Each day on Pat Miccio’s calendar lists a number, with a running total for the month on the top of the page – usually somewhere in the hundreds. It’s Miccio’s way of marking how many recyclables she has picked up on the daily walks she takes around her Pennsville, N.J., neighborhood, all carefully tabulated on the wall calendar.
In more than four years, Miccio has collected 18,000 recyclable items others dropped on the ground – soda cans, beer bottles, milk jugs, sports drink containers. But for nearly a year, from December 2010 until September 2011, those days on Miccio’s calendar were empty of anything except doctor’s appointments as she battled breast cancer with the help of the staff at Christiana Care’s Helen F. Graham Cancer Center.
Miccio’s odyssey from environmental steward to cancer patient to cancer survivor began with her daily walks more than 10 years ago. While she initially walked for the exercise benefits, Miccio quickly discovered another reason to get out of the house every day.
“I just needed to get out, and then it got to the point where I was walking and I’d see all this mess on the ground,” Miccio said. “It starts getting to you.”
Miccio saw an Oprah Winfrey special about the environment, and it inspired her to start carrying a plastic bag with her to collect some of the mess she would see.
“It started out, I brought one bag with me … and then after a couple of weeks, it would be two bags. Then, another couple of weeks, especially after Septemberfest, it jumped up to four bags,” she said. “It’s amazing what you find. It adds up.”
But the collecting was put on hold after Miccio went to her doctor for a routine mammogram in 2010. Miccio was diagnosed with stage 1 cancer in her left breast. She was sent to the Helen F. Graham Cancer Center to begin a treatment regimen. In October 2010, Miccio underwent a lumpectomy. Chemotherapy and radiation followed, lasting for nine months.
For a year, the fight against breast cancer took precedence over the mission to clean up the environment. Even after the treatment ended, she found that she didn’t have the energy to walk every day – because of the lingering effects of her cancer treatments and an ongoing battle with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD.
“I’m realizing what a friend of mine had told me: It takes a while to get back into the full swing of life again,” Miccio said.
As the counts on Miccio’s calendar show, she is getting back. By the end of April, she had collected just 270 pieces for the year.
“I’m usually well over a thousand by that point,” she said.
By the end of August, Miccio’s count had climbed to 1,685 for the year.
“Maybe, by the end of the year, I might break 3,000 pieces,” Miccio said. That number would also put her running total at more than 20,000 recyclable items picked up.
Miccio found another cause to help her get back into the swing of life. She has donated the cans painstakingly collected, sorted, washed and crushed after her daily walk to a friend with a relative on dialysis. The money raised from the recycling effort helps to pay for the machine.
While she never expected to become so well acquainted with the Helen F. Graham Cancer Center and its services, Miccio is grateful that they were able to get her back to her daily walking and her ongoing fight against the mess others leave behind.
“It was one of those wonderful experiences I hope I never have to do again,” Miccio said.
Cathy Tharby twice heard the words “you only have months to live.”
But five years later, she is still pushing forward with her fight against the rare type of cervical cancer that led several doctors to write off her chances for living a long, full life.
“They said they can’t cure me, but they would do what they could to have me live as long as possible. We’ve all been amazed at how long it’s worked,” Tharby said.
For Tharby, the difference has been her attitude and a willingness to try a wide array of chemotherapy options and other treatments offered by the staff at Christiana Care’s Helen F. Graham Cancer Center.
“Cathy has such a great attitude about this even though they were so negative to start with,” said Sharyl Mossinger, a family member who has helped Tharby get back and forth to her various treatments over the years. “I think that’s why she’s still here and having fun, because your mental attitude can really do a lot.”
Tharby’s symptoms started so innocuously that she thought she was just going through menopause and put off a visit to the doctor.
“I let things go. I thought I was going through the change of life … It wasn’t change of life, although my mother had gone through the same thing, and that’s why I just assumed,” Tharby said. “I ignored the situation for a long time until I finally was having dizzy spells because I was losing so much blood.”
