The Cancer Diaries
Three Personal Tales of Hope, Help and Inspiration
No two stories of a bout with cancer are exactly the same. Unfortunately, whether you have dealt with the dreadful disease yourself or have witnessed the struggle of a family member or friend, nearly everyone has a story to tell. Until the miraculous day when a cure is discovered, one of the ways cancer patients and their loved ones heal is through sharing—stories of courage, strength and support in the face of seemingly insurmountable adversity. We hope these three personal and local experiences with cancer we reveal on the following pages may offer you an opportunity to relate, a drive to help, a reason to be grateful, the inspiration to live life to the fullest or all of the above.
A Survivor's Support
After Beating Stage III Colon Cancer, Betty Dobbs Spends Time Helping Other Patients Heal
By Cathy Welch
Photos by Angela Douglas
Life in retirement is looking pretty good these days for Newport News resident Betty Dobbs. She volunteers with Newport News Women’s Club serving veterans, underprivileged families and children. She delivers home-cooked meals to friends and neighbors and coordinates luncheons for homebound people. Occasionally, she organizes trips for her Orcutt Baptist Church Sunday School class.
In her leisure time, she plays on a ladies’ golf league at Fort Eustis Army Base. She and her husband, Wayman (her high school sweetheart), love visiting Charleston, N.C., Savannah, Ga. and traveling up the Eastern Seaboard. This fall, the couple will travel to New England for their 59th wedding anniversary.
They’ve got two grown children, five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
But just four years ago, Betty’s life was put on hold.
After a trip to visit her daughter’s family in fall 2012, Betty felt a sore spot on her side. “I found it myself and decided to get it checked,” she recalls. She was scheduled for an immediate colonoscopy, where her doctor removed five polyps. However, one was too large and required surgery.
“I got a call that evening and was told I had stage III colon cancer—adenocarcinoma,” Betty says. “I thought surely he was looking at somebody else’s records. It couldn’t be me.”
She had always taken good care of herself: ate the right things, walked four to six miles daily, played golf, and waterskied into her 60s.
After the call, she sat on Wayman’s lap. “We cried, huddled together and talked,” Betty says. “Wayman’s prayer was for God to take the cancer but not take my life.”
She asked God for courage, patience, healing and understanding. “We studied a lot of books from the cancer care center to equip ourselves with knowledge,” she says.
Her doctors agreed that her cancer needed to be treated aggressively. Dobbs says she trusted God to guide the professionals chosen to treat her.
Betty had a port implanted in her chest for eight months of bimonthly, six-hour infusions at Riverside Cancer Center in Newport News. After pre-meds she received a “cocktail” consisting of five harsh medications.
Following each bimonthly, Tuesday infusion, Betty wore a portable pack of medication for two full days. She had tablets for nausea and therapy for neuropathy. Her chemotherapy medications caused imbalance. She fell a lot, once stripping the tendons in her finger. She also had a problem with cold drinks and ice cream. “I couldn't get anything out of the refrigerator without wearing gloves,” she says.
Aware that hair loss was a common side effect of chemotherapy, she bought a blonde wig. She had always wanted to be a blonde. “My sweet nurse told me my medications would not cause hair loss,” she says. “So no blonde Betty.”
She stayed home, rested a lot, but got up and dressed every day. Wayman and their children stayed by her side. Her sisters came for a week and did the grocery shopping, laundry, cooking and cleaning. “They were good for me,” Betty explains. “They were there if I got depressed. And I had days where I was pretty sick.”
During her weekly infusions, four other people shared her treatment room—each with a different kind of cancer. “Everybody has a story,” Betty says. “And each story is different even though we have the same disease.”
Betty finished her chemotherapy treatments in 2013 and now goes for annual checkups. “My doctor said, ‘Go—enjoy your life. Pick up where you left off. You are a strong woman, better now than you were before your illness.’”
And though Betty is certainly going and enjoying her life after cancer, she now spends a portion of her free time helping elderly people and widows—four of which have cancer—mainly because she believes that a strong support team of family and close friends is what helped her to heal, and she knows that not everyone is lucky enough to have that support system.
“There was always a person nearby to hold me physically and emotionally,” she says. “I will always have a desire to help because of the many ways that I was helped.”
