In the weeks leading up to the Pink Arrow game on September 22, 2023, we will be sharing stories from Pink Arrow Pride. Today’s story is from Corrie Wood-VanRavenswaay.
My name is Corrie Wood-VanRavenswaay. I have lived in Lowell most of my life. My cancer journey started in the summer of 1972, when I was 8 years old.
My grandmother Ester DeRushia had breast cancer. She had a Radical mastectomy. I remember waiting in my mother’s car while my grandmother had Radiation therapy. At that time, the radiologist used permanent markers to draw geometric lines on the skin to make it easier to line up the machine each time she needed a treatment. My grandmother used to laugh at herself when she came out of the outpatient center because she had purple lines and squares drawn all over her chest, neck, and arm. Being eight, I did not understand why she was so sick for so long. My mother sat me down, and tried to explain what cancer was. I did not totally understand it at that time.
Fast forward to spring 2005. My mother Nancy Wood was diagnosed with HER-2 breast cancer. I have never seen my mother so brave. She kept her diagnosis secret from our family, until the day before her total mastectomy surgery. I asked her why she did not tell me. She said, “she did not want to scare anyone until she had to.” I am her only daughter and have a medical degree, how could she do this to me?
After surgery I took care of her and made sure that I went to every follow up appointment she had. Luckly, the cancer doctor told us that they got it all. And she would have to be on Tamoxifen (which is a hormone therapy drug to treat breast cancer) every day for two years. As the treatment went on, she became more open about having breast cancer. She even walked as a survivor in the 2008 Pink Arrow Pride community fundraising event at the Lowell High School football stadium. We as a family took turns walking for 24 hours, to help raise money to support my mother and the organization.
In the Fall of 2019 my husband of 22 years, Steven VanRavenswaay and I moved back to Lowell from Grand Rapids, so I could take better care of Both of my parents. Their health was declining rapidly.
Spring of 2020 Covid-19 hit, and I did everything I could to protect my parents. Then my dad, Bill Wood developed a non-healing wound on the front of his leg. So, we scheduled a video appointment with his primary care doctor. The doctor told us he did not like the way the wound looked and tried to make an appointment with a Skin cancer doctor. The appointment date was 3 months out and there was nothing we could do about it. While we waited, we had a home health care nurse come once a week, to check that his leg was not getting any worse.
Summer of 2020, my husband Steven passed away unexpectedly of a heart attack. I relied on my family and friends to get through it. It was more difficult because of Covid-19 quarantine.
Winter of 2021, I noticed my mother was losing a lot of weight. I called her primary care doctor but with Covid-19 still around, we did another video appointment. He ordered an Endoscopy and colonoscopy. So, I took my mother to the Endoscopy center. I made her wear two Covid-19 masks at a time to protect her. Both tests came back negative. But I still wondered why she was still losing weight.
Then it came time to take my father to his leg wound doctor. Again, I made him wear two masks at a time to protect him. They did a skin biopsy and that came back positive for cancer. So, he had to have the skin cancer removed, which left an even bigger hole to heal. So, I took him once a week for 9 weeks to the leg wound care center, to have his leg rebandaged and take small scoops of skin to check to see if there were any new cancer cells growing in his wound.
Spring of 2021, my mother became extremely ill, and we rushed her to the E/R. With Covid-19 precautions still in place, it took a long time to be seen. When the doctors finally came in, they ordered lots of blood tests and a CAT scan. 3 days later, I received a call from Lacks Cancer Center, they wanted to have my mother come in for more tests. I knew it was not good. She had six more vials of blood taken and ordered an MRI for the week after.
Again, my mother did not want to tell anyone about her tests, including my father and my brother.
One anxious week later, Lacks Cancer Center called and wanted to see us the next day. On our way into the medical Center in Grand Rapids, my mother reached over and held my hand, and we rode the rest of the way in silence.
Lacks Cancer Center is a wonderful place. I have never been to a more caring medical center than this. Her new cancer doctor came into the room and introduced himself by his first name. He sat in a chair across from my mother and held both of her hands and asked her if she knew that she only weighed 88 lbs. Then he told Nancy, you have cancer throughout your entire body. The worst is in your Lungs. It is Stage 4 and into the end stage. I was stunned and broke down at this news. My mother, bless her soul, had to comfort me. Like I have said, she was the bravest woman I have ever known.
The doctor gave her the choice to do nothing and just enjoy life for her remaining 3 to 6 months. Or try Chemo and try to extend her life for 6 to 8 months. The decision was hers to make. And she should talk to the rest of her family and get their opinions also. Then call him back to let them know what she would like to do. As a family, we all decided to try Chemo first. I know part of her decision was made, because her youngest granddaughter had already set the date of her wedding. It was 10 months away and my mother wanted to be there.
Unfortunately, my mother passed away 5 days after her first Chemo treatment, due to a bad reaction to the treatment chemicals.
Then 6 days later my father passed away from a broken heart. They had been married for 61 years, and he just could not live without her.
And finally, fast forward to December 27th of 2022. I decided to have elective surgery. Before the surgery date, I had to have a pre-op. My surgeon asked when was my last colonoscopy? If it were recent enough, they could use it to compare with my new one. I laughed and told him that I had never had one. He said do you mean to tell me that you are 58 years old and have not ever had a colonoscopy? Then he asked why? I told him because I was too embarrassed to have one done. That afternoon his office scheduled me for an Endoscopy and a Colonoscopy, and they could do them both at the same appointment.
So, I had my brother Ron Wood drive me to the medical center. The nurses told me not to worry about a thing, because I would be asleep for both procedures.
I was not. I woke up during the colonoscopy to three additional doctors in the room. They were all discussing the size of the tumor that was on the screen. One of the doctors noticed that I was awake and ended the conversation until I was out in recovery. My doctor explained to my brother and I what he found. His office promptly made an appointment for me at Lacks Cancer Center, the first week of January 2023. I remembered how mad I was at my mother for not telling me about her having cancer, until the very last moment. So, I did tell my daughters what the colonoscopy found, when I got home that same day.
With the help of my brother, I made it through all the extensive medical tests. We had become even closer after my parents passed away, because it was just the two of us left. He was my rock, my strength, and my chauffeur. I had surgery to remove my colon cancer two weeks later. Thankfully, it was only stage 1b. So, I did not need any Chemo or radiation. I was incredibly lucky!
I know now whether you have a family history of colon cancer or not, you should begin having your first colonoscopy at age forty-five. Colon cancer is the third most common cause of cancer-related death in both women and men. So, when your primary care doctor tells you it is time to start getting a colonoscopy, please do it. There is no reason to be embarrassed, because the nurses and doctors have “seen it all before.” I will now continue getting a colonoscopy once a year for the rest of my life.
If I could give advice to a new cancer patient, it would be to not look up your kind of cancer on the internet. The information is grossly over exaggerated. The best advice is to listen to your doctor and care team. Do what they tell you, read only their literature. And find the closest Gilda’s club for emotional support.
A huge thank you to the Lowell Pink Arrow Pride Organization for their help and guidance. They have been in my life since 2007. And to my church family at the First Congregational UCC of Lowell for setting up a food chain for me during my recovery at home. All my love to my two wonderful daughters Jennifer and Amanda, for their support throughout my cancer journey. I do not know how I could have ever made it through this cancer journey of my own, without the help of my family, friends, and Pink Arrows.