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A Warrior’s Journey

by Lacey White-Stahura

Lacey White-Stahura

As I lay motionless on the muddy field, I heard my coach shouting, “Lace, are you okay? Come out and take a breather!” All I could think to myself was “Don’t give up, keep fighting.” Every breath I took was excruciating. It felt like someone had dropped a boulder on my rib cage, but I was not going to stop fighting. With ten minutes left in the second half, determining the first

place team, I sat there as the goalie dedicated to my team and to myself. I looked over my shoulder only to see a herd of parents standing at the sideline. My mom and coach repeatedly beckoned me to the bench. I slowly stood on my feet with the help of my team, and without any hesitation, walked straight back to the goal. Parents stared at me from both sides, and from the sideline I heard my team proudly say, “Our goalie dominates”. I stood at the edge of my box, fearless. That game was mine to win and I was not going to allow anything to bring me down. The referee looked at me with anticipation. I nodded and yelled to my team, “Let’s go girls!” The whistle blew and it was time.

    Following the win of our game and the excruciating pain, I sat at Urgent Care waiting impatiently for my X-ray results. My mind was on replay and the image of my opponent’s knee inside my ribcage was agonizing. I wanted to retaliate, but soon that would be replaced with gratitude as I began to learn that it was the miracle that saved my life. I glanced up as my doctor walked back into the room, examining my X-rays. “You’re one tough cookie,” he said. I looked at my mother beside me and I noticed her worried face. The doctor looked up at the both of us and with concern in his voice said, “There is something else going on here.” We were sent straight to the emergency room and from there went through, what it seems like endless PT scans, X-rays, and MRI’s. The day was long and treacherous. I felt uneasy about the situation. At last, the E.R. Doctor came in the room only to give us news we were hoping not to hear. “We found a mass the size of a softball inside your liver. You’ll need to hold off on soccer for a while until we figure this out.” My stomach dropped and I couldn’t believe what I just heard. My worst fear had come true.

From there, I had numerous doctor’s appointments and occasional MRI’s. This disease living inside me was taking over my life. I was on the fastrack for Liver Resection surgery. One early morning, my parents and I drove to UCLA to have yet another appointment with my doctor. He walked in the room and greeted us warmly, “Good morning and good news!” He sat beside me trying to comfort me as he explained my surgical procedure to get rid of the beast once and for all. I sat quietly, hiding my fear as he took my parents and I through every step of our long journey ahead. To sum up the doctor’s visit, he reminded us that my surgery would be in late November and I would be admitted to the hospital for about three to five days. Little did we know that was not the case.

The morning of November 20th, 2016, I reluctantly left the house to go finish this battle  once and for all. It seemed all so surreal, and I was nervous beyond belief. I faintly remember sitting in the hospital bed waiting to be wheeled down to the surgery room. “How are you, sweetheart?” The blonde nurse chirped.  All the nurses made sure I was completely comfortable before anything occurred. They drew my blood, and eventually started injecting me with anesthesia. “Tell me when you feel it, honey” the nurse chimed. I remembered nothing of the surgery. From the bright lights being the last memory and my family being the first, the surgery was almost as if it never happened. Hours later, I found myself barely mobile in a hospital bed located in the Peds ICU. My whole family was surrounding me and I felt only love. My sister-in-law cradled 2 month old baby Kora in her arms and carried her my way. I looked past those two only to see my nephew, Jameson, with a shocked, scared look on his face. I put my hand out and he walked over to grasp it. The scariest part was not being able to remember everything. My family was my safe haven. Everyday became a routine of nurses checking up on me and urging me to get up and walk, continual encouraging me to stay hydrated and eat. I vividly remember the cold, sterile needles being injected into my skin multiple times a day. Nothing was easy, and one of the few experiences I looked forward to was holding my step-father and brothers’ hands as I began my daily walks.   The walk down the hall felt like an unknown concept, but grasping the hands of those who love me gave me strength. All I could think was, “This is just the beginning.”

