Catherine’s Story

My cancer journey started in 2010 when I was diagnosed with DCIS breast cancer.

I had a mastectomy and 13 months of Herceptin treatments then several reconstruction surgeries that followed. I thought my cancer experience was over until April 30, 2018 when I was diagnosed with Stage IIIC gastric cancer. I had been experiencing some acid reflux for many months before they finally did an Endoscopy and found the tumor. Surgery was on Oct 30th. I had a total gastrectomy, part of my liver removed and 18 lymph nodes (10 of which had cancer). I was in the hospital for 18 days and had a leak at the new esophageal junction and could not eat anything but ice chips for a month. Thank the Lord for my feeding tube – it really has kept me alive. Since then I had 2 post op chemo treatments bringing my total to 9 treatments. They have decided that 9 is enough and now I wait for the next scan in March.

I started West Coast Swing dancing in July 2017. I am very much a novice and, at 59, starting to feel my age. I had been working on a routine with my instructor, Derek Leyva, for a few months before I was diagnosed. When I was first diagnosed the doctors told me it was most likely Stage 4 and I should “get my affairs in order” so I really thought I would never get to dance again and that would take a lot of joy from my life. I started chemo in May 2018.

In August I decided that I was going to start dancing again and found out that there was a national dance competition being held locally on Sept 1st. I thought it may be my last chance to ever do something like this so it was “now or never” and I decided to go for it. I will never forget walking into the dance studio and telling my instructor:

I have a feeding tube hanging from my side

I have major muscle fatigue

I have severe nausea and some neuropathy

I have chemo brain and I am no spring chicken

But I want to compete with our routine at the River City Swing competition and being the amazing instructor that he is he said “let’s do it”!

Next, I met with my oncologist and asked him if I could postpone one of my treatments in order to give myself an opportunity to practice and he said yes! I was able to practice 2-3 times a week for a month, very slowly and painfully at first but the more I practiced, the stronger I felt.

The West Coast Swing community is a truly amazing group of people. They are supportive, caring and encouraging and they embrace all age groups – there is no discrimination. It is such a refreshing atmosphere, and everyone loves to dance.

The day of the event arrives, and I was feeling pretty nervous. I live on a small island north of Jacksonville, Fl and 20 friends and family members had rented a party bus and made the hour-long trip to cheer me on, along with the entire Jax Westie Swing Club family. My instructor and I were competing in the Pro-Am division which was Saturday night but there were other competitions (Jack and Jills) earlier in the day which I had signed up to compete in. Around noon on Saturday I started having horrible pain down the front of my right thigh (psoas muscle) and could hardly walk. I had to drop out of 2 competitions and was very worried that I would not be able to perform our routine that we had been working so hard on. I tried a massage at the hotel spa and that did not help, time was running out.

I truly believe that there are angels all around us and they come to our aid when we really need them. My angels that night were my 2 friends who were coming from the island that are chiropractors. They brought their portable table on the party bus and arrived about 30 minutes before I was supposed to compete. I hobbled to the door and let them in and up to 10 minutes before the competition they were still working on me – I started to pray and ask for help. All I needed was this one night…..

Then, a miracle happened, somehow they fixed my leg! I could not believe it! I rushed out the door and just made it to the lineup. We performed our routine and it was such a blast! I had not felt alive in so many months and for that brief period in time I was no longer sick – I was me again. But that is not the end of the story. After the amateurs compete they have a Pro show and each pro couple performs a routine and they are spectacular. After the last pro performance, one of my instructors came to me and took me by the hand and led me to the front of the ballroom where the judges sit and sat me down. I had NO IDEA what was going to happen. Then the music starts and my instructors Derek and Jennifer had choreographed a tribute routine to me to a remix of the song Survivor. I was blown away and so was the audience.

Afterwards, Derek and Jennifer escorted me onto the dance floor and the whole audience joined us and gave me flowers and every one of them hugged me. It was incredibly emotional as I had not told many people about my struggles so I was completely surprised. This community has embraced me throughout my entire journey and I don’t think people realize how important that is to a cancer patient.

It is a crucial part of my treatment plan to dance or do something that brings me joy throughout this nightmare of cancer. I wish all cancer patients could find their “something” that takes them away, even if only for a brief m

oment, from the struggles and despair that comes with this diagnosis.

My fight is not over and now I have to learn how to live without a stomach but it’s not going to stop me. If this disease does any good it is perhaps to show us that we are strong and brave and hopeful.

I am still dancing and going to a competition in Orlando at the end of March. Wish me luck!

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