Finding out you have cancer is scary. The feeling of not knowing what to expect and fearing the worst can be discouraging, but knowing you are not alone can help. Stories – both reading stories and telling stories – can help with that healing process.
For National Cancer Survivors Month in June, UR Medicine’s Strong West, located in Brockport, gathered stories of cancer survivorship from its employees, volunteers and patients. The goal was to inspire others who are starting a cancer journey now, to let them know they are not alone, and that there is hope.
The stories below were shared and edited for clarity and brevity.
Support Means Everything to One Cancer Survivor
None of us will forget March 2020 as the COVID pandemic really hit home – but Lisa Lauth, who works in Prior Authorization at Strong West, will remember it for another reason. It is when she was diagnosed with large B-cell lymphoma in both her kidneys.
Lisa had six months of intense chemotherapy and needed three hospitalizations. She lost her hair and had times where she felt very warm. She also has nausea and overall discomfort.
But reflecting back, what she remembers most about her journey is everyone who supported her, especially her husband, Christopher, and daughter, Jenna. Due to hospital visitation restrictions at the time, her family had to drop her off and pick her up for each appointment. It was hard. But once she was home, they would do everything they could to comfort her, including sanitizing the house thoroughly every time they had to leave to keep her safe. Her daughter, was working and going to school for nursing, but still managed to be there for her mother.
Lisa also remembers the compassion her nurses and doctors showed. She says her physician, Patrick Reagan, MD, became a beacon of hope and positivity, and the nursing staff was her strength. They ensured Lisa that she was going to kick this! She stayed positive and trusted her team whole heartedly – and her advice to others in a similar situation is to do the same.
One Survivor’s Journey from Stage 0 to Grateful
In February 2022, Mary Gulvin, a volunteer at Strong West, found out she had stage 0 breast cancer after a routine mammogram. Stage 0 breast cancer, also known as ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), is the earliest type of breast cancer. It means cancer cells have been found in the ducts or lobules of the breast but it has not spread into surrounding breast tissue.
Mary felt a flood of different emotions. She was nervous and scared, but hopeful and positive, too. Her course included a lumpectomy and five radiation treatments, surrounded by an incredible support system of friends, family, and medical professionals.
Today, Mary is a cancer survivor and proud of it. Although she sometimes struggles with feeling like a true survivor because her cancer was caught so early with a good prognosis, she has come to understand that she is still very worthy of being called a survivor.
Since her diagnosis, Mary continues to be an advocate for mammograms and early detection. It really does help save lives. She encourages all her friends and relatives to stay up to date on their appointments. Mary’s advice to those who may be struggling is to stay positive, to let go of any shame associated with your diagnosis, and to lean on others for support.
Double Diagnoses, Decades Apart, Can’t Deter Cancer Survivor
Despite facing cancer twice, Nancy Nix says she won’t let it control her life.
A nurse with the University of Rochester for 22 years, she currently works in Primary Care at Strong West. When she was 34 with three small children, she got the news: She had Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Within three days of an emergency CT scan in 1999, Nancy started treatment. She had six months of chemotherapy followed by six weeks of radiation, all while taking care of her three children and working. Afterward, Nancy thankfully was in remission for many years.
In 2019, her routine mammogram revealed bad news she hoped she’d never hear again: she had cancer. This time, it was breast cancer, most likely a side effect caused from the radiation therapy she had had earlier for her lymphoma.
Her previous cancer history meant her treatment options were limited. She decided surgery would be her best option. Today, she is doing well. Support from her family and co-workers made a huge difference.
Her advice for others? Do your homework, get more opinions, and research your options. And trust yourself! She noticed there are so many more support options available today compared to when she was diagnosed in 1999. Take advantage of online support groups, podcasts, books, and local organizations like the Breast Cancer Coalition of Rochester. Also, if needed, speak with a social worker, who can help with navigating financial concerns, transportation needs and more.
Two Breast Cancer Diagnoses, Two Decades Apart
Sandra Fuller, a Prior Authorization specialist for Wilmot at Strong West, has faced breast cancer not once, but twice.
At age 36, she found a lump on her breast during a self-exam. She felt shocked because she had no family history of breast cancer, but a biopsy confirmed it was an invasive form of breast cancer. As a single, working mom at the time, her biggest worry was not to let her 6-year-old daughter worry.
She had a lumpectomy, chemotherapy and radiation, and received hormone medications. The most difficult part was the chemotherapy, and the unknown, especially during that season of her life.
Fast forward 23 years, and after a routine mammogram, Sandra received the same unimaginable diagnosis. She once again had the same cancer, on the same breast. She couldn’t believe it was happening again, but this time she felt different; she felt stronger and surer of what she needed to do. She’s scheduled to have a double mastectomy in June.
Despite two breast cancer diagnoses, Sandra is thankful for so much: to have progress in technology and that she only needs one surgery, too work for the University of Rochester, and to have great providers taking care of her. They have helped her with every question she’s had. Her husband, daughter, and family in Boston have also been super supportive.
Sandra’s advice to others would be to open up about your diagnosis. Talk about it and have a support system. You are not alone! There are so many avenues of support, especially for breast cancer. She even found social media to be helpful throughout this process, following other survivors’ journeys of reconstruction and recovery.
Family and Faith Bring One Survivor through the Storm
In April 2019, Sarah True received two life-altering phone calls. One about a new job. Another to inform her she had an aggressive breast cancer. This was her second time facing cancer; she is also a melanoma survivor.
The mother of four and wife of a pastor opted for a double mastectomy. It was challenging, both physically and emotionally. Ten days after surgery, she watched one of her children graduate from high school. A few weeks later, she started chemotherapy. On Friday nights, she’d get her chemo and then rush to be on the sidelines of her son’s football games. On Valentine’s Day, she finished radiation, completing her treatment regimen.
Her family’s support has been amazing and each processed her illness differently. Her daughter couldn’t handle anything medical, but played an important role in taking her brothers around whenever Sarah needed a driver. One of her children met her surgeon and several oncologists and asked dozens of questions; he is now pursuing a medical degree as a result of Sarah and her family's experience. Her other two children made her laugh often and kept her encouraged with notes and hugs. Her husband made her feel beautiful even with no hair.
Her medical team provided important support, as did her church family, neighbors and fellow cancer warriors and friends. Her faith also played a vital role in her life before and during treatment. Having cancer was a dark, difficult time, but her Christian faith helped her feel brave, strong and completely healed. She says Jesus is her Savior and her advice would be to completely trust Him throughout life’s challenges.
Grateful for the ‘angels on her shoulder’
Sherry Daum, an access specialist with Strong West’s Emergency Department, almost skipped the mammogram appointment that found her stage 1 breast cancer. It was a busy day at work and she felt overwhelmed. But her coworkers and friends urged her to still go to the appointment, and she now calls them the “angels on her shoulder.”
If she had skipped, it would have been at least another year before she went back and the diagnosis could have ended up a lot worse. She ended up needing a mastectomy but could skip chemotherapy and radiation. While her surgery went well, recovery was challenging and she has struggled with her body image afterward. She grieved for parts of herself that are no longer there. Therapy helped her cope and remain positive on tough days. She works to focus on what brings her joy, such as spending time with loved ones, including her three daughters, who provide her with comfort and strength. She also finds solace at work. Her coworkers are her friends and confidants and she’s very grateful for them.
Her advice for others is to ask a lot of questions, advocate for yourself and be brave. There are good days and bad days and that’s okay. Having someone to talk to can help.