By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant
Cancer survivors all have a different story, as everyone’s journey in life and cancer is unique.
Nonetheless, most say that their experience has given them a new perspective on life after undergoing the devastation of their diagnosis, the struggle to select their next step, their treatment and their recovery.
The support of family, friends and their medical team helped in ways they never expected.
Fulton resident Liz Schremp received her breast cancer diagnosis in 1991 at age 45.
“I said, ‘This isn’t fair to my kids,’” Schremp recalled.
She lost her father to lung cancer and her mother to ovarian cancer while she was a youngster. Initially, Schremp shielded her two children from the truth of her cancer’s seriousness and delayed her mastectomy by a month until after they were dropped off at college.
“At the time, I was trying to protect them and downplay it,” she said. “I didn’t think about their mental state.”
Chemotherapy and radiation followed her surgery, as she had cancer in four of her 20 lymph nodes.
She underwent chemotherapy twice a month for six months and radiation five days a week for eight weeks. Schremp also took prescription drug tamoxifen for five years. After 13 years had passed, her oncologist said she no longer needed check-ups related to cancer. During treatment, she continued to work as an accounting clerk at the library in Fulton, as living in a state of near-normalcy benefited her mental health. In addition to the support her husband, Michael, and family offered, “I have a very deep faith,” she said. “I asked God to save me so I could be there on the kids’ graduation day and weddings, and rock my grandchildren. He gave me all this. I felt the Holy Spirit talking to me that I would get through all of this.”
A year after her recovery, she began Sharing and Caring Breast Cancer Support Group in Fulton, although she is no longer involved with the group. Many of the treatments and medical protocols have changed over the years, so she feels her input is not the most up to date. But she will talk with anyone diagnosed who reaches out to her.
“Stay strong,” she said. “Stay positive and go to a support group. Support groups are healing and very beneficial. Don’t go through it alone. The thing about support groups is we know what you’re going through opposed to family and friends.”
Tricia Donahue, certified teacher currently working as a teacher’s assistant in the Tully School District, received her diagnosis of breast cancer in 2018. The Jamesville resident was only 38 and had daughters aged 2 and 4.
“Two days prior when I had my biopsy, the surgeon said, ‘I looked at your scans from the sonogram; it looks smooth. You have nothing to worry about,’” she said. Upon hearing the grim news, “I think I was in shock. All along, I didn’t think cancer. There’s no history of cancer in my family.”
She received the diagnosis over the phone on a Friday, which meant she had to endure the weekend with little idea of what lay ahead. Her best friend spent the weekend to offer emotional support.
On Monday, an MRI revealed that the cancer had not spread to her lymph nodes, which was good news. Her surgeon recommended lumpectomy with radiation. Donahue did not feel comfortable with that option and chose double mastectomy.
“I felt I had a better chance to not have recurrence,” she said.
She received expanders so she could have reconstruction months later. To her relief, Donahue’s providers advised that her biopsy revealed chemotherapy and radiation would not offer additional benefit.
Although granted a clean bill of health, Donahue found the mental health effects tough to deal with. She self-diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, as she lived in fear daily. She felt that once the cancer was removed, “life would be good. That’s not true. I thought that would be reality. I was still living in fear: I had cancer. How could I get past this? I remember lying in bed unable to get my mind to turn off.”
The support of her husband Michael and friends helped her get through the ordeal. She advises anyone newly diagnosed to “do your research. Really look into your best treatment options. Get second and third opinions. Make sure you develop a relationship with all your healthcare providers that will go through this process with you.”
She also said that it’s important to let others know what is going on. She felt tentative about posting her diagnosis on social media. However, the outpouring of support that resulted proved invaluable.
“People really did come through,” Donahue said.
She began seeking holistic health modalities at Peaceful Remedies in Oswego, including reiki. Especially for moms of young children, self-care is often a missing part of the cancer patient experience.
“Doctors don’t talk about stress, nutrition and lifestyle,” she said.
Supplements, yoga and meditation have helped Donahue.
Tricia Caroccio, an Oswego resident and reading coach at Kingsford Park Elementary School, also found support at Peaceful Remedies. She received her diagnosis of breast cancer in 2020.
“I just felt shock,” she said. “We were in the middle of the pandemic. This was one more thing.”
After her biopsy and MRI on the other breast, she learned that lumpectomy was not an option. She decided to go with a double mastectomy, which proved the right choice as she had suspicious cells in the breast that received the MRI. After her surgery at St. Joseph’s Health, she did not need radiation or chemotherapy.
Two months later, she also underwent reconstruction at Upstate University Hospital.
“I really had to shift to a positive mindset to keep me going every day,” Caroccio said. “My three teenagers watched me go through this. I wanted to set an example, that you can do this with grace. You cannot let it just be the end. I wouldn’t let this end me. I wanted to do this with mindfulness and nutrition and the people I surrounded myself with. I was also seeing an integrative doctor to look at everything. I wanted the best team approach. I surrounded myself with an incredible team to stay so positive about it.”
She learned more about nutrition and mindfulness at Peaceful Remedies. During a low moment, repeating a positive affirmation three times helped her remain upbeat.
She tells anyone newly diagnosed to “get your team together: your family, friends and doctor. If you’re local, I always suggest reaching out to Peaceful Remedies. Nutrition is huge. Find what tools will be good for you, whether massage, reiki, acupuncture. Those are all things I used.”
She feels she was “beyond blessed” with the care she received from her husband, Shawn, and her children.
“Don’t let the diagnosis be the end but the start of the journey and decide how you’re going to get through that,” she said. “It’s not your sentence. It was almost in many ways a gift. It woke me up to being present and grateful for even the smallest moments. I always felt like a really grateful person, but this has made me tremendously grateful.”