(Editor’s note: Our monthly Catholic Health Care column for May features a three-part series on the amazing story of Rebecca Dejonghe of Milan, Ill., written by Dr. Michael Porubcin. He is a hematologist/oncologist with Medical Arts Associates, Ltd., and vice president of the St. Thomas Aquinas Guild of the Quad Cities (www.stthomasaquinasguildqc.com.) This is the conclusion of the series.)
As a physician, I was taken aback by Becky’s story. Despite her incredible experience, I was not at all comfortable stopping what appeared to be effective treatment. To my pleasant surprise, neither was Becky. Somehow, we both understood that even this miracle would need an earthly conduit.
Because of worsening side effects leading to increased tingling in Becky’s hands and feet, along with an annoying skin rash and intermittent muscle pain, we decided to stop the more toxic component of chemotherapy and continue with only the more toler- able agent. My fear, however, was that the less toxic drug alone would not be strong enough to fend off the cancer. Becky was much less concerned. Her fear and anxiety had vanished. She was content, totally trusting the prom- ise she had received on that memorable night.
What followed was one of the most gratifying cancer outcomes of my career. Becky’s tumors continued to shrink and in May of 2007, she was advised to stop her chemotherapy altogether. She hesitated, but eventually concurred. She continued to travel to Houston faithfully every year for follow up X-rays until 2015 when she was released. To paraphrase Archangel Raphael: “Everything was okay.”
When I recently contacted Becky about publishing her story, I asked her to reminiscence a little on her past. This is what she said:
“One of the most extraordinary things I remember from the beginning of my journey is that a week prior to the news of my very first cancer recurrence, I felt that I was in mourning. I would come home from school every day and cry, and this was very unusual for me. When my husband asked why, I could only answer that I felt as if I was mourning something, but I didn’t know what. In retrospect, I believe it was God’s way of allowing me to mourn the loss of my leg, even though I didn’t know I was going to lose it at the time, because he knew I would need all the strength I had to deal with what was to come. The amputation itself was an extremely easy deci- sion for me. I was more than will- ing to give up my limb and more to keep the life I so dearly cher- ished. I never shed a tear for my leg after the surgery, not one.
“When this journey began, although I appreciated my health, I took for granted that I would always be a strong person who could combat any physical problems that came my way. In fact, when I received my diagnosis, I mentally prepared to ‘put up my
dukes’ and conquer it, as I had been able to do with most any- thing negative that had ever been placed in my path. Instead, I found out very quickly that I was no match for cancer! Each time I planted my feet, put up my fists and got ready to do battle for the next surgery or another round of chemo, I was quickly knocked down and reminded of my weakness. It was as if I was trying to fight a giant with a needle. But when I finally relented and understood that my job was simply to do what my doctors advised, pray and meditate daily and stay as free from stress as possible (in other words, surrender), I felt as if I had traded that needle for a sword with all the powers of the universe. That is when the healing began to take place.
“Although this is hard to understand for most people, I have great memories for most of my chemo. There were days that were difficult, no doubt. But it was not as hard as some might think. Losing my hair, something I had always taken great pride in, allowed me to see my beauty from the inside out. I remember looking at pictures once it was over and being surprised that I didn’t look as good as I thought I did when I was going through it. God allowed me to feel beautiful because I was looking at his grace when I looked in the mirror. I saw his beauty, not mine. Even though I am ever so grateful those long and painful chemo days are behind me, I never let the thought of them stray too far from me because they are a constant reminder of how incredibly blessed I am. I am here when so many are not. I believe I have a great responsibility not to squander even one day of the life I have been given.
“When my cancer began, I was a third-grade teacher. I still teach third grade, but in a much greater capacity than just academ- ics. I teach my students to be hopeful, not to tolerate but rejoice in our differences, for that is where our beauty truly lies. I teach that my scars and my prosthetic leg are not shameful, but instead tes- taments to my survival. I teach them not to fear, but to be strong and find the best in every lesson that comes their way. Life is a series of lessons and we are all students. My goal now is not just survival, but to live each day fulfilling the purpose for which I have been saved. That is truly my daily prayer.”
It was not without hesitation that I have decided to write about Becky’s extraordinary story. On one hand, I did not want to cheap- en Becky’s incredible effort to overcome her defiant disease that was literally slicing away her physical body, piece by piece.
At the same time, I wanted to avoid any misinterpretation of a realm that is beyond our limited understanding. At the end, how- ever, I found Becky’s story a perfect example of what medicine should be about. As physicians we see too many patients “hitting rock bottom” every day. Whether we are faced with a high-risk pregnancy, terminally ill patients or an end-of-life situation, our primary approach must remain the same: all life is a God-given gift worth fighting for.
(For more information on Catholic perspectives in medicine, visit www.cathmed.org.)