June 1st is National Cancer Survivors Day
Mary Daisley didn’t feel sorry for herself as she sat in the oversized chairs in the chemotherapy room.
“I was being treated in the chemo room and it was a beautiful experience,” said the 66-year-old, who was fighting head and neck cancer. “I looked at people around me and thought, ‘You’re not alone. I have it too.’ And I knew it was going to be okay.”
Weeks before, Mary had worried about her tonsils. They were swollen and asymmetrical. Then she woke up a few days later and couldn’t lift her head off the pillow. She was physically exhausted. She had trouble walking. She had a suspicious rash on her leg.
Her internal medicine physician referred her to a dermatologist and an otolaryngologist. After biopsies – where a small piece of tissue is removed and examined to see if it’s cancerous – she heard the news. It wasn’t good.
Daisley had tonsil cancer that had metastasized to her lymph nodes. Tonsil cancer is considered rare. She also was diagnosed with dermatomyositis, an uncommon inflammatory muscle disease that weakens muscles and has a distinctive skin rash. It usually occurs in patients who are in their late 40s to early 60s and affects more women than men. Dermatomyositis has been linked to an increased likelihood of developing cancer..
By this time she was diagnosed, Daisley couldn’t move. She couldn’t touch her nose or raise her hand. She couldn’t swallow and needed a feeding tube, which she still has six months later..
Before they could attempt surgery, doctors told her she needed rehabilitation to regain her strength. She spent two weeks inpatient at the Alegent Creighton Health Immanuel Rehabilitation Center where she had a challenging schedule. She had to relearn how to walk, climb steps, do arm and leg lifts, shower, dress herself, lift herself from a chair and even shuffle a deck of cards..
Then her battle against cancer began. Oncologist Gamini Soori, M.D., MBA, FACP, FRCP, CPE, of Nebraska Cancer Specialists told her common treatments for tonsil cancer included chemotherapy and radiation therapy to attack cancer cells, as well as surgery to remove the cancer and evaluate how far it has spread.
“Dr. Soori was full of information,” Daisley said. “He was very concerned and very caring.” She was just as thrilled with her radiation oncologist, Patrick McKenna, M.D.
“Dr. McKenna knew I was very concerned about radiation in my throat area,” Daisley said. “He knew with the dermatomyositis I felt I was in jeopardy already.” Her husband also had a lot of questions. “They treated him like they treated me. They always had time for him.”.
Nurse Navigator Pam Owens, an oncology-certified nurse, guided the Daisleys through the entire process of diagnosis and treatment. “We could not have been in better hands,” Daisley said. “Whatever was right for me – they did! The Lord directed me to Dr. Soori and Dr. McKenna.”.
A regular churchgoer, Daisley also felt the healing power of prayer as she went through seven weeks of chemotherapy and 22 weeks of radiation. Her “church family” prayed for her. “That meant so much. I received over 200 cards – many of them from people I don’t even know.”.
Daisley’s husband was always by her side. They’d been married 25 years and she had three children and three stepchildren. While she was hospitalized, one of them brought a hairdresser to do her hair and give her a pedicure. At home, relatives built a walk-in shower and a wheelchair ramp for her. Others decorated her home for Christmas – with a tree and lights. “I walked in and started crying. Christmas music was playing!” she remembered..
She said one of the children or stepchildren was always by her side. “How did that happen? Everything was given to me! My family was showing me how important I was. They wanted their mother.”
Her dermatomyositis is in remission and soon Daisley will have reconstructive surgery that will allow her to eat, swallow and talk more clearly. She’ll work again with Alegent Creighton Health Speech Pathologist Erin Voss.
The cancer survivor’s biggest lesson? “Patience,” she said. “I didn’t get depressed. I fought hard. And -- the cancer is gone. I survived cancer! If it comes back, it comes back. I’ll fight it again. Because I know I’m not alone!”