During her cancer journey, Betty received offers from people she didn’t know, offering to sit with her during her six-hour infusions. Later, she sat with her friend, Barbara Keffer, while she received infusions. Betty encouraged her friend to keep a diary.
“I suggest this because the bad part is soon forgotten, but you remember the good parts,” Betty explains. “If you have a journal, you can look back to a year ago and say, ‘Oh, my. Look where I was then, and look where I am today.’”
“I decided early on that cancer would be a part of my life,” Betty explains, “but would not take over my life.”
Riding It Out
Faced With A Terminal Diagnosis, Dawn West Was Told To Get Her Affairs In Order And Prepare For Death; Instead, She Took A Different Road
By Bill Glose
Imagine going in for your annual physical and discovering you had lung cancer. Then imagine the surgeon you’re referred to saying there’s nothing he can do for you. If you only had a year left to live, what would you do with it? For Dawn West, a former Newport News deputy sheriff, this was no hypothetical question.
In 2001, her doctor discovered a two-centimeter spot in the pleural cavity surrounding her lung. Years earlier, she had suffered a collapsed lung. After several failed attempts to repair it, a surgeon had sprayed tetracycline between the lung and the pleura, essentially using the medicine as antibiotic super glue. Because of this, surgical procedures were too risky to be performed on that lung. Its wall would cling to the pleura and shred. Therefore, the tumor was inoperable. The doctor’s only suggestion was to get her affairs in order and prepare for death. West took a different tack. She went out and bought a motorcycle.
West did not eschew medicine altogether. She got biopsies and CAT scans and PET scans. She sought second—and third—opinions, most of which repeated the first doctor’s sentiment. One surgeon was willing to try a radical, new surgery that had as much chance of killing her as curing her. And if it cured her, she would live out the remainder of her life tethered to an oxygen tank. West also visited a homeopath in Washington Crossing, Pennsylvania who prescribed a daily dosage of enough herbs, vitamins and amino acids to fill a coffee mug.
But when she wasn’t driving back and forth to different hospitals and clinics, West rode her motorcycle as a self-prescribed form of happiness therapy. Cruising down tree-lined streets, she forgot about her problems as she cut through the wind and steel-belted rubber hummed on asphalt.
But before West reached that state of windblown bliss, she had to get over a few bumps in the road. Having never ridden a motorcycle before, she took a class at Thomas Nelson Community College and got her license upgraded. No problem there. Then she had to go out and find a bike that would fit her small frame. West is a mere 5’2”, so a big cruising bike was out of the question. She bought one of the smallest she could find, a used Honda 450. But even that stood at 3’6” and weighed 412 pounds.
“When I realized how high the seat was on this motorcycle, I bought really high boots,” she explains with a laugh. “A high, platform kind of boot so I could have both my feet flat on the ground. Without the boots, I wasn’t big enough to hold the motorcycle up.”
But even with the boots, West made a critical error as she was leaving her driveway on her maiden voyage. The driveway is sloped to the street, and when she slowed down at the dip of the driveway, “the ground just disappeared,” she says. “There I was just flailing and floundering, and my feet were swinging as I tried to get over that dip in the driveway. But ultimately I got on the other side of the dip and I was off!”
Along with boots reminiscent of the disco era, West purchased a full-face helmet, gloves and a biker jacket and pants. Sheathed in gray leather, she was an androgynous missile out on the road. One of her favorite places to stop and take a break was a cul-de-sac where two little girls were often playing in the yard. They seldom paid attention to West until one time she stopped and flipped open her visor. Omigosh! they exclaimed, you’re a girl!
“After that,” West says, “every couple of days, whenever I was out, I would stop over there and see them, and they would tell me the latest thing from their school: ‘Girls rule and boys drool!’ And, ‘Girls go to college to get more knowledge; boys go to Jupiter to get more stupider.’ They were both about 10, and they were just as cute as they could be. They wanted to know where I lived, where I worked. When they found out I was a deputy, I was like their little hero. They would run after me down the street when I took off, yelling, ‘Bye! Bye!’ It was good for my heart.”
West needed all the good-for-her-heart moments she could find. They helped to counterbalance the inevitable moments of despair, those times when she cried herself to sleep at night, times when she felt like a milk jug with an expiration date stamped on its side.
