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Esophageal CancerPatient Stories

Stand Up Straight and “Whistle a Happy Tune”

Donna Avery describes her stage III esophageal cancer diagnosis and the path that led her to regain her ability to do something that brings her joy: whistling.
October 2017 Vol 3 No 5
Donna May Avery, MA, EdD

I love to whistle. I whistle absentmindedly in my office, at home, while walking, cooking—as often as I can. It relaxes me and helps me concentrate. My parents were whistlers, too. After my cancer surgery, I could not whistle: not enough breath, let alone breath control. Three months later, on St. Patrick’s Day morning, I surprised myself by whistling a few notes. Looking in the mirror, I thought this looked like me. I had not seen the “me” I recognize in some time. I knew I had turned the corner.

“Yes, it’s definitely esophageal cancer, stage III,” our doctor said over the phone. My husband and I parked at our supermarket, deciding what to pick up for supper.

It was August 2013; beastly hot in Chicago. With that call, everything stopped. Blinding white light, then stillness, silence.

Cancer—the word hits like a bomb blast, and I am the shards. My senses shut down. What to do? What’s worth doing? Start supper? Does it matter? Do it anyway. So what helped?

Cancer as a Crab

Historically, the Greek word for “crab” was used to describe cancerous cells, and the disease has therefore often been identified with the sign of the crab. Some cancers grow quickly, and others take years to develop. My tumor had apparently taken 6 to 10 years to grow. Actually, I am a “cancer,” having been born under that zodiac sign (“crab”). I practiced saying the word “cancer” over and over, louder and louder, until I felt comfortable saying it. Not a bad-sounding word: certainly better than “crab.”

I decide I will not be passive. I will own it. My cancer, my cells, my treatment, my life now. Head high, stand up straight, and smile. Ask questions; be engaged with doctors, nurses, and radiation therapists; use their names; and say thank you, always say thank you. And whistle to myself for as long as I am able.

Radiation and the Gown

Cancer is no time to pretend to be anyone but who you are, no time to stand on ceremony or care what anyone else thinks. The essential you comes through. Two weeks into radiation, I got really annoyed at the “gown situation.” The scene: 3 changing rooms, gowns folded on a shelf. But one room may have 20 gowns, next door none. Two are needed to cover the front and back. Patients would start to undress, only to discover no gowns. This situation forced me to help. Each visit, I distributed gowns to ensure there were some in each room. My way of participating, doing something positive, saying, “Hey, I’m still here.”

Finding Inspiration

I found inspiration in the struggle of 8-month-old Leela, the healthy granddaughter of dear friends who sent a video of the baby learning to crawl. Leela is down on all fours on a rug. She senses that her arms and legs must move together, but how? She rocks back and forth swaying, getting the feel of the motion. Her arms move forward, but she can’t quite get those dear little chubby legs going in sync. She keeps at it, over and over, smiling and cooing, mighty energy and concentration in that baby body. I watched her so many times with tears in my eyes: Leela crawled while I recovered.

Pain medications taste so bad. But how to get them down? Radiation had left my esophagus so raw that swallowing whole pills was not an option. Cut the pills in half, or crush them: there’s a gadget for each. I tried mixing the crushed powder with yogurt, which just made the awful stuff last longer. A visiting nurse suggested mixing the powder with something sour, such as cranberry juice. Uh, no thanks.

Finally a routine that worked, made possible by very special friends, who sent glorious flowers every few weeks: stand near the flowers; cut the pill in half; bury half in a teaspoon glop of tapioca, pudding, yogurt, or soft ice cream. Put it in the mouth. Quickly wash it down with a gulp of Boost or other liquid. Immediately bury your face in the flowers, inhale the fragrance, love the colors, and appreciate the friends who love you. Repeat. Then rest, and be glad that’s over for the next 4 to 6 hours. Postscript: a radiation nurse recommended always taking a laxative with pain medications, or eating a couple of prunes.

I love dogs, but I never thought I would look like one. People say that after time, owners begin to look like the dogs they love. But I’ve never had a Shar-Pei, so why do I look like one? I lost about 20 pounds, so my body shrank, but not my skin. Cancer is never boring—expect the unexpected.

Staying Positive Key for Recovery

Although not yet scientifically verified, oncologists endorse staying positive as a most important factor in recovery. It’s easy to get beaten down by cancer, so it’s important to catch signs of depression quickly. I had dark moments, but thanks to friends and family, they were only fleeting moments.

A positive attitude helped friends help me and my husband. Patients and caregivers need messages, cards, thoughts and prayers, songs, books, gifts, poems, meals prepared, colorful flowers and plants, visits and conversation, errands run, and personal time to themselves. These gifts are essential and life-sustaining. They are the everyday silver linings of cancer.

Recovery is an act of love and of will. Love alone is not enough. Will alone is not enough. I know I’m healthy now. I’m all here. I feel it deep, deep down. Will the cancer return? Who knows? Maybe. But not today.

And if it does, I know there’s a mighty force for me with the latest advances medical science has to offer, delivered with the gentlest of care.

There will also be for me my village of family and friends. I see their faces. I hear their voices. Will they save my life again? They did once. Will I save my life again? I did once, too.

Come what may, one thing is for sure—I’ll expect to be whistling quietly, recalling a line from the song “Whistle a Happy Tune,” which is featured in the movie, “The King and I”—“You may be as brave as you make believe you are.”

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Last modified: October 31, 2017