Be patient and accepting — there is a lot of waiting that goes along with cancer, learning patience will help. Accepting your situation is the key to moving forward. Be flexible with the process. Take one day at a time. Make the most of every day.
Cancer is a horrible and terrifying disease. Yet millions of people have beaten the odds and beat cancer. Authority Magazine started a new series called “I Survived Cancer and Here Is How I Did It”. In this interview series, we are talking to cancer survivors to share their stories, in order to offer hope and provide strength to people who are being impacted by cancer today. As a part of this interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Theresa Wickerham.
Theresa Wickerham of DeSoto, Missouri has always had a zest for life even after surviving cancer three times. Her first diagnosis came at age 22, while she was a stay-at-home mom. She could only look forward and believe that she would be okay — CANCER wasn’t a death sentence. Now 68 years old, she’s raised five children and is active with her nine grandchildren. And, she continues to look to the future.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! We really appreciate the courage it takes to publicly share your story. Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your background and your childhood backstory?
I was raised in Old Mines, Missouri, near St. Louis. I am the youngest of eight, although I had an infant brother who died at four months old. None of my siblings had cancer, nor did my parents. When I was first diagnosed with cancer in 1975, cancer wasn’t something you talked about openly. I enjoyed the rural, Missouri countryside growing up. Family was an important part of my upbringing. Today, I spend time with my husband. I have raised five children, one son and four daughters. My son died suddenly at age 39 in 2013 of unknown causes. I have nine grandchildren and two grandchildren that died as infants. My husband has two adult children, six grandchildren and one infant grandchild that passed. I love the countryside and enjoy nature. I’m an avid camper, and enjoy being at the lake, reading and sewing. I was blessed with a very faith-filled family.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“I will survive” has always been my own personal motto. But when I was faced with the sarcoma, then “free and C-clear” became my motto to share with everyone. Life doesn’t always give you what you want, and I’ve always known that the only way forward is to be free of negativity. Acceptance is the key to life.
Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about surviving cancer. Do you feel comfortable sharing with us the story surrounding how you found out that you had cancer?
Yes, it’s important to talk about the process, because perhaps it’ll help someone else. The first time I was told I had cancer, I was only 22 years old with two small children. It was 1975. I was told I needed surgery on a Friday, and I had surgery that removed part of my thyroid the following Tuesday. The second cancer experience, about 22 years later, was a recurrence of thyroid cancer. I underwent a total thyroidectomy surgery for full removal of my thyroid, and about a month later, nuclear medicine therapy — a four-day hospital stay, at that time, which included taking a liquid form of radioactive iodine. This nuclear medicine therapy’s purpose was to destroy any remnant thyroid tissue remaining after surgery. In 2018, after feeling a lump, my doctor performed a surgery for a presumed hernia. What was found was an epitheleoid sarcoma in my pelvic region — — this was my third cancer diagnosis. My doctor advised we use nuclear medicine diagnostics — PET imaging — which made the difference in learning about precise treatment of the sarcoma. I was treated with proton radiation therapy.
What was the scariest part of that event? What did you think was the worst thing that could happen to you?
When I first got cancer, my biggest fear was not living long enough to see my two infants graduate from school, as they were only 5 months old and 21 months old. The worst thing that could happen is that I would die, and my children wouldn’t have their mother to raise them. But, I went on to have three more children and I am now seeing their children graduate from school. With my last cancer (sarcoma) occurrence, I thought this was it, I would probably die.
How did you react in the short term?
I don’t really think I had a short-term reaction. Since I was 22, I’ve been living with cancer for the long-term. But, I just continued to live life to the fullest and didn’t dwell on the “cancer.” I didn’t have time to be depressed and discouraged. I listened to a lot of positive tapes (we only had cassette tapes back then). I really focused on positivity. My kids remember when I’d keep a marker board in the house and I’d write things on it, like, “it’s going to be a great day, enjoy it!”
After the dust settled, what coping mechanisms did you use? What did you do to cope physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually?
I just tried to pick up where life I left off, prior to the cancer. Life goes on. It doesn’t stop for cancer. You have to pull yourself together and get back on the journey. I surrounded myself with family and doing the things I loved. I had a career and was an officer for different school organizations throughout my life. I enjoyed bowling, walking and reading self-help books. I read a lot of after-life books, after my son died. I also became very transparent about talking about cancer. We’ve come a long way since the 1970s. I joined ThyCa: Thyroid Cancer Survivors’ Association 20 years ago, and work with them regularly. Spiritually and emotionally, I relied on daily prayer, and learned how to receive support and practiced gratitude for all the people who helped me out. With this latest cancer, I received a lot of love — with the food drop-offs and the 24-hour care and housework help. I created a ‘My Life Line’ page too, which allowed me to write daily updates on my progress and share with my loved ones.
