Most Las Crucens are aware that October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month and that pink is its signature color. But did you know that October is also Liver Cancer Awareness Month (ribbon color: emerald green) and that November has been established to raise awareness about pancreatic (purple), stomach (periwinkle), and carcinoid (zebra stripe) cancers? Yoli Diaz, president and executive director of CARE Las Cruces (carelascruces.org) explains, “So many of our community members are affected by cancer and there are so many forms of cancer out there that people just aren’t aware of. That’s where CARE comes in.”
Not only does the nonprofit organization aim to provide resources and general education on cancer, they also provide financial assistance to local cancer patients and their families for expenses going well beyond medical bills— think gas cards, lodging, and travel expenses incurred traveling to and from treatment.
CARE’s annual The Big Event…A Community that CAREs will take place this year from September 21 – 24, with a variety of events and entertainment scheduled throughout including a parade and a bike, run, and car show.
Read on to hear firsthand how this amazing organization has helped two local cancer patients and their family.
How did you find out you have cancer?
I discovered a small lump on my neck in mid-2014. For the next several months I visited multiple doctors who dismissed it as a clogged lymph, and I was told not to worry about it. In late 2014, I visited with a nurse practitioner for bronchitis. She noticed the lump and she recommended an ultrasound. I never received a call back with results so, after a couple weeks passed I called to follow up. I was told “no news is good news.”
Fast forward a few months to May 2015. I was not satisfied with ‘no news is good news’ so inquired again. Finally, the doctor suggested getting a biopsy. I was told it would take five days to get the results. I knew something was wrong when, two days later, I received a call asking if I could meet with the doctor that afternoon. The results revealed that I had Papillary Thyroid Carcinoma.
I later discovered that the lump was, in fact a lymph node, just not a clogged one or one not to worry about but a cancerous one. By the time the cancer was discovered it had metastasized into my lymph nodes. Treatment moved very quickly and before I knew it I underwent a 15-hour surgery to remove my thyroid, 88 lymph nodes, and two parathyroid. In addition to the surgery, I was given a very high dose of radioactive iodine to remove any remaining cancer cells. Preparing for the radioactive iodine required me to be on a very strict diet for several weeks and the radioactive iodine pill resulted in me becoming radioactive. So, to limit radiation exposure to others I was isolated for 10 days.
I was hoping the cancer journey was over for me after that but in March of this year, I was told that the radioactive iodine was not effective and the cancer was back. A visit to MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston confirmed that it was now in several different areas of my neck and possibly my lungs.
Initially, I was devastated by the news but that feeling was magnified when I thought of my daughter and my family because I knew I wasn’t on the journey alone. How do you explain cancer to a young child? We were all being affected. I remember feeling sorry for myself and asking, “why me?” but in the same breath I quickly realized “why not me?” I am no different than anyone. This was the moment I stopped feeling sorry for myself. I was 29 years old when I was diagnosed and I am too often told, “You’re too young to have cancer.” The truth: nobody is too young and cancer does not discriminate. Living with cancer has brought on many struggles, but from those struggles arose courage, resiliency, gratitude, and different perspective.
What has been most comforting to you since your diagnosis?
Family. I am very fortunate to have a supportive and loving family. It wasn’t uncommon for my parents or siblings to travel several hours (two hours each way) just to be there with me for a 45-minute appointment. My family and my husband’s family have been with me every step of the way, offering support in any way they can. My husband has been a big support for me during some of the most difficult times, either by offering a good listening ear or some much-needed perspective, and while he was being my rock emotionally he was also maintaining the household, making iodine restrictive meals for me, and being a single parent when I couldn’t be home.
The financial aid offered by CARE was a huge help too. Dealing with a cancer diagnosis is stressful all on its own, but then you compound that with the financial burdens associated with treating cancer, that can become a nightmare. The financial assistance provided by CARE helped relieve some of that burden and allowed me to focus more energy on my wellbeing.
What do you want people to know about cancer and the people who have it?
