Kelly Schneider is a nurse/social worker at the Swedish Primary Care Clinic in West Seattle, yet she was still shocked by her own diagnosis of cancer. She had the benefit of knowing physiology and the privilege of understanding the way things work in health care, but she didn’t feel prepared for this complete shift in perspective.
Ignoring her body’s signals of night sweats and cough for some time, Kelly finally went to the Emergency Department when radiating pain from her arm to her jaw was impossible to ignore. The doctor examined the mass that she had found and ordered a biopsy. The surgeon who did the biopsy reported the diagnosis of lymphoma to her, and made the referral to an oncologist at the Swedish Cancer Institute (SCI) with lightning speed. She found an immediate rapport with the cancer specialist, Dr. Hank Kaplan, who told her she would be cured and assured her that, “you will take care of me in the nursing home.”
Describing the first few days as being paralyzed, she noticed that her capacity to mobilize was diminished — not Kelly’s typical modus operandi. She recalls receiving a binder created for new patients at SCI and found it to be a comfort and resource that she referred to in order to help her anticipate what would be happening through the months of treatment. She found the sections on diet and side effects particularly helpful.
Kelly completed six rounds of chemo and 25 radiation treatments over eight months. Even though she found her family and friends to be supremely supportive, Kelly experienced what she describes as “the loneliness of cancer.” She found herself feeling sick and scared. The attentive and kind interactions with staff helped to allay these feelings during her episodes of treatment. Family members of others with cancer were very friendly and empathetic in the SCI Treatment Center, although she found it challenging to connect due to the drowsiness that accompanied her treatments. The gift of a puppy, aptly named Faith, kept her spirits up throughout her course of treatment.
Kelly discovered Living Life Loudly: How Will You Face Your Speedbump?(2015), a book about a young mother’s experience with breast cancer, and found it very inspirational. Victoria Porter Cramer is a mountain bike racer and had eight-month old twins when she was diagnosed, and recounts her story with humor as well as describing the realities that treatment brings. When you meet Kelly, you will immediately see that she is also a person who takes life seriously and approaches it with gusto. Victoria was an inspiration who demonstrated how to live life with cancer with integrity and passion, even when you feel out of control. Kelly took her advice to heart. She recalls the day her brother, an avid Seahawks fan and sports photographer, took her to a game between the Seahawks and the Panthers and one of the fans asked her for her autograph. She did feel special; she was competing against cancer. High fives and cheers from strangers kept Kelly’s spirits up while she continued to run with a bald head.
Reflecting on her cancer experience, Kelly considers the ways that she changed and realizations about herself that occurred during this time:
“I am stronger than I thought, I have wonderful people in my life, living in the gray is possible and it doesn’t always have to be black and white, some of the most powerful moments on this journey came from strangers, worrying won’t stop the bad stuff from happening —it just stops you from enjoying the good, we don’t always have choices when bad stuff happens to us but you can choose to throw in the towel or use it to wipe your face, some of my greatest pains become my greatest strengths.”
Celebrating her return to running half-marathons after she finished her treatment in December, 2015, Kelly continues to be an active runner. If you happen to meet Kelly, ask her about her next race. She is always training for that next one.
Feeling humbled by her experience, she has become a staunch advocate for cancer patients. Kelly has some tips for those receiving cancer treatment:
- You are not alone. Find someone who has gone through similar treatment and can talk with you about it.
- Listen to your body; when something doesn’t seem normal, have it checked out.
- Advocate for yourself; don’t be afraid to ask.
- Small things matter.
- Coach your family and friends to ask, “How can I help you?” rather than waiting to be asked.
- Refer to your new patient binder; it has a great deal of information.
- Sometimes staff have a hard day; don’t take it personally.
This article is from the Winter 2016 issue of Life to the Fullest, the newsletter from the Swedish Cancer Institute dedicated to those with cancer, cancer survivors, and their family members and caregivers.