“Every story has an end. But in life, every ending is just a new beginning.” After the surgery, I was slowly recovering, but it was much more difficult than any of us had anticipated. One afternoon, I heard chattering in the hallway as I peeked out of the crack in the door. Soon, the door swung open and my hepatologist, parents, and big brothers all flowed into the room. Dr. Venick sat at the foot of the bed looking at me sympathetically and gently told me, “You have liver cancer.” I was in a state of shock. His words were like a tidal wave crashing down on my life. The word, “cancer” was now engraved in my mind, and I was silent. I breathed deeply. Regardless of what I kept telling myself I could only think “Why me?” The beginning of this journey was a tough one, but I as I gained strength in this cancer experience, “Instead of saying ‘Why me…’ I said ‘Try me’. I took the opportunity to not only learn from that experience, but allow it to refine who I have become. People seem to look at cancer as a death sentence, but I now believe that it is an opportunity. As I laid weak, unable to breathe or move in my hospital bed, all I could think was, “Don’t give up, keep fighting.” Today, here I am, with a renewed mind, body, and soul. I fought and I won. You never really understand how strong you are until being strong is the only choice you have. I have an inspirational story of courage to tell for the rest of my life. I had cancer for three years, and never knew. Yet, I still dominated on a competitive soccer team, worked thoroughly, and thrived. Now, I see the world in a whole new perspective and I believe everything happens for a reason. As I say goodbye to cancer and hello to chemo once again, I am standing strong. I am so thankful to be here living day by day and I am a warrior.

As I grew up, I believed life was so perfect, and “cancer” wasn’t in my future path, or so I thought. The “C” word caused this blockage of fear within me, but soon enough I had realized that the bigger “C” word is courage. Courage is being able to look your fear in the eye and still allow yourself to see the silver lining. After you decide you will not let fear control you, anxiety subsides. I realized that I was so much more than my illness and I used my courage as motivation to keep moving forward as much as I wanted to retreat.   “God gives his toughest fights to his strongest warriors.” I tell myself this daily because someone knows I can fight and this is how I fought cancer twice. I often think to myself “Why do bad things happen to good people?” Then, I remind myself that we were given this life because we are strong enough to live it. Any hardship is just a bump, and to continue to move on you simply have to push forward and be strong. Strength does not come from what you can do, it comes from overcoming the things you once thought you could not. Sometimes we stand afraid and vulnerable wondering why we are so “unlucky.” What are we missing? We’re missing that touch of self-love. More times often than not, we look in the mirror and point out every flaw we carry. This has a negative effect on how the rest of our day unfolds. Rather than pointing out the flaws and imperfections, otherwise known as the negatives, take into heart the positives such as beauty and youth. You are as beautiful as you want to be. There is no single look to define beauty. Beauty presents itself in every human being. For instance, my scar has a certain depth and true meaning which I never understood until I realized it sets me apart from everyone else. The rhythm of life is one that beats to its own tune. On a day to day basis, life blesses us with unexpected gifts. November 20th, 2015 and February 15th, 2017 were the days that life gave me my gift. These days are days to remember, although the days following are ones I’d rather forget. I can still feel the tremendous amount of pain as if it was happening in this very moment. Every time I think of the pain I’d felt or the nausea that tagged along, chills run down my spine. A stiff, foreign hospital bed and a childhood blanket were the closest items I had to call home for weeks. I am not fond of the memories of my hospital stay, but it is the eye opening journey that followed that I am eternally grateful for. Never in a million years would I have come in contact with the thought, “I have cancer.” The fact that I beat cancer twice has taught me strength, love and gratitude. In all honesty, there were times that fear and anxiety had taken control, but I held my ground and chose that I would overcome dark moments with courage. I stand here today, my journey never not crossing my mind, and thank this beautiful world for all it has to offer. Cancer took me out, but I managed to come out on top both times with a stronger head and heart each time. I celebrate life’s monumental moments and the path that lies ahead.

