Mary Lee Shawver's Story
"My motto is to live, love and laugh through all of this, and to only keep the CAN in 'cancer'!"
On April 20, 2006, my life changed forever. . . I was diagnosed with cancer of the stomach and esophagus. I had probably been in denial since before Thanksgiving of 2005. I was trying to lose a few unwanted pounds before the holidays, and without too much effort on my part I lost a pants size, which at the time felt quite good to me. I also was having intermittent swallowing problems, deep in my chest, which would cause concern but then seem to be nonexistent. (Oh, I didn’t mention I have been an operating room nurse for 40 years; therefore I am well aware of the signs of cancer, two of which are difficulty swallowing and unexplained loss of weight.) Yes, I was in severe denial and probably scared to death of what the future might have in store for me. I am still very much in love with my husband of 39 years; and my three daughters, their husbands who are like sons, and our three grandchildren are my world that I didn’t want to leave just yet.
When I finally made the appointment with Dr. Sheinbaum, a gastroenterologist at Stamford Hospital whom I have known for 15 years, his comment was why had I waited so long and even then I could see in his eyes dismay. That word, "denial," was there again. Immediately after the procedure, I was sent for a CT scan which confirmed in my abdomen what they had seen directly with the gastroscope. There were many tears that day in the endoscopy suite, as I have known and been friends with all of these wonderful nurses and doctors for a long time.
The very next day we were sent by Dr. Sheinbaum to meet with Dr. Paul Weinstein at the Bennett Cancer Center, which is part of Stamford Hospital. This man has become one of my heroes in this uphill battle. After a very long and enlightening talk about this new disease that was to take over my life, he said something that neither my husband nor I will ever stop hearing in our heads. He said, “We are going for a cure!” He gave us hope. The thought of that moment even now brings tears to my eyes.
We were told that the protocol for my cancer would be nine weeks of chemotherapy, which would involve getting a portacath so that one of the three drugs, 5FU, could be administered 24 hours a day and seven days a week for those nine weeks; then surgery; followed by radiation and the same scenario of chemo. Chemo is not fun. While it kills bad cells, it also attacks good cells. Some days you feel like and look like you are going to die from this treatment that is supposed to make you better. I am very thankful and grateful that my body withstood [it], and responded strongly; I only had a few setbacks when my chemo was withheld so my body could again build up my cells to help me fight.
Nearing the end of my first round of chemo in July, through Dr. Weinstein we met my second hero in this story, Dr. Ronald Salem (Chief of Surgical Oncology) at Yale, who was to become my surgeon. My husband and I immediately became comfortable with this kind, soft-spoken man whom we could both tell was very much respected and loved by his staff, both office and surgical residents. He, too, gave us reason to hope. On August 2, I had seven hours of surgery to remove two-thirds of my esophagus and the upper portion (or cardia) of my stomach. After spending eight days in the hospital, four of which were in the ICU, I would recommend Dr. Salem (and Yale) to anyone thinking to leave the state of Connecticut for care elsewhere.
Good news came after my surgery, in that I did not need radiation - there was nothing to radiate. The second round of chemo was to be “the icing on the cake,” said Dr. W. Then on December 16 and 17, following CT and PET scans, no evidence of cancer was seen. I am feeling very well and healthy now. Through a program free of charge to me, sponsored by the Bennett Cancer Center and their Walk held every June, I am going to a personal trainer at “The Kneaded Touch” in Stamford, for one hour, three days a week, for eight weeks to help me regain my strength and muscle. What a special touch!
I will not forget my third hero in all of this, the American Cancer Society. Only a few days after I was diagnosed, my son-in-law Bart McDonough brought home information about a function, an all-night walk for cancer that we knew nothing about called Relay for Life. Within a few days the team [called] “MLSpirit” in honor of me was formed by Bart and my daughter Kristen. Relay very early on gave me hope and helped me in “the fight of my life.”
To backtrack to my very first day of chemo, we met a very soft-spoken, calming and sweet nurse named Clarissa Valencia. She answered our every question about chemo and what we could expect without missing a beat. She also gave us two books from the ACS, which I read cover to cover while receiving those first drips and injections of Cisplatin and Epirubicin. They were “Understanding Chemotherapy” and “Nutrition for the Person with Cancer,” both guides for patients and families. They were just what we needed and I have shared them with others who weren’t as lucky to receive them. The books were invaluable to my husband and me.
My fourth and most loved hero is my family, who stuck to me like glue during this whole year and continues to support me every day, as they know I continue to fight this battle with every breath that I take. I cannot forget all the prayers and support from my church, Greenfield Hill Congregational, and especially those whom I cannot name and will never know, from all over the world, who have been praying for me. To end my story, my motto is to live, love and laugh through all of this, and to only keep the CAN in "cancer"!
This story was written in 2006. I am still well in 2012, and enjoying life and appreciating it more than ever. My husband, family and I give thanks every day for the Bennett Cancer Center. We as a family feel that support of Bennett Cancer Center and Hope in Motion gives the “best bang for the buck,” in that all funds collected go to patients. We have been walking as a family and with our Stamford surgical team since 2007, and hope to continue to do so for many years to come!