Surviving Cancer Stories of Hope and Survival
More people today are surviving cancer than ever before. But the road to survival is often a challenging one, filled with both physical and emotional challenges. These cancer survivors share their stories of hope, perseverance and survival.
Deena Merten’s battle against colon cancer has been compared to a triathlete’s race to the finish line. A 43-year-old single mother of a two-year-old, Merten underwent surgery followed by a six-month treatment regimen while juggling motherhood, a part-time job, and a full load of classes at Metropolitan Community College to complete a degree in criminal justice.
Merten was diagnosed with colon cancer last June following a colonoscopy and biopsy.
“I was stunned,” recalls Merten. “I thought to myself, ‘How could this be possible?’ I’m 43, in good health, and [have] always taken good care of myself.”
Alan Parks, D.O, a general surgeon at Alegent Health, performed surgery the very next day to remove the cancer. Several months later, Merten began six months of intravenous chemotherapy two days a week at Nebraska Cancer Specialists. She also underwent genetic testing, which revealed that she had a genetic marker that puts her at higher risk for colon cancer.
As the chemotherapy treatments continued into the last few months, Merten’s energy level began to decline. “As each month went by, it got tougher and tougher,” recalls Merten. Determined not to let cancer take control of her life, Merten battled through her job and school while attending treatments every other week, all while maintaining a 3.5 grade-point average and being named to the Dean’s List.
“Quitting would have been a sign of defeat,” says Merten, who says her young daughter was also a source of strength. “Watching her so full of energy and life became one of main therapies,” she says. “I live through her.”
Merten says it is important to surround yourself with positivity and people who are supportive of you. “I had such great support from family and friends,” she says. “And, at times, when I started feeling sorry for myself, I’d look around and see someone worse off than me.”
She also commends her caregivers who helped make the journey a little easier: Nichole Peterson, RN, an oncology-certified nurse navigator at Alegent Health, Hematologist/Oncologist Geetha Palaniappan, M.D., and the nurses at Nebraska Cancer Specialists.
Merten is now cancer-free and making her health a priority. “I eat a healthy diet and exercise five days a week—running, swimming, walking, weight lifting—anything to stay in shape and keep busy.”
Victorious over cancer, beaming with motherhood, and just one more year of school to complete her degree, the finish line for Merten is well within reach.
Kristi Mentink, a 36-year-old from Pisgah, Iowa, calls her stint with cervical cancer a hurdle in her life that has left a lasting mark on her and her family. “We all look at cancer differently now—and life,” she says. “We have a much more compassionate attitude toward others battling the disease.”
Diagnosed with cervical cancer at the tender age of 32, Mentink said the news came as a complete surprise. “Never in my wildest dreams did I think that I would have cervical cancer.”
While Mentink did not have cancer in her immediate family, she did have a grandmother who developed late onset breast cancer, a grandfather who died of lung cancer, and an aunt diagnosed with lymphoma. After her diagnosis was confirmed, Mentink consulted with Steven Remmenga, a gynecological oncologist at The Nebraska Medical Center, who specializes in cervical cancer.
After she had all of the facts, she and her husband then sat down their 11- and 12-year-old sons and prepared them for the battle ahead. Her goal, she says, was to try to keep things as normal as possible at home. Family came from all directions to help Mentink and provide support—her mother and father, a sister, brothers, her mother-in-law, as well as close friends. Mentink put her job has a kindergarten teacher on hold while she prepared to endure one of the most difficult times in her life.
At the time, Mentink lived in Woodbine, Iowa. She made the daily trek to Omaha Monday through Friday for five weeks for radiation therapy. This was followed by two weeks off and another two weeks of additional high-dose radiation treatments.
“I had someone with me all five days of the week,” she says. “It was a draining time, but just having someone there for support really helped. I kept a positive attitude and took each day at a time. Dr. Remmenga said my cancer was curable, so that helped me keep my head up.”
After treatment was completed and the cancer gone, Mentink‘s cervix refused to heal properly. Dr. Remmenga recommended hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBO) to expedite the healing process. The therapy delivers 100 percent oxygen in a pressurized environment, which increases the oxygen concentration in the blood and ultimately in the body tissues to promote healing. After 40 treatments, Mentink’s cervix had healed.
Mentink has this advice for other women: keep getting your annual Pap smear test. It’s the best tool we have to diagnose cervical cancer, and it may help save your life.
Amy Parr’s doctors call her a medical miracle. Five years ago, Parr was diagnosed with brain, lung, kidney, and colon cancer.