A hard-fought battle
Special to the Times News Bruce and Marie Frassinelli.
As my wife, Marie, and I were cruising down the superhighway of a picture-perfect retirement, our lives slammed into a brick wall and were turned upside down and inside out.
It was Valentine's Day 2012 a day synonymous with romance, flowers and an intimate dinner. Marie had had a CT scan earlier in the day. She had not been feeling well for about a month. She was bloated and had pain. She had a history of irritable bowel, so her doctor had prescribed several different medications, but nothing worked, so he ordered the CT scan.
It was late in the afternoon on the day of the test. Her doctor had requested that she stay at the hospital because he would read the scan immediately. Now, the doctor was on the phone. "You have ovarian cancer," he said somberly. But, wait, it gets worse: The symptoms confirmed that she was at stage four, meaning the cancer had spread from the ovaries into the abdomen and other parts of the body.
She broke into uncontrollable sobs. It was as if some dark force had just stepped from the shadows of a Shakespearean tragedy and plunged daggers into our hearts.
Fast forward 233 days to Oct. 2, 2012. She walked into an appointment with her gynecological oncologist. "I have some good news for you," he smiled as he passed us in the hallway. Five minutes later, when he came into the examination room, he uttered those words that we had been hoping and praying for: "There is no evidence of cancer in your body," he said.
Marie cried tears of joy; I cried; even her doctor cried as we hugged her.
From the crushing lows of Feb. 14 to the exhilarating highs of Oct. 2, the rocky trek was nearly indescribable and unfathomable. It was over; Marie had defied the odds (5-15 percent survival rate). We would need a few bounces of the ball to go our way, and it seemed that it had.
We recalled with a little less pain the terror we felt when two weeks after the diagnosis, I rushed Marie to the hospital when a cancerous tumor blocked a kidney, creating an infectious backup of urine and causing her blood to turn septic (poisonous). Her blood pressure plummeted to 32 over 12, her temperature rose to 105.6. She barely survived an emergency operation to place stents into her kidneys to allow them to function again. "We nearly lost her," her urologist told us about 24 hours later, after the danger had passed.
After seven days in the hospital five of them in intensive care she came home weighing nearly 40 pounds more than when she had gone in. The extra weight was mainly from the liquids that were given to her intravenously. She could do virtually nothing for herself.
"You really stepped up to the plate," she told me several times during the ordeal. "You would have done the same for me and then some," I told her in return.
She underwent five chemotherapy treatments before her cancer operation on June 18, 2012. Each would make her sick as a dog. Some days, she was inconsolable.
"I just want to die," she moaned.
I scolded her for such talk, but I felt helpless. Just as she was getting a little better, it was time for the next treatment.
After the last chemo treatment, her doctor was effusive. Her CA 125 marker, which tracks cancer tumors, and which had originally been 10,050 when she was first diagnosed, had fallen to less than 1,000 the benchmark the oncologist said was necessary before he would operate. We were ecstatic, but we also knew that a normal reading was in the range of 35. Still, the operation would allow the oncologist to eyeball what was going on inside her body and deal with it.
The surgery went extremely well. Her gynecological oncologist said he could detect no cancer with the naked eye but ordered a CT scan in case there were microscopic traces of the disease left behind. There were none.
He also ordered three more chemo treatments, each of which had the same debilitating effect on her as the first five had. The last was Aug. 29, 2012.
About five days later, she started to look and act like her old self.
After the last chemo treatment, the CA 125 marker had fallen to 23, better than normal. When we heard the number, we cheered, kissed and high-fived each other. It was time to celebrate at Ruby Tuesday.
The good news did not last long. Three months later, in early 2013, the CA-125 marker started to climb, slightly at first, then more rapidly. By mid-2014, the reading was more than 4,200, and by Oct. 17, it had gone to more than 11,000, the highest ever. The cancer was spreading exponentially, the oncologist said.
A month later, the number doubled to nearly 23,000. There was nothing more that chemotherapy or medicine could do.
Marie had received seven different types of chemotherapy and had been in the hospital for various treatments 14 times. A second opinion from Memorial Sloane Kettering Cancer Center in New York confirmed the findings.
Marie wanted to die at home, so she and the family agreed that the time for hospice care had come. A hospice representative met with us on Dec. 4. A month and a day later, Marie took her last breath. She was 72.
The emotional, life-and-death roller coaster we had ridden for nearly three years had ended.
Now we are left with memories.
There were some poignant moments along the way: When clumps of hair started to fall out from the chemo, Marie asked her son, Mike, on the first day of spring 2012 to cut her hair in our garage.
There she was, wrapped in a garbage bag to keep the hair off her clothes, with Mike buzzing her hair as if she were a new military recruit.
Her hair began to grow back after the final chemo treatment. She bought a wig, but hated it; for a while, she wore a baseball cap when she went out in public, but then that independent spirit she had shown through this entire ordeal took hold, and she decided to wear nothing on her head.
It's funny how that head of frizz became a symbol of her determination to beat this grim reaper. Her grandchildren would rub her head for good luck and laugh, saying it reminded them of a teddy bear.
As we look back on this incredible, improbable odyssey, we are amazed at the support system of family, friends and acquaintances who called, visited, sent letters, flowers, Mass cards, curing oils and other expressions of love, hope and caring.
Her children, brothers, other family members and friends would sit with her for hours, day in and day out during those dark days in the hospital and at home before the end came. They gave reassurance, and, most of all, never gave up our hope for a miracle, but there was to be none.
Marie had been on the prayer list of at least a dozen churches in New York State, where we had once lived, and Pennsylvania. The daily phone calls and cards propped up her spirits when she needed it most. Every day when I brought in the mail, she would ask expectantly, "Any cards for me?" Each day there were at least three or four. The transformation as she read the cards aloud was instantaneous.
We are still in shock that this insidious disease made such quick work of her after it returned with a vengeance.
When we were told in the fall of 2012 that Marie was cancer free, we vowed that we would never take a day, even a minute, of our lives for granted again. We knew there was a possibility that this would happen, that life is fragile and given to us for an undetermined period of time. We cherished her for a little more than two years after we had received that good news. The oncologist thought she had five to eight years, maybe more, but the cancer had other ideas.
Marie's goal was to make it to Christmas Eve, a traditional event at our home where we celebrate the feast of the Seven Fishes and 13 Dishes.
Twenty family members gathered, and although Marie could not prepare any of the dishes, as she had done typically, she supervised the event and chopped some vegetables and even ate a little of the meal.
Afterward, we opened gifts, and she read love letters from her sons, her grandchildren her brothers and me. We all wanted her to know how much she has meant to us and how we will always cherish her memory because of the way she had touched us in so many special ways.
Tears flowed endlessly during this very emotional evening. It was to be the last group farewell, and we made the most of it.
Marie's legacy will be the determination and grace she showed in the face of unspeakable pain and suffering.
On those rare occasions when it appeared as if she could not go on, she remembered the legion of supporters who were counting on her to rise above the discomfort and live as normal a life as possible. When she did this, her voice got stronger, her eyes sparkled, her smile returned. She was back in battle mode.
She fought the best fight, right up until the end.
Bruce Frassinelli of Schnecksville is a 1957 graduate of Summit Hill High School and an adjunct instructor at Lehigh Carbon Community College; Marie was a 1960 graduate of Nesquehoning High School.