Tharby was diagnosed with a non-HPV (human papillomavirus) form of cervical cancer and initially told she had three months to live. In an effort to treat her cancer, Tharby underwent a radical hysterectomy at Christiana Hospital and was told it had been a successful intervention. But a few months later, Tharby developed problems walking and pain in her left hip. A CT scan revealed that all was not well.
“I had a huge growth that was attached to this hip and upper leg, and the reason I couldn’t walk is it was pressing on the nerve,” Tharby said.
It was back to Christiana Hospital for Tharby to begin radiation therapy in an effort to shrink the tumor before starting her on a chemotherapy regimen. Once again, the prognosis was not encouraging.
“Again they were telling me I would probably only have a couple of months to live,” she said. “Well, the chemotherapy pretty much slowed it to almost a stop.”
Numerous rounds of chemotherapy followed over the next four years. New drugs were tried as soon as the cancer showed any signs of a comeback. Tharby underwent a Cyberknife treatment to cut off the blood supply to the tumor in her hip, halting its growth.
One service in particular helped her deal with the side effects from the chemotherapy treatments. A program at the Helen F. Graham Cancer Center helps teach women various style and make-up tricks to cover up the loss of hair.
“My first chemo was the strongest and the one that hit me the most. Of course, I lost all my hair,” said Tharby, who wore her hair long all her life. “[The program] was fun … getting a lot of little tricks and things to do so you feel better about yourself. That’s important at that point.”
That positive attitude in the face of a devastating illness is a hallmark of the treatment Tharby has experienced at the cancer center.
“[The Helen F. Graham Cancer Center] has the best positive attitude of any place I’ve dealt with,” Mossinger said. “Twice in all this time, she’s been in ‘stable disease,’ where nothing has grown. It’s just amazing.”
The end result for Tharby has been five years of living with cancer rather than the bleak prognosis of a few months of dying from it.
“You live with it, but you can live,” she said. “You still have a life and you go on.”
At the Helen F. Graham Cancer Center, Ken Sharp learned to become a cancer survivor.
“I feel like they’ve given me my life back. I really do,” Sharp said. “I can’t say enough about them.”
Specialists at Christiana Care have tackled every aspect of Sharp’s effort to survive the treatment he needed to beat Stage II lung cancer, originally diagnosed in December of 2008: pain management, nutrition services, physical therapy and occupational therapy.
In the first two years after his release from a Pennsylvania hospital in 2009, he couldn’t function, according to his wife Jo Ann. “He could barely drive. He could barely walk. He could barely move his arm,” she said.Thanks to efforts by pain management specialists, physical and occupational therapist and nutritionists, Sharp can now do the simple things he used to enjoy.
Sharp was diagnosed with lung cancer purely by accident after an MRI that was supposed to be examining a cyst on his neck inadvertently scanned the upper lobe of his lung.
“At the bottom of the scan, they saw the mass – a portion of the mass,” Jo Ann said. “It was totally by accident. There were no symptoms. He wasn’t being checked for anything other than the cyst he had on his neck.”
A new scan of Ken’s lungs was immediately conducted, and doctors quickly discovered a softball-sized tumor invading the upper lobe of his lung that was also attached to his chest wall.
“I had moderate pain in my arm that went down to my fingers,” Ken said. “I just figured it was another ache and pain that I had. But that’s actually one of the symptoms of the tumor.”
Sharp began radiation and chemotherapy to shrink the tumor before undergoing surgery to remove one lobe of his lung, four of his ribs and parts of the muscles on his chest wall that were all invaded by the tumor. Although the cancer was gone, Sharp found that returning to his life was going to be a much longer journey.
“He was in severe pain. He couldn’t move his right arm,” Jo Ann said. “We were actually told by the hospital that he’d never be able to move his right arm again because of the pain levels and the muscle damage and the nerve damage.”
“The pain was just unbelievable,” Ken said. “You didn’t want to do anything.”
That’s when the Sharps began to focus on survivorship, and the Delaware residents turned to the Helen F. Graham Cancer Center.