“Shortly after I was diagnosed and everyone was telling me, ‘I’m sorry, there’s nothing I can do,’” she says, “I was at Lowe’s getting light bulbs for the house. They had this newfangled five-year light bulb, and I picked it up and I tossed it back on the shelf. I wouldn’t buy the damn thing. Not if it was going to live longer than me.”
Out on her motorcycle, West’s perspective was joyful, and that joy would follow her into the rest of her day.
“I would come home from my very stressful job,” she says, “and I’d ride my motorcycle and think, ‘To heck with everybody!’ Anyone who was problematic, anyone who was negative, they simply couldn’t play with me. You get to a point where you can’t be bothered with petty stuff because you’re so busy having a good time that you can’t bother with the drama and the negativity—that’s how it worked for me. And I literally put people out of my house who were being negative and difficult.”
Her optimism paid off. When she checked back in with her surgeon a few months later, the tumor in her lung had shrunk by 30 percent. Cheering in an oncology ward might be bad form, but West couldn’t help herself. She howled with delight. She high-fived her doctor. And her tears, for once, were tears of joy.
The surgery was put on hold, and on every subsequent follow-up, the tumor shrank some more. Then it disappeared. Whether her cure was due to vitamins, the motorcycle or a miracle, no one can say for sure.
“You have one shot with life,” West says. “You have one bullet. Take very careful aim. Make it count. Listen sometimes to people, to how many times they say can’t, won’t, shouldn’t; people incorporate those things into their daily lives, and they live what I refer to as a negative life. And most people do. Me? I’m packing in as much fun as I can.”
Live Like Abby
A Spirited Childhood Cancer Patient Can Teach Us All A Lesson About Being Grateful, Strong And, Most Of All—Inspired
By Melissa M. Stewart
On a recent Sunday, mom Patty Furco manages an afternoon filled with an equal dose of commotion and caring at her Virginia Beach home. It’s the day before the Fourth of July, and she permits her daughter Maggie,12, to join some friends in decorating their bikes with bit of patriotic flair for the neighborhood parade the next morning. She fetches Maggie, 5, a Finding Dory bandage for her scrape and chats with her about cleaning her room and packing a bag for an out of town trip. You see, what the Furco girls are most excited about this weekend has nothing to do with fireworks or festivities. They are anticipating an impending visit with the third sister in their all-girl trio—9-year-old Abby.
While their household seems plenty lively, an important member of the Furco Five is missing. Abby has been an inpatient at North Carolina’s Duke Children’s Hospital for about five weeks now, where she is being treated for complications from a bone marrow transplant. Continuous dialysis and IV antibiotics are the latest interventions on a long road of health struggles for this spirited little girl.
“When I need a positive moment, I say, ‘She is cancer free,’” says Patty. “We can take on everything else.”
And the Furcos have taken on plenty in the past 5 years. After being diagnosed with lymphoblastic leukemia in 2011 at age 4, Abby began months of high-dose chemo and a targeted trial therapy that eventually sent her cancer into remission in 2013. Eleven months later, she relapsed and underwent her bone marrow transplant in 2015. While the surgery worked and Abby is now in remission once again, it also caused acute graft versus host disease, a common side effect where the transplanted immune cells attack the recipient, making her very sick.
“It’s Abby’s determination and stubbornness that has helped her,” says Patty. “The last two years have beaten her down severely—totally pounded her.” Despite that, the day she relapsed, Abby asked her mom if she would still be able to finish the third grade.
Patty says this sort of determination has also kept her entire family going during these difficult times.
“When I say I can’t be strong any longer, I just deal with it and keep going,” Patty says. “The inner fight is what she has taught me. Abby rolls with the punches and has always bounced back.”
While Abby remains at Duke, in critical condition from her graft verses host, Patty and her husband, Joe, “roll with the punches” by taking turns at her bedside—him on the weekends and her during the week—while also caring for her two sisters at home in Virginia Beach.
“I don’t know how I do it,” says Patty. “I have no choice. There are a lot of emotions I tuck away because I would not be as effective for Maggie and Emily. We try to keep their routines the same and their lives as consistent as possible.”
Patty does know she couldn’t do it without support, which she has a lot of. A military family living in Virginia Beach again for their second assignment, the Furcos rely on help from the Navy, their church, beloved staff at Portsmouth’s Naval Medical Center (where she was diagnosed and began her care), grandparents and a host of friends, family members and neighbors who adore Abby and her loving family. They organize fundraisers, deliver food, care for the kids and say heaps of prayers.
