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Member Stories

Barbara Danford Hirsch

After months, years, of symptoms of fatigue, persistent congestion, shortness of breath and increasing weakness to a point I could no longer walk, I actually felt relief to hear the ER doctor tell me I had leukemia. I'd been working under the diagnoses that nothing physical was really wrong with me, which is not uncommon in leukemia in older people. Fortunately and oddly, for me, cancer wasn't the worst thing I'd faced. Past experience taught me that the only control I had in any situation was my choice of response. So, after all the work I'd put into reclaiming my well-being through physical, mental and spiritual workouts, I was ready to take this on.

My two sons, Chris and Matt, both living on the East Coast, were prepared by medical staff that I wouldn't make it: I had to live long enough to establish the best treatment for acute myelogonous leukemia, and then get through the 'killer chemo', Ara-C. If I could do that, they were told, I might have a chance! Based only on intuition, I made a drastic decision to limit my visitors, focus entirely on healing. Wonderful nurses, particularly Renee Guiterrez, at UW Hospital, guided me through the first of a few treatments and educated me the way I like it: logically, directly, and with her hearty compassion. I needed the logic because the complications required a steady control of my response to remain on healing.

I also enlisted 'The Scorpion King'. I was aware that visualization is a powerful ally in healing, but I didn't have a mighty image to use until I woke and looked up at the TV in time to see the Scorpion King push himself up out of a sand dune in spite of awful battle wounds. As I continued to watch, I knew I had my Immune System Defender Extraordinaire! And so it went. My first treatment included a subdural hematoma requiring brain repair surgery and my last two treatments had resulted in hospitalizations for varieties of infections caused by my diminished immune system. In short, I survived, but not finish the treatment because I frankly was afraid I would not live through subsequent treatments. Next, without skipping a beat, I wanted to f0cus on making choices the enhanced my well-being.

I just wanted to enjoy breathing deeply, yawning, walking, laughing deeply. I'd seen some cancer survivors in the past, before recognition of the social and personal impact of cancer, who relapsed into self-medicating and self-destructive behavior in attempts to enjoy life, to live through the reminders displayed by both the physical and emotional scars of cancer. I wanted something else to reflect my joy to be alive. That's why I came to Gilda's Club. I'd heard of it since it's inception and announcement of the Seattle chapter before my diagnosis had me referring people I knew surviving cancer.

Gilda's Club Wellness Group is now part of my family. Cancer is not an experience you get treatment for and you're done. Cancer, like any life threatening experience, changes you and whether or not they show it, it changes the people around you. Some stay, some go. Sometimes you let them go. Your priorities change. Your interests take on a different emphasis. It's like starting life over with a new body. Mostly, you come to that place that is the center of philosophy and religion: aloneness and what do you do about it. My sons went beyond expectation and provided security and comfort in my own home. They listened and they encouraged as I gained strength to walk and take care of myself. A point comes when the caregiver needs relief. Gilda's Club here and elsewhere provide a place for that relief.

I've been on the other side with friends who went through life with cancer and I did not understand nor could I without the experience itself. Faith and belief can get you through a lot, but like a mustard seed, you occasionally need to send your roots deeper, reach more for the nourishment available. And you need a place to give up the restraint, the control, on how and to whom you express your new concerns. Gilda's Club provides that place of essential understanding and acceptance of the centrality of the cancer experience for both me and my friends and family. We can talk with others who share our experience and leave with renewal and confidence to let go the immenseness of it, to live with a smile and breathe deeply.

Did You Know?

“Our prostate cancer patients and their families are fortunate to have this vital resource in the community. Our patients at Virginia Mason benefit from the skilled services provided by the staff and resources of this impressive facility.”

John Corman, MD
Director, Comprehensive Prostate Cancer Clinic, Virginia Mason

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