After I was diagnosed, I was told by many that I had “the good cancer.” They say this because Thyroid Cancer has a reputation for being more treatable or curable than other types of cancer. What many fail to recognize is that your prognosis depends on the type of thyroid cancer you have, how far it has metastasized, and your age. Although I realize that I am much more fortunate than others who have fought or are fighting cancer, there is no “good cancer.”
I have learned through my journey that even though we are sometimes dealt a bad hand of cards, we still have a choice of how we are going to play the cards we are dealt. I decided to play my cards by finding gratitude for the medical care that I am receiving and for the support from my family, friends, coworkers, and community; I am also learning to find some peace in the chaos by accepting things I cannot control and having faith.
Is there anything that’s been eye-opening or surprising to you since your diagnosis?
I am still surprised to hear how prevalent Thyroid Cancer is in our area, yet how little awareness there is about it. As a woman, I always hear about breast cancer and the importance of checking your breasts regularly, but no one ever told me about checking my thyroid too. I would like to see more awareness and support for different types of cancers.
It wasn’t until I started researching available resources that I was surprised to find that other communities don’t have organizations like CARE, who provide financial assistance for non-medical costs. CARE recognized that after all the medical bills have piled up, there are still expenses in traveling to and from doctors’ appointments, hotel stays, meals, and making sure utility bills and mortgages are being paid. We are fortunate to have an organization like CARE in Doña Ana County.
How did you find out you have cancer?
I was getting a pain in my side, but I didn’t think much of it at first. It didn’t get worse, it was just always there. One day I was talking to a friend who said it sounded like diverticulitis, so, I went to the doctor and the doctor agreed. The doctor started me on a 10-day antibiotic and told me to come back if it didn’t work. Well, it didn’t work so I went back. I had a CAT scan and they found two masses. It just snowballed from there.
I had surgery and the masses were removed. A biopsy was sent to the Mayo Clinic in Phoenix, and I was scheduled to have PET scans every three months. I got a new diagnosis, but it was the wrong one. The Mayo Clinic called four months after I was misdiagnosed and asked me to come in. They wanted to cut a huge chunk out and biopsy it, so I went in for surgery. I came out and the doctor said she did a regular biopsy instead of cutting that huge chunk out because she couldn’t figure out what the masses were. It was a good thing she didn’t cut out more! They soon found out if they had cut into the mass like they wanted too, the cancer would have spread.
Now that they knew what they were dealing with, they started me on radiation, five weeks, five days a week. Then they gave me a month rest, and then I went back into surgery and they removed it all, along with one kidney the mass was touching. I go every three months for a CAT scan, but so far nothing has come back. That’s very good news!
How did you feel about the diagnosis?
I was floored. I’d never been to the hospital and I was never sick. I was always lucky, and I wasn’t expecting it. I lost 50 pounds between my first doctor visit and my last surgery, but it wasn’t because of the cancer. It was because I wasn’t eating. I was so nervous and scared, and that wasn’t like me. You never know how you are going to react to something like this. I also missed my family. Having to be in Phoenix so much, and away from them, was difficult. I missed out on so much with them. Sometimes I would just sit there and think and I would cry. It was hard.
What has been the most comforting thing for you since the diagnosis?
The support! I’ve had some great doctors. Dr. Teresa Reed in El Paso really made me feel so good, and that everything was going to be okay. The doctors at the Mayo Clinic were amazing as well, but boy are they young! Young and so smart.
My family is always so supportive and they were always there for me. I have aunts and uncles that had cancer and they are still here so they knew exactly what to say to me.
All my friends offered me so much support. And of course Yoli at CARE really made a difference by helping with the bills as I was getting treatment in Phoenix. CARE is so awesome and life changing.
What do you want people to know about cancer?
Cancer is a terrible thing, and it is difficult to deal with. The hardest part is not knowing. You can go months without a diagnosis, or have a diagnosis and think everything is fine, but then that feeling is shattered. Having cancer brings on so many emotions you didn’t even know you had. You become a different person.
Read another Las Crucen’s personal cancer story in her own words at: LasCrucesMagazine.com/JaymeeFiskum.