Cancer’s impact is profound, encompassing
IRON RIVER—The moment a person is given a diagnosis of cancer, their life changes immediately. A torrent of emotions often cascades down on the person and continues to throughout their journey forward. And this onslaught can be overwhelming for the patient as well as spouses, children, family, friends and caregivers.
Though they share similarities, every cancer story is different. As different as the individuals caught up in the throes of the often-catastrophic illness are, each story provides a unique glimpse into human drama involved.
In advance of the fourth annual American Cancer Society Relay for Life on June 9 at Nelson Field, the Reporter talked to one survivor and one surviving caregiver, both of whom have ventured far into the darkness of the cancer experience.
Allyce Westphal was golfing, not a surprise to people who know her. It was Sept. 27, 2012, her 71st birthday. She received a call from her family doctor in Iron Mountain with a simple message.
“I want you to go to the hospital for an ultrasound.”
For some time, Westphal had experienced bouts of pain and bloating in her lower abdomen. She was often unable to eat much or tolerate a few drinks. Different courses of antibiotic treatments helped, but only temporarily. The last time, the antibiotics didn’t help at all.
So her doctor ordered a CAT scan, which eventually led to the ultrasound. When Westphal went to Northstar (now Aspirus) in Iron River, the technician hit her with a gut punch.
“He said, ‘I’m sorry to meet you under these circumstances,’” Westphal recalled. “And he confirmed that I had ovarian cancer.”
Ovarian cancer is often called “the silent killer” because its symptoms, like a bloated belly and a lack of appetite, often appear in the advanced stages of the illness. The symptoms it does produce are often thought to be caused by much more benign conditions.
Westphal, now 76 years old, remembered her initial response to the harrowing news that she had Stage 3 ovarian cancer.
“I don’t remember panicking. And maybe I contribute that to, years ago I used to take a lot of yoga lessons. And it was sort of like my body just went into what they call that ‘easy pose.’ I
was like, ‘Don’t get overexcited, just handle it.’
“I’m sure there was some initial panic, but I tried to keep it at a low level.”
Within a month, Westphal underwent her first surgery. She was supposed to proceed with a surgery called “debulking” which is basically shaving away at a tumor. But initially Westphal was unable to undergo that procedure because the tumors in her body were too large.
Like one that was sitting near her colon, forcing her to use an ostomy bag.
Five rounds of chemotherapy followed (six were scheduled, but Westphal was not able to tolerate any beyond five). She lost over 30 pounds. But at that point she was able to undergo the debulking procedure and surgeons “rehooked” her to her colon completely.
During all this, Westphal’s attitude and continuing mindset regarding her illness emerged.
“I kind of put it into perspective,” she said. “I’ve been diagnosed with this horrible disease. But I’m like 70-some years old. What about these kids who get cancer at 2- and 3-years old and it is terminal. It was sort of like, ‘I lived my life. If that’s where this is going to end up, panicking isn’t going to do anything.’”
Westphal also decided that she was not going to inundate herself with information on ovarian cancer.
“I didn’t want to know all the reasons why I was not going to survive. I did not want to know.”
While some of this sounds fatalistic, in truth, Westphal’s response had been anything but. She has a feisty, combative attitude to her illness, even five years after she was first diagnosed.
“It’s probably the biggest fight of my life because you are fighting for your life. They will tell you that a good attitude goes a long way as far as healing you. I don’t know. I guess I’m just plain stubborn. And I’m not going to let this get me down. I’m going to fight this to the end.”
After an initial remission, Westphal’s cancer marker numbers began to climb again after a couple of years. So, she underwent chemotherapy again. Again, her numbers went down, but again they eventually went back up. Doctors also saw a spot near her spleen and a spot in the lymph nodes in her renal area that caused concern.
She has since been on a chemotherapy maintenance drug designed to keep her in remission. All her reproduction organs were removed along the way.
As a result of this experience, Westphal has come to realize the importance of listening to our bodies.
“Some people don’t go to the doctor because they don’t want to know what’s going on. Or maybe they can’t afford to go. But when your body tells you something, definitely check it out. Because if it’s major, the sooner they find it, the sooner they can work on curing it.
Westphal says she feels good most of the time now, notwithstanding some fatigue and “chemo brain” which causes her to forget some things and her mind to be foggy. But she is back on the golf course and back to enjoying life as she enjoys living it.
“I tell people, if cancer wants me, it’s going to have to come and drag me off the golf course because I’m not going quietly.”
n Ashley Jones
Ashley Jones was just 23 years old and her husband, Ryan Guzowski, was just 24 when disaster struck. They were high school sweethearts at West Iron and were now back in Iron River just beginning their adult lives with two young daughters.
It was Christmas Eve, 2008. Guzowski, who had been experiencing GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease) symptoms, fainted in their kitchen. At first Jones thought he was joking, but quickly realized he wasn’t. Shortly after that episode, Guzowski had a scope done, though the couple still thought he just had an ulcer.
But it wasn’t just an ulcer. A few days later, they were told that what was inside Guzowski was malignant. But still, the young couple never imagined what was about to take place.
“Whatever it was, cut it out,” Jones said, recalling her reaction. “We’ll figure this out because he’s healthy, he’s young.”
The next day, Guzowski and Jones traveled to Marshfield to see an oncology surgeon. They were about to see a shocking picture.
“He sat us down in front of the computer and turned the screen,” Jones said. “And (Ryan) had this softball-size mass in his stomach. At that point, it sunk in.”
The oncologist followed with harrowing news. With treatment, Guzowski would have about a 50-50 chance of survival. Without treatment, the odds of survival dropped to about 20.
“And we just kind of stumbled out of there,” Jones said. “He was just devastated. Absolutely devastated. And at that moment, my role changed.”
Barely an adult herself, Jones was no longer just wife and mother. She became the caregiver of a cancer patient, a multi-faceted role that is unimaginable to those who’ve never experienced it. Jones is extraordinarily open and insightful about the traumatic journey that followed, 11 months of hell that didn’t end even after her husband died of stomach cancer at 25.
“I was not his wife anymore, I was not his friend anymore,” Jones explained. “I stepped into the role as 100 percent caregiver. I had to wear all the hats, I had two little ones to take care of and I was working full time. Oh my god, I was 23 years old. I had the weight of the world on my shoulders.”
Though Guzowski qualified for disability under his employer’s insurance plan, extreme financial pressure built up. And so did the emotional tension. Jones said her husband struggled with being unable to provide for his family as a working husband and father. On the other hand, she said she felt like she had to become tough, all the time, to take care of all the daily tasks that piled up.
And the couple, together since she was 15 years old, began to lose each other.
“I think, without a doubt, without even hesitating, the hardest part is you literally lose your loved one, inch-by-inch. So, you suffer from beginning to end. You lose pieces of your relationship. It’s little heartbreaks along the way. We can’t go out to dinner anymore, we can’t go out on dates anymore. Anything that involves food, that’s not part of our lives anymore. Or taking your little one on a bike ride or the romantic part of your relationship. You can’t be intimate with each other like you were.”
As all these pressures mounted and all these losses chipped away at their lives, Guzowski’s physical condition deteriorated. He underwent a total gastrectomy, a total splenectomy and had 17 lymph nodes removed. Jones said her husband underwent a “radical” surgery that basically created a new, small pocket-like stomach.
In early July, not even a year after the diagnosis, Jones said she knew her husband was dying.
“He was constantly throwing up, for 11 months. He just got weaker and weaker. He probably lost 60 pounds. And I remember waiting for him to come home from an appointment in Marshfield. I couldn’t pick him up that time. And I remember him walking through the door and it was just the way he looked.