I was diagnosed with stage IV ovarian cancer on April 29, 2004. It had metastasized into my liver. I was too happily innocent about the cancer world and I said two now-remarkable things: “Thank goodness, it is not appendicitis,” and “What is stage V?”
This is the story of my evolution from a very shocked and frightened cancer patient with a form of cancer that has earned itself a lousy reputation.
My simple and profound wish is that no one will ever go through cancer alone. I want every man, woman, teenager, and child who has to ‘walk the walk’ to have a hand to hold from someone who has been there, who understands the cancer mystery, and who will hang in there when times are tough.
I suppose my mission since my “cancer journey” is all about determining the unmet needs of cancer patients, especially the emotional aspects, and do my best to find a way to fill them. The path started with finding ways to assist patients financially, moved to a call-to-action in the community in which I lived, then the wild and wonderful adventure Nancy’s Club for the kids whose lives were touched with cancer, then my book I Am With You: Love Letters to Cancer Patients with 42 cancer survivors and caregivers for newly-diagnosed patients, and now my newest venture of developing a comprehensive national directory of integrative healing practitioners who offer their services (and their souls) to deepen the healing process.
I am oftentimes asked what I did that was so unique, so mysterious that I survived a lethal dose of cancer, the silent killer as ovarian cancer is often called. I was extraordinarily fortunate to have an excellent psychologist who worked closely with me to define and refine my personal relationship to my own cancer. I was blessed with a magnificent A-team of friends and family and so many angels that embraced me. For me, the opening of my heart to new loves and old brought forth an attitude of blessed gratitude that I had never known before. When I read and re-read the stories written by cancer survivors on my website, I see the universality of the attitude of gratitude in the process of healing.
What really healed me? Trust.
My relationship with my Stanford oncologist Dr. Branimir Sikic, his courage, caring, intelligence, and unwavering commitment to get me well. On that very first night, he told me, “Yours is a very bleak diagnosis. It will be a rocky road. But hang in there. I think I can help you. I am with you.” Those words speak to his profound compassion and they define the essence of this man. Those four words are my four favorite words in the world. They sustained me, gave me hope, taught me the inevitable power of human connection in the healing process.
He looked around the room, crowded with my friends and loved ones, and said, “When your loved ones go home tonight and you start to freak out about today, here is my home phone number. Feel free to call me.” I did, at about 2:30 am. Brandy was as gracious and generous in that phone call as he has always been, ever since.
He never dismissed my calls or my fears and, rather, guided me through the next step. Even when he was in his hometown in Croatia, he made the critical decisions about my treatment. When the oncology team was considering a liver transplant, he weighed in daily with his directives. No surgery because of Brandy. We did not do the transplant. And all is well.
Few doctors have said to their patients what Brandy once said to me. I wish they would. “This is very tough. I am giving you very aggressive treatments. If you are on antidepressants, double them. If you are not on them, get on them. And find yourself a solid psychologist, preferably someone who has been through cancer.”
Brandy made it possible for me to really trust — in him, the healing process, the world.
During my 21 long aggressive chemo sessions, I invited fellow cancer patients to tell me their stories. (I am a psychologist … I like to talk). They shared feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. They suffered intense feelings of isolation, distrust, anger, and profound sadness. They worried the very most about money … about bankruptcy, the lack of funds to cover the enormous medical expenses and their medications.
I was profoundly troubled that these kindred souls were experiencing so much fear and anxiety about their finances. How would that reality affect the possibility of their recovery? I vowed to make a difference. I knew that financial assistance was out there somewhere. I was determined to make it accessible. I received my 501 ©(3) non-profit status in 2006 and launched my first website. Nancy’s List was intended to be simply a list of financial resources. My intention was to educate cancer patients and their loved ones and the healing professionals who serve them about the accessibility of these programs.
When I was diagnosed in 2004, I was living in Mill Valley in Marin County, right across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. There was an especially high incidence of breast and prostate cancer in the area. Despite the major efforts to determine the cause and laughing over some very strange speculations (‘The women drink too much white wine’), no one knew why. Families and friends were deeply affected … and in fear. I had many meetings with the cancer care organizations to see what was needed to support those who were living with cancer.
Quite serendipitously, 5 or 6 women independently came to visit with me. Many of their friends had recently been diagnosed with breast cancer. These were strong, healthy women in their early 30s. They were yogis, vegans, and soccer moms. Many were quite angry and depressed … they had assumed that they were not vulnerable to cancer since they ate kale every day. I collected the group of very concerned women, cooked them very healthy meals (few with kale), and we brainstormed about what we could do for their friends and for themselves. They called themselves Nancy’s Angels.
I envisioned a Call-to-Action to develop a community partnership to meet the epidemic of cancer that our community was facing. We knew that we could not rely on the healthcare system to focus on the many emotional, psychosocial, and spiritual challenges that come with a cancer diagnosis. We could reach out and support the courage, bravery, and resilience of our neighbors.
Through the Nancy’s List programs, cancer patients and their loved ones found community, strength, courage, pleasure, and healing relationships. There is healing power when one is connected to the larger community, especially when you are experiencing fear, loneliness, isolation, and uncertainty. It means everything to know your neighbors are looking out for you. And it is a very good thing to meet kindred souls along the path.
"It does take a village to handle this crisis and we built a magnificent one."
I created the anthology with 42 authors who truly share my vision, my passion, my mission. We bring hope and courage to patients when they need inspiration, when they are feeling the loneliness and fear and anger and loss that go hand in hand with a cancer diagnosis, when they need comfort and a warm heart and a hand to hold. Our book offers connection to kindred spirits who ‘know’.
IAWY is truly a love letter. Our wish is that this offering of hope and healing will sustain cancer patients through those first frightening nights and every night thereafter. This is the spirit in which this anthology was written … by, and for, amazing cancer patients everywhere.
My latest project … I want cancer patients to have the opportunity to experience healing other than dreadful visits to the infusion rooms, radiation offices, and more. I want to educate patients and healing professionals about the enormous benefits of integrative healing services AND the accessibility of these therapies.
I am creating a national directory of cancer centers and practitioners who complement traditional cancer treatments. I am especially interested in adding more psycho-oncologists, marriage and family therapists, trauma and EMDR specialists, massage therapists, practitioners who work with clients in the dying process (as well as dealing with anger, grief and loss), creative modalities (drumming, art, dance, writing, etc.), pampering, nutrition, fitness … just about everyone who serves those who are living with cancer.
I invite you to participate in the Nancy’s List community.