Siblings Larry Frye & Martha Whitehorn: The ties that bind
We grew up close, the four of us kids and mom and dad, in West Pennsylvania. Our parents moved to the Peninsula in the ‘60s. My sister Martha was out of the house - she's the eldest - but we all came out here with them, and all four of us are still here. Three of us ended up contractors, including Martha; it might have been a rebel statement to dad, but we're good at it.
It all started with Martha, this cancer thing. She got diagnosed with breast cancer around 1988 or maybe '89. She was 47 then. She was treated with a lumpectomy and radiation at Community Hospital and is still grateful for the doctor who guided her to talk with a radiologist, who stood up for a less radical surgery. Most importantly, she got through it. We were counting on that.
But in 2001, Martha was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma which, they tell us, is not related to the breast cancer. She's really been through it. Everything, it seemed, was in remission. But then she developed myelodysplasia syndrome, a condition that deforms blood cells, causing anemia. We're told it can lead to leukemia, but it hasn't. So Martha's doing very well right now.
Then, it was my turn. In 2007, I developed cancer in my throat, a squamous cell carcinoma behind my tongue and at the side of my neck. I thought maybe it was some kind of sinus infection that had gotten my lymph nodes involved. But, I went to a doctor, who said "This is no normal cancer." She startled herself. She had meant to say, "This is no normal infection." But the truth was out. She sent me to see Dr. Steven Vetter, who put me in touch with (radiation oncologist) Dr. Brad Tamler. He lobbied strongly for a very advanced chemotherapy.
I went through chemotherapy and radiation treatments and, finally, surgery to remove any evidence of cancer in my throat. They did find a trace in my lymph nodes.
This was a difficult cancer to treat. The radiation was very invasive, and burned my skin and the inside of my throat. It damaged my salivary glands, leaving my mouth dry and a tightness in my throat. But, even though it was a tough treatment, it was very treatable, and I remain cancer-free.
We spend less time asking, "Why us?" and more time supporting one another. A big part of my story is Martha being such a support for me. She was going through her own struggles, and I had no idea how to help her. But she knew just what to do for me. What I remember most is when I went to have a biopsy and learn my diagnosis. I told her I'd be fine, that she didn't need to come. I knew she'd been through enough on her own. But when I got to the appointment, there she stood with her notebook and a big smile on her face; there was my angel sister, writing down everything the doctor told us, knowing I wasn't hearing a word of it.
Our bond has been sustaining and gratifying. And we have built on that foundation by attending Community Hospital support groups.
The first time Martha was diagnosed with cancer, Sandy Kahn had just started her Cancer Wellness® group. It was good for her. Then she met (oncology nurse educator) Joy Smith and got connected with the Women's Cancer Group she leads, and she really benefited from the interaction. Joy Smith is so skilled. She has this wonderful serenity and peacefulness about her that affects all of us.
I attend Cancer Wellness and the Cancer Journey, a broad-scope approach to the cancer process that helps people deal with their diagnosis and their treatment program and their recovery. We go into imagery and relaxation techniques, self expression, and ways of releasing tension or anxiety. I have an 11-year-old golden retriever named Cali, who also has cancer. After the support group meets, I go home and put my hands on her, the way Sandy Kahn taught us, and then I do some imagery work for her. Soon, she's snoring, and her symptoms get a little better.
Everybody goes through their cancer journey a little differently. We all find our support in different places. Martha and I have worked together and have benefitted from the support groups at Community Hospital. Through all of this, I have been thinking about reinventing my life. Construction is hard work, particularly in these challenging times. I've been learning how to nurture myself better, to build myself confidence and awareness that I have so much more life in me, so much more to do. I think it's time to give back.