Denise Townsend: Fighting Forward
It was pure chance that Denise Townsend’s breast cancer was discovered early. She didn’t have any symptoms, her lump was not detectable through a physical exam and she had not been getting annual mammograms.
Cathy Wilson, a nurse practitioner at the Sheridan Health Center, was treating Denise for giardiasis, an infection in the small intestine.
“As part of my check-up, Cathy asked me when I last had a mammogram,” says Denise. “I told her it had been twelve years.”
Denise’s mammogram detected a suspicious looking mass; but it took an ultrasound test and a breast biopsy to confirm she had a tumor.
“When they ask you to come in to the office to discuss the results of your mammogram, you know that it is not going to be good news,” says Denise. “I was a bit in shock. All I could think was, oh no, it’s really cancer. Oh no, what am I going to do?”
“When I stopped into the Welch Cancer Center, I was amazed by the beautiful building; but the people inside were even more amazing,” says Denise. “I spoke with Kim, the receptionist and Nina Beach, the nurse practitioner. I explained that I had just been diagnosed with cancer and didn’t know what to do. Everything was happening so fast. Then, I began to cry.”
Denise was feeling completely overwhelmed and rightly so. She was told she had cancer on a Thursday and was scheduled for lumpectomy surgery the following Monday. Arrangements were made for Denise to meet with the hospital social worker right away. The two talked for a couple hours about her situation and the resources that were available. While Denise still couldn’t see light at the end of the tunnel, she was feeling somewhat better.
Once treatment started, Denise would go on to face other emotional challenges, like losing her hair, which reached down past her derriere.
“I had been thinking about a new hairdo before my diagnosis,” says Denise. “I just wasn’t planning on going bald!”
Denise’s cancer treatment included surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Along with treatment, she endured all of the emotional and physical characteristics that go along with it. At one point, she had to fight her way back to health from an inflamed pancreas. It caused her to be admitted to the ICU for a few days and came close to taking her life.
“Throughout my medical care at Sheridan Memorial Hospital, I was never treated like a number,” says Denise. “I am grateful for all of the assistance I was offered and compassionate care that I received from Dr. Greg Marino, Nina Beach and Dr. Shaun Gonda, plus all of the nurses and technicians.”
Another person who played a significant and very supportive role during Denise’s treatment was her daughter, Shara, who moved to Dayton just to help her mother out.
“My daughter is the number one reason that I emotionally survived this journey,” says Denise. “She helped me to stay positive and keep my sense of humor. She taught me how to network on the Internet, so that I could reach out to other cancer victims.”
Fortunately for Denise, her cancer was caught early, so her prognosis is good. Life is back on track for the most part. She has developed new friendships. She has renewed confidence and a stronger, more positive outlook.
“I’m still not certain of what the future has in store for me,” says Denise. “Though, I do know that I want to share my cancer journey in a way that helps others. I also want to encourage women to GET SCREENED! 1 in 8 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime. Those are not good odds. The ONLY way to survive cancer is through early detection.”
Denise goes on to say, “Cancer is scary; but you are NOT alone. There are so many resources out there that you can tap into. Don’t be afraid to reach out. It’s things like having cancer that help you discover what you are really made of. You also realize how many people there are out there that really do care. My motto is Fighting Forward, the rest I leave in God’s hands.”
A Conversation with Geraldine & Larry
If anyone can compare cancer services in Sheridan, Wyoming years ago to what is available today, it is Geraldine and Larry Roberts. Geraldine had three occurrences of cancer in her right breast in a span of 15 years. The first diagnosis resulted in chemotherapy and radiation treatment, the second involved a mastectomy and this last time consisted of another round of chemotherapy and radiation.
When they talk about their journey, Larry and Geraldine agree, “We both had cancer.” Geraldine may have been the one diagnosed with breast cancer, but cancer definitely affected both of their lives. So, they tackled Geraldine’s cancer in the same manner they did in 35 years of marriage – as partners.
Geraldine’s job as the patient was to get better, while Larry filled the role of caretaker. Larry worked full time and took care of the housekeeping, cooking, laundry and yard. He helped manage Geraldine’s care by accompanying her to all of her clinic and treatment appointments and keeping a careful account of the treatment details, blood pressure, weight and medications.
“To accomplish the additional work load you have to set priorities, do only those things that are truly important,” Larry said. “The extra work is easy when you love the person you are caring for.”
The caretaker needs to take care of himself, by eating right and getting sufficient rest,” reminded Geraldine. This is something too often neglected. “Yes dear,” Larry surrendered.
During the first bout of cancer, Geraldine had not mentally prepared to be so sick with nausea. Nothing tasted good. “Milk even tasted sour!” Geraldine proclaimed. “Larry tried every food imaginable, including ice cream! The only thing I somewhat enjoyed was fried potatoes. So we ate fried potatoes for six months,” she grinned. When this last cancer was discovered, Geraldine was pleasantly surprised to learn there are now special drugs available to help with nausea. It made her treatment much more bearable.
Out of love, Larry is the one who shaved Geraldine’s head both times radiation and chemotherapy caused her hair to begin falling out in clumps. “It’s best just to get it over with,” says Geraldine. “But, the first time he shaved my head, I cried when I looked in the mirror. I hadn’t known what to expect. It was such a shock. There weren’t wigs available back then like there are today. I didn’t want to go out in public until a neighbor was nice enough to make me a bonnet to wear.” The second time Larry shaved Geraldine’s head she had an assortment of wigs and hats to choose from, including a Harley Davidson do-rag that Larry surprised her with!
When you lose a breast, you feel like you are no longer a whole person. You don’t want to undress in front of your husband. In fact, the first time I looked at myself in the mirror, after the mastectomy, I just screamed.” At the time, Larry went immediately to Geraldine’s side, “I reminded her that I didn’t marry a boob!” Geraldine quipped back, “But, I did!” They both laughed. In reality though, Larry’s reaction made all the difference in the world to Geraldine and getting a fitted bra and breast prosthesis made her feel even better.
“Learning to cope with cancer is a real challenge, it changes how you perceive life,” explained Geraldine. “Life becomes all the more precious when it is at risk. It teaches you to realize what is truly important and to let go of what isn’t. You come to fully appreciate each new day and the happiness it can bring.”
Geraldine’s advice is to “take one day at a time but also identify something you will have to look forward to in the future – after treatment is over. Above all, if you need help, ask for help. Don’t suffer in silence.”
Having her cancer care anywhere but Sheridan Memorial Hospital’s Welch Cancer Center was never a thought for consideration. Geraldine remarked, “I have great faith in our hospital system. I had received good care here in the past and all of the services I needed were available right here. There was no need to look elsewhere.”
Geraldine now marvels at the changes that have taken place throughout her entire cancer journey, from the first cancer treatment she received in a house (the Partridge House) in 2000 compared to her second treatment course which took place at the Welch Cancer Center this past year. “The differences are dramatic,” observes Geraldine. She is in awe of the new facility and the new equipment, and extremely impressed by the exceptionally trained and compassionate nursing staff. She appreciates the way Dr. Fehir and Dr. Marino put her at ease with their personalized care and compassion.
“The one thing that hasn’t changed over the years is how special the staff is,” Geraldine says warmly. “They treat you the same way you would expect to be treated by your family.”