“You have to take the help that is offered because it’s hard,” says Patty. “You want to be able to run your own family, but you need to take and ask for help. We have so many amazing supporters and people praying all over the world. We feel the love, and that’s how we get through it.”
Her courage and strength and sheer force of will are forever an inspiration to me, and I hope you find the same because it is so powerful and such a beautiful part of her yet unfinished legacy. No one can ever say of Abby that she is choosing to go gentle into that good night. — Journal entry by Joe Furco
Just a few days after Maggie and Emily visited with their sister on Fourth of July weekend, Patty and Joe received news about Abby that they always feared but hoped to never hear. Doctors explained that treatments were no longer effective and advised her parents to end medical support and bring Abby home; she was given just 48 hours to live.
In true Furco fashion, the family—and all of its supporters—vowed to give Abby the best two days of her life.
“Our wish is that Abby is happy and feels the love from everyone around her,” says Patty. “Being home is so important, as that is her happy place—together as a family and free from the hyper medical attention she has received specifically since relapse.”
And time at home seems to be agreeing with her—48 hours came and went. Four weeks later (on Aug. 12) Abby and her family continue to be blessed with priceless time together. With the help of a van rented by their church (St. Michael Lutheran in Virginia Beach) that can accommodate her wheelchair and also a ramp put up at home, all five Furcos have made trips in the past few weeks to the Virginia Aquarium, Cold Stone Creamery, to see a movie and to view a full moon from the Little Island Fishing Pier.
“We are forever grateful for time,” says Patty. “These almost 10 years we have had of her life with us, especially the 5 1/2 years since she was diagnosed. And most recently, the priceless time we have been given after we were told that Abby had about 48 hours to live.”
The most special time has been surrounded by her loved ones, watching her beloved Food Network and encouraging others to “Live Like Abby,” a slogan the Furcos have adopted to convey Abby’s ability to inspire those around her.
I am thankful for you. Hearing how you have supported me and my family makes me feel special. Hearing how I have inspired you makes me feel proud. And brave. And strong. Thank you for that. — Journal entry by Abby Furco
To help other children like Abby continue to be amazing and fight their cancers, Patty says there are so many things people can do to help. She points out that there are many childhood cancer specific non-profits that work on raising money and awareness for childhood cancer. Big and small, they all have one thing in common—to find cures.
“Government funding for childhood cancer research is so little that researchers depend on private entities to fund them,” she says.
The Furco family has worked closely with St Baldrick’s Foundation, which funds childhood cancer research specifically. They support the foundation and have a hero fund set up in honor of Abby where people can donate.
Patty also encourages people to attend events, whether it’s a local St. Baldrick’s Foundation event, Light the Night for Leukemia Lymphoma Society, Relay For Life for ACS or anything to get involved.
“Just attend, or join the team of the family you know,” she says. “Your presence and support at that event means a lot to the family. There are always fundraising opportunities, and that is the icing on the cake, but your attending means so very much.”
This girl, our Abby, continues to amaze us and defy everything the medical field expected. She is teaching so many of us so many lessons and it’s unbelievable how many people she reaches. We are so blessed for this gift. We truly are. I am speechless, truly. — Journal entry by Patty Furco
As she continues to amaze her medical team, there is no certainty about exactly how much more time Abby herself will have to “Live Like Abby,” but her family plans to honor her legacy by living life to the fullest, as Abby has always done.
“We will take opportunities to do fun things and explore,” says Patty. “We plan on carrying Abby’s spirit wherever we go; we will forever be the Furco Five.”
At Coastal Virginia Magazine’s press time, Abby and Patty were headed to Camp Fantastic, a retreat for children with childhood cancer where Abby has spent a week each summer since being diagnosed. Just a short time ago, Patty was certain she wouldn’t make it this year. Abby, however, had other plans.
“Abby puts living first,” says Patty. “She may be super sick, but her inner drive to continue always wins. She has always been this way, with a never, ever give up attitude.”
September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. To make a donation to Abby Furco’s hero fund set up through the St. Baldrick’s Foundation, or to find out more, visit StBaldricks.org/Hero-Funds/TeamAbbyGives.