Marilyn Monroe once said, “I believe that everything happens for a reason. People change so that you can learn to let go. Things go wrong so that you can appreciate them when they’re right. You believe lies so you eventually learn to trust no one but yourself. And sometimes good things fall apart so better things can fall together.” Today, I have scars that show my courage and an attitude that portrays my utmost beauty and strength. An anonymous individual once said, “She is beauty behind those scars, she is gorgeous chaos under all that mess, she is everything that you can’t see because her beauty lies deep within.” I am different. I am unique. I am a warrior and I can conquer this world.  Life is short and people take many things for granted, so I say fight on and make life worth living.

 

Lacey White-Stahura was the 2017 winner of the Cancer Support Community Valley/Ventura/Santa Barbara Dear Cancer it’s Me High School Essay Awards in the Personal Category.

Volunteer Spotlight – Renee Ripps

Renee Ripps“It lifts my heart to be among the people at the Cancer Support Community.” – Renee Ripps

For the past twelve years, Renee Ripps has been an indispensable member of our volunteer team at Cancer Support Community VVSB, consistently stepping up as a leader when a need arises.

After retiring as a school principal in Oxnard, Renee was looking for a volunteer position. She knew she wanted to make a difference for people affected by cancer. The disease had afflicted three of the most important people in her life – her mother, her beloved nanny, who had lived with her family for 50 years and most recently her brother.

Having met CSCVVSB President Suzanne Drace through the Oxnard School District Educational Foundation, she decided to look into CSCVVSB as a place to devote her time. When she met with Volunteer Coordinator Marilyn Way, she felt strongly that this was the place for her.

Renee started working every other week as a front desk volunteer and quickly expanded her service to many areas. She headed up a group of volunteers to regularly prepare and mail calendars and brochures to doctor’s offices and hospitals in L.A. and Ventura Counties, providing essential community awareness of CSCVVSB’s programs. She also chairs the Registration Committee for the Evening of Hope Gala, and coordinates the scheduling of volunteers to help during educational and social events.  Most recently, Renee worked tirelessly to help coordinate volunteers throughout the day during our National Cancer Survivors Day (NCSD) Picnic on June 3rd.  She started her day at 8:00am that morning, to help set up for the day! She not only helped to make sure everything was ready for the picnic, she also made sure that we had enough volunteers for registration and helped to run it during the NCSD Picnic.  Her hard work and fantastic attitude are an inspiration to all of us.

“Renee offers to do any task with a spirit of service and creativity,” says Marilyn Way, who worked with Renee during her time as CSCVVSB Volunteer Coordinator. “As a front desk volunteer she always has a smile and a kind word for everyone. She truly fits the definition of a volunteer.”

“Having seen what my mother and our nanny went through, I just want to give back to people who are in that same position – to alleviate the stress and the pain caused by cancer,” says Renee. “It lifts my heart to be among the people at the Cancer Support Community.”

National Cancer Survivors Day Picnic Celebration a Big Hit

Cancer Support CoFlashFrozenPhotography-9793mmunity Valley/Ventura/Santa Barbara’s 26th annual National Cancer Survivors Day Picnic was a huge success!  Over 400 people attended this yearly celebration of life.  We have so many people to thank.  First we’d like to say thank you to our generous sponsors that made our 2017 National Cancer Survivors Day Picnic possible. The Diane Warren Foundation, Union Bank, and Amgen for their generous contribution; Kiwanis Club of Thousand Oaks for another amazing lunch.  The Kiwanis Club has been donating their time and culinary skills for our NCSD picnic for 19 years and we felt blessed to have them here again this year; The Soroptomists for their the time they took to serve up our wonderful lunch; The National Charity League, Conejo and Vista Robles chapters.  These girls and their family members worked tirelessly throughout the day, always with a smile on their faces, and provided us with delicious desserts; Rhythm 805 for the awesome live music.  We loved listening and dancing to the fabulous music they provided us; Eva Baseova and Jose Hernandez of Salseros-LA for the amazing salsa performance and interactive lesson. We loved getting out on the dance floor with you; iHart Photo Booth for the beautiful keepsake photos.  We loved their friendly attitude, props, and gorgeous photo backgrounds; Flash Frozen Photography for taking beautiful, professional photos of the event. You may have seen Kathy Rappaport snapping photos throughout the day.  You can see her wonderful photos on our Facebook page; Dennis Forel with Balloonacy for the wondrous balloon art, Kids and adults alike enjoyed the time he spent with us; Armstrong Garden Center of Thousand Oaks and Trader Joes for the surprise giveaways we were able to offer to four participants.  Everyone was so excited about this last minute addition to the day; Hollywood Storage of ThousandOaks for the many cases of water.  It was a hot day and we were so appreciative of the water; Starbucks at 688 Lindero Canyon Rd for the delicious coffee. The coffee was a huge hit, especially among the dozens of volunteers throughout the day; Oriental Trading for the Pinatas.  The kids loved the two fiesta pinatas and goodies that came out of them.