In November 2009, Ken started seeing pain management specialists at the cancer center. With their help, along with physical and occupational therapists, he can now use his right arm. His pain levels are well managed. He can drive. He can dispense with supplemental oxygen at various points throughout the day.
“I wish I could have gotten into this place when I first came out of the hospital,” Ken said, describing his experience at the Helen Graham Center as “fabulous.”
“They’re the ones prescribing his physical therapy, they’re the ones prescribing his medications, and it’s helping,” Jo Ann said. “They’re proactive with everything.”
Christiana Care’s nutrition services have helped Ken and Jo Ann plan meals to meet the 4,000-calorie-a-day diet he needs to consume, to help his body fight off the complications such as pneumonia and other lung-related problems that have persisted since his cancer treatment began.
“I have a hard enough time eating, [because] I have a low appetite,” Ken said. “I eat like a bird. They gave me recommendations on what to eat. It’s helpful.”
The staff at the Helen F. Graham Cancer Center has tackled nearly every aspect of Ken Sharp’s life except his cancer.
“I can’t say enough about them … They’re outstanding,” he said.
In late summer of 2009, Jacques Apruzzese was a competitive martial arts fighter and instructor – weighing in at 192 pounds of solid muscle.
But a 12-pound weight loss over a span of two weeks and a bout of vomiting sent Apruzzese to see his doctor in August of that year. Within a week, he had a new fight to undertake – against an insidious esophageal cancer that had already spread to the upper part of his stomach and lymph nodes. What followed was a two-year odyssey to regain his health.
“It was a pretty dramatic change in lifestyle,” Apruzzese said. “From doing things where people, for lack of better words, looked up to me as a fighter to not being able to fight.”
Apruzzese sought help in his fight from the staff at Christiana Care Health System’s Helen F. Graham Cancer Center, where a multidisciplinary team approach was employed to tackle his disease.
Radiation and a round of chemotherapy were started immediately in an effort to shrink the cancer enough for other measures to be effective. A radical surgery followed, with the removal of Apruzzese’s esophagus, half of his stomach and several lymph nodes. Since that surgery and the subsequent recovery period, Apruzzese has gone through more chemotherapy and radiation to try to halt the disease, which has spread to his spine and two other areas in his back and is now classified as a stage IV cancer.
“I teach regularly, I drive my bike, go fishing. Is it all at the same level as before? Definitely not. Will it ever be? Definitely not. But you come to acceptance and a reality check that this is the cards you’ve been dealt and you deal with that,” Apruzzese said. “Some people have been dealt worse hands. Some people get up in the morning and they get killed. They don’t have a chance to plan activities, do their bucket list, live life to the extent that you can. Most people don’t get that chance. I’m fortunate. I got that chance and this place [the Helen F. Graham Cancer Center] has a lot to do with that.”
Apruzzese says without the support of the multidisciplinary team of doctors and nurses, as well as support services like nutrition, physical therapy and counseling, he’s not sure he would have survived.
“They’re not here because it’s a job. I get more of a sense that they care about being in a cancer center providing service and assistance,” he said.
Although he was not eligible for any clinical trials, there was never a sense that Apruzzese didn’t have options to fight cancer.
“It was very, very quick paced,” said Apruzzese, who was diagnosed and began treatment with days of the initial visit to his doctor. “There was no fooling around which is very comforting because you feel like you’re being taken care of.”
Nurse navigators assigned to patients like Apruzzese become their “lifelink,” he said.
“They’ve seen it all, done it all. You can call them for anything and they’ll help you, support you, sponsor you,” Apruzzese said. “They’re a different breed of people.”
Apruzzese said he never thought about going anywhere else once he saw the equipment, the technology and the people who would be involved with his care at the Helen F. Graham Cancer Center.
“Once I came over here and saw how it was … why would I drag myself out there?” he said. “I felt very, very comfortable with the decision and I stand behind my decision to stay here. It’s very, very personalized care from dedicated people.”