In January 2010, Pat Mersiowsky became one of the nearly 30,000 new cases of cancer diagnosed each year in Arizona alone.
Imaging and testing indicated that Pat had numerous cancerous tumors in her left breast and lymph nodes. After extensive research by Pat and husband Andy over several weeks, she joined a clinical trial at the University of Arizona Cancer Center-North Campus.
In August 2010, Tom Kleespie and Martin Rubio spent the day with Pat and Andy as she completed her 27th dose of chemotherapy.
Then, a year later, they revisited the family to find out where their cancer journey had taken them. As they quickly learned, it was a surprisingly positive place.
Pat and Andy have learned some important lessons from their experiences with cancer. These exclusive excerpts from their interview offer advice for surviving and thriving:
1. Cancer treatment takes time and research
Andy: We went over the schedule and figured there were probably about 150 appointments between diagnosis and the completion of treatment.
Pat: They said it could take six months, a year to get everything out of your system [after treatment ceases]. So it’s taken a while to… I still take a lot more sleep than I used to and the hot flashes, I get tremendous hot flashes still that I’m learning how to deal with. It’s just all… It’s getting better and better. Every day is getting better.
Andy: I look at it probably a little bit more from the clinical and the research aspect of it. I think you have to do a lot of research.
We didn’t know going into this how this was going to turn out, but what we decided from the beginning is I don’t want to be in a position where we’re going to look back and regret some decision that we made.
So every time we got to a fork in the road and we had to make a decision, [we] just jumped on the research train and tried to talk to as many people as we could, get multiple opinions, make a decision and move forward.
Pat: You did hundreds of hours of research.
Andy: That was very important and sometimes the research isn’t going to result in a change in what you’re doing, it may just help you understand why the treatment is what it is and give you confidence that it’s going to work. That was one aspect of it.
You really have to be your own advocate. There’s a lot of people moving through the healthcare system.
2. But don’t hurry your decisions
Andy: We’ve known her [Ardie Delforge, RN and patient advocate for University of Arizona Cancer Center] for 30 years and she gave us the single best piece of advice we got going into this, [which] was to take your time early on with the diagnosis.
Your initial reaction is to act tomorrow. In Pat’s case the first surgeon said, let’s do a mastectomy right now and Pat’s thought was, great, two days from now I can get this cancer out of my body. And the piece of advice we got from her was tremendous and it was, take the time to understand what you have and what your options are and be patient.
Nobody is going to have the same sense of urgency when you call a doctor and you want an opinion, the doctor can’t get you in for ten days, your first reaction is, I’ve got cancer, I don’t have ten days to wait. I have to get in now. And she said, days don’t matter. Take the time you need to figure out what your options are.
Weeks will begin to matter but it’s more important that you understand your options and proceed confidently with your treatment plan. And that was the best piece of advice we ever got and set us on the right path and I think why we are where we are.
3. On organizing and accepting help
Pat: One of the best things we did, it’s hard because not everybody has this as an option but I hope if people don’t have it that they can try to find it, is to have, assemble a team, assemble people that can be around you that are there for you.
For me, it was Andy who was the head cheerleader on my team, but he organized everything, he orchestrated everything to have somebody… He told me in the very beginning, you worry about getting better and I’ll worry about everything else and that was the most tremendous thing to hear as a cancer patient, that I had to worry about physically getting better and making this go away but he took care of all the insurance and the bills and the scheduling of appointments and updating family.
There were some physical things that we had done. One was a website called Caring Bridge and it’s a website for anybody that is going through anything traumatic in their lives that needs to be able to update a large group of people at one time. So Andy set up a Caring Bridge website within the first couple of weeks of being diagnosed and that was tremendous, because the first couple of weeks every person I met, every time I talked to family I was having to update them everything that had happened.
But to have this Caring Bridge website set up where Andy could go in, type up what happened that day, we saw these doctors, this is what they said, this is the path we’re going to do, it was tremendous because we had all of that taken care of so that if people saw us, one, they weren’t talking to us around all the other kids.
We had three kids in school full time but it was my four-year-old that was in school just a couple hours a week that was around that first couple of weeks just constantly talking about it, and we realized within that first week she was changing, she was hearing way too much about it. So we went that Caring Bridge website route and it updated everybody, it made it easy for us. There were no rumors going around, there was no miscommunication, so that was huge.
Another thing that my friends did, which was phenomenal, was a website called Food Tidings—and there’s websites that, a lot of websites that do this—but they set up meals for us so that we had, someone could go on, if they asked someone to bring us a meal that they could go onto this website and they could sign up for meals.
They would go on and they’d see someone else made a chicken dish last time, we’re going to make a beef dish this time. Everything from directions to our house to what allergies we had, the fact that I didn’t eat fish.
Those things, those physical things were unbelievable support that made it…
Andy: There’s a pride aspect. You kind of feel awkward taking help like that, but when you realize you can come home and concentrate as a family and somebody, people who are friends with us and family want to do something and this was something that was tangible, that was a tremendous benefit, a tremendous time saving, we didn’t have to stop and pick up fast food. We could just sit and eat dinner as a family.
Story by Tom Kleespie, Arizona Public Media.