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We’d also like to thank all volunteers and participants for being here and making the day so special.  We have such a strong, helping community of people and everyone was so happy to be here.  We could not put on this community event without ALL of you! Thank you for helping cancer survivors to stand together and show the world that life after a cancer diagnosis can be meaningful, fulfilling, and inspiring. We are proud to be part of this amazing community!

To see more pictures of this heartwarming afternoon, please visit our Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/cancersupportVVSB/ 

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Longest Living Mesothelioma Survivor Still Defying the Odds after 20 Years

By Alex Strausspaulkraus

Paul Kraus had already proven himself to be a survivor by the time he was diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma in 1997.

Born in a Nazi labor camp in 1944, Paul survived a cross-country escape to Poland with his mother and older brother when he was just a few months old. Four years later, he survived the ocean voyage aboard a refugee ship to Australia where the family started a new life and where he has lived ever since.

Unfortunately, that emigration to one of world’s top producers of asbestos during the height of the mineral’s worldwide popularity probably also led to his unexpected diagnosis of mesothelioma almost 50 years later.

Understanding Malignant Mesothelioma

Mesothelioma is an extremely rare cancer, affecting fewer than 3,000 Americans each year and about 500 people in Australia. The most common form of mesothelioma, pleural mesothelioma, starts on the lining around the lungs (the pleura). As mesothelioma tumors grow and spread, this membrane thickens and hardens and fluid may fill the space between it and the lungs. The result is that patients find it more and more difficult to breathe and may experience cough and chest pain.

Peritoneal mesothelioma, the type with which Paul was diagnosed that fateful summer, is even rarer than the pleural variety and grows on the lining of the abdomen (the peritoneum). As tumors spread, the abdomen may become distended and the organs crowded. Fluid may also form around the lungs.

As it did in Paul’s case, mesothelioma often takes decades to develop. This period between asbestos exposure and the development of symptoms is known as the “latency period” and is one of the reasons that the so-called “asbestos cancer” can be so difficult to correctly diagnose. Once it is diagnosed, conventional cancer treatments usually do little to combat mesothelioma and many mesothelioma patients die within a year.

But as Paul Kraus’ case proves, there are notable exceptions. Paul was told he had fewer than six months to live because his mesothelioma had metastasized so extensively. Today, 20 years after that diagnosis, Paul is now the longest-living documented mesothelioma survivor in the world and the author of a popular book detailing his remarkable survival journey.

Where Does Mesothelioma Come From?

Mesothelioma is almost always caused by exposure to asbestos and Paul’s case was no exception. Like many other mesothelioma patients, Paul came in contact with asbestos in the factory where he worked during summer vacation as a young man.

On-the-job exposure to asbestos was especially common during the 1960s and 1970s when the heat-resistant mineral was a popular additive to building products from cement and floor tiles to insulation and shingles. For decades, much of the world looked to Australia for its asbestos, where it was still being mined and exported until the 1980s.

