scared, and know that God will uphold you with his right hand. When asked about remission, Rhonda has erased that word out of her vocabulary. “I don’t call it remission; I call it being cured and healed.”
Her experience with cancer has given her more patience and the desire to want everyone to be filled with love. She is also now more sensitive and understanding to people’s aches and pains. She encourages others who may suffer cancer or who are presently suffering that there is always hope, and encourages everyone to really look into what they are putting into their body. “Sugar feeds cancer,” she believes emphatically.
Even though she isn’t cancer-free on paper, Rhonda’s story is still a testament to others. She believes in God’s power to heal and restore. She is proactive in taking care of her body better than most people do without a diagnosis. She has surrounded herself with peace and eliminated major stressors out of her life. She is strong, courageous, and thrives while her faith drives her to peruse. In closing, she shares her words of wisdom” “I have learned to trust God and my intuition. I have learned that I am here to help people. I have always been the type of person who took care of others and neglected myself, and now I am learning to take care of me.” Rhonda has made a choice to rejoice. She has remained steadfast under trial and is an inspiration to many who are walking in her shoes. She is thriving through faith, with hope and patience in tribulation, while being constant in prayer. Her healing is on the way, and we are all blessed to be a part of her journey of faith.
By Sabrina Short