First-Person Accounts of Living With Cancer
Most people know someone who is living with cancer. Yet, we still find it difficult to talk about, to understand what it is like to have an illness that at one time was thought to be incurable and untreatable. While the former may be true for many cancers, the latter is not. Over the next several months leading up to our RI Cancer Summit, we will be interviewing survivors who will tell us in their own words what it feels like to be living with cancer, how they cope and endure treatments, and most of all how they have managed, despite cancer, to live a life that is meaningful and fulfilling.
*Disclaimer: The opinions expressed during the interviews belong to the interviewees alone. The stories and examples are given are from their own experiences. The information given is not intended to provide specific advice and the Partnership does not endorse any medical advice discussed.
"My Life Was Turned Upside Down"
The Partnership's Executive Director recently sat down with Norma-Jean Pirri to discuss her cancer survivorship journey, how her faith kept her hopeful during treatment, and how her diagnosis led to the start of Norma-Jean's Pantry.
Norma-Jean's Cancer Survivorship Journey
In 2014, Norma-Jean went for her regularly scheduled mammography and the scan was clear. Less than 6 months later, she discovered a lump under her right armpit. She showed it to her daughter, who kept encouraging her to go see her doctor. Eventually, Norma-Jean went and was diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer. She says her daughter saved her life.
Norma-Jean says her world got turned upside down in the matter of an hour. There is no history of breast cancer in her family so it was completely out of the blue. Due to having dense breast tissue, the tumor was not visible during the mammogram. She remembers how her doctor took her by the hands and said "we’re going to help you." Norma-Jean proceeded to undergo chemotherapy, surgery to remove 4 lymph nodes, and radiation. She says she had an incredible team who took care of her during her entire treatment process.
Support During Treatment
Norma-Jean utilized several support services before and during her cancer treatment. Following diagnosis, the American Cancer Society reached out and offered their services. They put her in touch with a triple-negative breast cancer survivor who provided guidance and told her what to expect during treatment. Norma-Jean found speaking with the survivor very helpful.
During treatment, Norma-Jean felt emotionally broken down. At certain times, she had really bad anxiety and was eventually connected with a social worker at the cancer center she was receiving treatment at who helped her manage the mental toll of cancer. She met with the social worker whenever she needed someone to talk to, and would sometimes spend an hour on the phone with them. Having someone outside of her family and friends to talk to about her experience with was meaningful to her.
Norma-Jean's faith is also very important to her. After being diagnosed, she did a lot of praying. She would go to her church whenever she was feeling down and they would let her in, so she could pray and get strength. She would hold the hand of the statue of Mother Mary while praying and carried around a prayer card of St. Peregrine, who is Patron of cancer victims. Norma-Jean was also given a pouch with a photo of Mary on it by a friend who is also a breast cancer survivor. It contains prayers her friend wrote, a stone shaped like a heart that she rubbed while praying, and holy water which she applied to the location of her tumor. After completing treatment, the zipper on the pouch broke off, leaving the pouch permanently closed. Norma-Jean took this as a sign that her faith did its job to get her through the difficult time.
Norma-Jean loves to cook—it's in her Italian roots. However, she didn't cook during treatment as the smell of preparing food didn't make her feel good. Once she was feeling better, she started to cook again. Sometime after she started cooking again, a friend of her daughter asked Norma-Jean for a recipe but she didn’t have a written down. Her daughter ended up recording her making the dish as an instructional video. The friend loved it and posted it on Facebook. It went viral and led to the creation of Norma-Jean's Pantry. Her videos are now viewed all over the country.
Norma-Jean finds it therapeutic to cook and with Norma-Jean's Pantry, she has an audience to talk about things with that made them feel good. Her videos are raw and unedited so it is true and real to how she cooks. It’s like the viewers are cooking in the pantry with her. In one video, she opened up about her survivorship journey because she was making a dish that a local restaurant delivered to her every week during treatment because she couldn’t cook. Norma-Jean's Pantry is an example of how food brings people together.
When asked what she would say to someone who is just starting their cancer journey, Norma-Jean said the following: take as much support as you can get, follow the rules of the experts and medical professionals, and put it in God’s hands.
Prayer card of St. Peregrine and pouch with picture of Mother Mary
"Life is Beautiful—Regardless of the Struggles"
We invited Betty Bernal and Wilson Villamar of the Latino Cancer Control Task Force and survivor Mary Monier for a discussion about the importance of cancer screening, barriers for the Latinx community, and how to stay positive during a diagnosis. Mary is a proud member of the Latino Cancer Control Task Force and a prominent member of the Grupo Esperanza support group.
"I'm Not Giving Up"
This interview series starts with Deborah Klibanoff, a six-year ovarian cancer survivor, who shares stories on alternative medicine, her biggest takeaways from this cancer journey, and how she stays positive with her diagnosis.
Our interview with Deborah continues as she discusses her experience with cancer and COVID-19, the importance of patient advocacy and the value of sharing stories and advice with other survivors.