Is there a particular person you are grateful towards who helped you learn to cope and heal? Can you share a story about that?
I’m so thankful to my husband, who daily cared for me and definitely helped me to heal through his positive words and actions. Also, my four daughters continued to encourage me, which had a great deal to do with my coping. Every day, they messaged me, checked-in on me, and traveled to Texas with me for my radiation treatments. There were many others as well. It’s amazing the people you touch during your life that come forward at a critical time.
In my own cancer struggle, I sometimes used the idea of embodiment to help me cope. Let’s take a minute to look at cancer from an embodiment perspective. If your cancer had a message for you, what do you think it would want or say?
Cancer has taught me acceptance and to let go and live now, because we are just passing through this life and it’s up to us how we travel the journey.
What did you learn about yourself from this very difficult experience? How has cancer shaped your worldview? What has it taught you that you might never have considered before? Can you please explain with a story or example?
I know I am a lot stronger than I thought I was. I have become very accepting about life, people, and events. Losing my son in the midst of the cancer was truly my worst moment of the journey. The truth is, we’re not in control. We make very big deals about nothing. In the grand scheme of life, it really doesn’t matter. I live by the mantra, ‘don’t sweat the small stuff, and it’s all small stuff.’
How have you used your experience to bring goodness to the world?
When I had my thyroid cancer recurrence, I had gone 25 years without knowing another person with thyroid cancer. I wanted to make sure that never happened again to anyone. I started volunteering with ThyCa: Thyroid Cancer Survivors’ Association and started a support group in my local area. In the past 19 years, I have helped hundreds of survivors through emails, phone calls, and at conferences.
What are a few of the biggest misconceptions and myths out there about fighting cancer that you would like to dispel?
I don’t think you get cancer from anything you eat or drink, unless it is in excess. It isn’t necessarily hereditary either. I think some people are given the opportunity of cancer so they can have a different outlook on life. It does change one’s outlook, hopefully for the better.
Nuclear medicine is safe. Whether it is nuclear medicine diagnostics or therapies, nuclear medicine can help with precise diagnoses and more effective treatments. It can make a difference with quality and quantity of life too. I think I’m here today because of nuclear medicine with my radioactive iodine diagnostics, and my proton radiation treatments.
You get cancer, you are treated, and it’s over — that’s a myth. Cancer requires life-long follow up.
Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experiences and knowledge, what advice would you give to others who have recently been diagnosed with cancer? What are your “5 Things You Need To Beat Cancer? Please share a story or example for each.
1. Be your own advocate — seek out a medical center of excellence and ask questions about your care. Get a second opinion. Ask about nuclear medicine diagnostic or therapy options. www.snmmi.org .
2. Be patient and accepting — there is a lot of waiting that goes along with cancer, learning patience will help. Accepting your situation is the key to moving forward. Be flexible with the process. Take one day at a time. Make the most of every day.
3. Stay positive — having the right attitude and believing in your inner strength is the key to survival. Not only did I experience cancer three times, but I experienced the loss of my son, and grandchildren too. Don’t let loss and sadness define your life.
4. Allow others to help — it sometimes takes a village to bring someone through cancer. My family and friends were my support team.
5. Have faith/and give back — ask your higher power for healing strength and energy. Get involved in programs where you can give back. ThyCa gave me an outlet to share my journey, and help others too.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be?
I would show others that it is possible to live a life with cancer. It is not a death sentence. Nuclear medicine diagnostics and therapies have made it easier to find and understand the cancer more precisely than we thought possible.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them. 🙂
I would love to meet Sylvester Stallone. He not only played the part of Rocky, but he has been a rock. I also suffered the loss of a son, like him, and know the impact it has on one’s heart. My son loved Rocky movies and would sometimes mimic the Rocky ‘voice.’ Once, while at a conference in Philadelphia, I climbed the stairs that Rocky ran up, in honor of my son. On a trip to Los Angeles for a conference, my daughters and I all wore Rocky shirts and two of my daughters ran the beach that Rocky and Apollo Creed ran in Rocky III. Sylvester Stallone has been a rock in our family. “Eye of the Tiger” is our favorite song.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
I am a member of both the Society of Nuclear Medicine and Molecular Imaging (SNMMI) Patient Advocacy Advisory Board and ThyCa: Thyroid Cancer Survivors’ Association. You can reach me at [email protected]. I can also be found on Facebook.
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!