In fact, even when other countries had begun to curtail their asbestos use because of rising concerns about malignant mesothelioma, the Australian asbestos industry was still growing, employing thousands of people and creating huge amounts of deadly asbestos dust. As a result, the country now has the highest rate of mesothelioma and other asbestos-related cancers of any country outside of the UK.

Paul’s Survival Journey

Despite the odds, Paul Kraus refused to accept his dismal prognosis. Instead, with the help of his open-minded doctors, his supportive wife, and his unflagging survivor’s mindset, he completely overhauled his lifestyle, from his diet to his recreational habits. Although he is adamant about not foregoing conventional medical treatments, Paul also began consuming cancer-fighting fruits, vegetables, and herbs, exercising regularly, and meditating twice a day.

Even with radical changes in his life, Paul’s healing from mesothelioma took a number of years. Today, that healing and the changes that brought it about have become an inspiration to thousands of mesothelioma patients and their families. Paul’s mesothelioma survival strategy is the subject of “Surviving Mesothelioma and Other Cancers: A Patient’s Guide,” the best-selling book on malignant mesothelioma in the world.

Survival Strategies for Malignant Mesothelioma

Paul is just one example of a patient who overcame advanced mesothelioma through a willingness to look beyond standard cancer therapies. Today, many mesothelioma patients are finding hope in investigational drugs, experimental therapies, alternative medicine, and mind-body approaches.

The KEYNOTE trial of the immunotherapy drug pembrolizumab (Keytruda), which included 25 malignant pleural mesothelioma patients, found a 20 percent overall response rate and a median response duration of a year. Avelumab, another immunotherapy drug, produced a mesothelioma control rate of 56.6%. Studies are ongoing on these and a number of other immunotherapy drugs, making clinical trials an appealing option for many mesothelioma patients.

For patients who are candidates for mesothelioma surgery, treatment approaches that combine surgery with heated chemotherapy or radiation to kill residual cells have produced some encouraging survival results.

Other patients choose to take an alternative route, either as a stand-alone therapy or as a supplement to conventional treatments. A 2007 Harvard study found that THC, an active ingredient in cannabis oil from the marijuana plant, inhibits the migration of certain kinds of lung cancer cells. Four years later, a second Harvard study investigated the role of cannabinoid receptors in lung cancer cells and determined that cannabinoids can be used to treat lung cancer. Anecdotal evidence suggests they may do the same for mesothelioma.

Paul Kraus is a firm believer in the healing connection between the mind and the body and has been an avid meditator for years. Still unfailingly positive, Paul contends that, by driving him to focus more seriously on his own mental, physical, and spiritual well-being, his health challenges have enhanced his life and can do the same for anyone who chooses to embrace a similar survivor mentality. You can keep up to date with Mesothelioma News here on his site.

Disclaimer: The information provided in this article is for educational purposes only. It is not meant to diagnose or treat any health condition and is not a replacement for advice, recommendations or treatment by a professional health care provider. You should always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health professional before starting any new treatment or making any changes to an existing treatment. You should not delay in seeking or disregard medical advice based on information in this article.

If you or someone you know has been diagnosed, consider joining the Cancer Experience Registry to provide your voice and experience to the greater cancer community.

Impact Club Conejo Valley honors Cancer Support Community VVSB with $5,500

Silvana and StaffCancer Support Community Valley/Ventura/Santa Barbara was honored with a check for $5500 by Impact Club Conejo Valley! We were represented by our participant, Silvana Zucca, who told her emotional journey of her son Madison and his battle with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma that began when he was just ten years old. Silvana credits CSC with giving her and her entire family the support they so desperately needed during Madison’s years of hospitalization and treatments. She is proud to say, Madison is cancer free and recently celebrated his 15th Birthday, and just received his drivers learning permit! Her younger son, Giovanni is 13 and still attends Kids Circle. Silvana said he wants to support other children who are going through what he experienced as a sibling watching an older brother go through treatment. Children develop tremendous compassion when they attend Kids Circle! Thank you so much to Impact Club Conejo Valley for helping us continue to provide all our programs for FREE, offering hope to people impacted by cancer.