By Cancer Hope Network Executive Director, Wanda Diak
On April 2, 1996 I was diagnosed with stage 3 ovarian cancer. It was at a time in my life when I felt “settled” for lack of a better description – a good place that included enjoying life, family, my career, hobbies and leisure time.
You hear about cancer all the time and most everyone knows someone who was diagnosed with cancer and I was no different. But, until it becomes personal, you seldom realize how little thought you really give it. Suddenly you are exposed to a whole new world of tests, surgery, treatment, medications, appointments, various specialists, etc. You also find that astonishingly all around you there are people who have been diagnosed and treated for cancer that you never knew about and now, your life has shifted to that world. I remember thinking, “How could I have been so immune to all this.”
My treatment began with surgery. While still in the hospital, I was introduced to my oncologist. He indicated he would see me in a few weeks to talk about the next phase of my treatment – chemotherapy. Fast forward a few weeks and there I sat in his office listening to him tell me I should have a port surgically placed and that I would be receiving at least 6 treatments of cisplatin and taxol – possibly more. My closest frame of reference to someone who had undergone chemotherapy brought back images of severe vomiting, extreme weight loss, blood transfusions – all the worst side effects you often hear about. Needless to say, I was an emotional wreck and soon expected to be a physical wreck as well.
I had the port-a-cath procedure done and went to the office for my first treatment. Knees trembling, heart pounding and not knowing what to expect, my oncology nurse could easily see I was not ready to do this. She was an expert and must have seen the signs many times before. She calmly told me she needed to get everything ready so in the meantime, she led me into the treatment room and introduced me to a woman who was (surprisingly?) undergoing the treatment I was about to have and suggested we talk a bit. It was the most valuable 20 minutes of my “new life.” Here was this woman older than me, calmly watching TV and munching on a snack while receiving her chemo! She sympathized with my diagnosis, empathized with my fear, answered all my questions in a way that only someone who had received treatment could answer and, calmed me like no one else in my circle of family and friends could.
When the nurse walked in with my treatment, my new friend said, “Listen, you got this – if I can do it at my age, you can do it even better.” As cliché as it sounds, that conversation did it for me. I won’t say the treatments were a walk in the park, but my fears were MUCH bigger than my reality. I made the decision, that very day, to do for other people what this woman did to help me.
Fast forward a year and a half later. Having finished treatment, I returned to my job, which I truly enjoyed. About two months later a notice about a job opportunity crossed my desk that indicated a non-profit cancer support organization was looking for someone to help them with their re-engineering effort. The position would be on a two-year loan basis. Although I did not know what the organization did at the time, I had a deep sense of wanting to help, thought I could certainly relate to the re-engineering effort and, I now also had some experience with cancer. I remember thinking this seems like it was meant to be. My manager was not thrilled but said he knew this was something I would pursue when he circulated the job description and he would not prevent it. I interviewed for the position, was accepted and the rest is now history.
I was offered a permanent position at the end of my two year loan period. I retired from my first career and began a second one with Cancer Hope Network. Even more amazing, Cancer Hope Network offers exactly what that wonderful woman did for me when I was diagnosed. They match people diagnosed with cancer with someone who was diagnosed and treated for the same type of cancer. With Cancer Hope Network’s help, I have been able to fulfill my promise of helping others as I was helped and have spoken with over 500 people diagnosed with cancer or to their caregivers.