Life lessons from Charlene Morella, Cancer Warrior
ONE: Carpé Diem, Seize the Day
It’s a cliché you hear all the time. But when you hear it from a woman who’s beaten cancer four times, it’s not just a cliché. Charlene Morella has always been an optimist. “The original Pollyanna,” she calls herself. Her glass-is-always-half-full attitude was tested over the course of 33 years by four bouts of cancer. “I’m one of the luckiest women in the world. I keep beating it. I’ve got a wonderful family and really good friends. I can see the sunshine in the morning. I wake up every day and think, ‘I’m alive. God, thank you again.’” The Four: Charlene battled Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in 1982 for about a year. It was a rough fight with all the challenges that come with fighting cancer; hair loss, weight loss, emotional and physical toil and strain on her family. But she beat it and came out the other side strong, her optimism a constant companion. She was cancer free for 25 years until 2007 when doctors found cancer in her stomach. This time surgery was her cure and she had her stomach completely removed. She had to train herself to eat again. “I can out eat my husband now,” she said. In 2010, Hodgkin’s Lymphoma tested her will and she fought that too. This time, modern medicine had advanced with targeted drugs and she was able to beat back cancer’s attack on her white blood cells once again. And in 2014, the Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma recurred. Again, targeted, advanced drug treatments helped her beat it. After five treatments, the chemotherapy was becoming too much for her body and her doctor paused the regimen. Then they ran a test and it showed that those five treatments had been enough and the lymphoma was gone. With each diagnosis Charlene refused to give up and didn’t allow herself to be a victim. She chose instead to fight and have gratitude for making it through each time. “My husband finds me dancing in the kitchen sometimes singing, ‘I love my life.’”
TWO: Modern medicine is great, but your health is yours. Be involved in your treatment plan.
Charlene remembers how she felt with her first diagnosis. “I was scared all the time. My mindset was, leave everything to my doctors. I don’t do that anymore. I need to feel like I have something to contribute, that I can help myself. I’m convinced that it helps the process. You must get involved personally. You must believe that there are powers within you that can help this process be easier on you.” “You’re the boss,” is a phrase Charlene heard over and over from her doctor. And she was. As a cancer fighter it’s important to trust science, to trust research and follow your doctor’s instructions but Charlene learned that she had a role to play too. She learned to use positive imagery to her benefit. “I refused to believe anything besides the fact that I was going to get well again.” And when she was diagnosed a second time she remembered, “I wanted to break down but I didn’t. I just got mad. I said ‘No, you don’t. You’re not going to do this again. I’m going to get well.’” For Charlene, being involved also means learning and doing. That’s one of the ways MPCS helped her. “I started using the gym and attending classes, as soon as I found out about this place. I’ve gotten hats and scarves from the wig room. I’ve gotten supplements when I needed to build up my weight. I’ve read books from the library. I read constantly about this stuff.” Using these resources empowered her to have a practical, real role in her fight against cancer.
THREE: The treadmill is your support group.
At MPCS Charlene discovered an unexpected resource. “It’s such a support group,” she said of the people she’s met in the Wellness Center. “You’re on the treadmills together. You don’t have to sit down and discuss things. We have all become friends. I may not even know their last names but we share experiences and never forget to ask, ‘How did your last test turn out?’ We hug and give each other feedback and it makes you feel like you’re not alone. It’s not like going to any gym. Here, we have so much in common. We know how each other is suffering or has suffered and we have real empathy for each other. It’s such an amazing feeling to make friends with people who understand what you’ve been going through. Your friends and family try to understand but only the people who share that experience can really understand.”
FOUR: Use the resources available to you.
“It creates a place for me to do all the good things that I think I should be doing,” Charlene said of MPCS. “You’re in a place where you can do so much to help yourself and learn so many things.” When her doctor told her about MPCS, she admitted it took a bit of courage to walk into the door. “You don’t know what you’re getting into,” she said. “And you’re thinking, ‘I have cancer. What do you think you’re going to do for me?’” What she found was a wealth of not only material things like scarves and supplements but also empowering information and support. “I try to take every nutrition class and I learn something each time.” This month Charlene is participating in MilesStrong, a 10-week program for clients that focuses on exercise, education and support.
FIVE: Not everyone handles cancer the same way and sometimes a made-for-TV movie is just what you need.
When Charlene was diagnosed in 1982 her children were teenagers and her husband had a thriving practice as a psychologist. “My husband is my knight in shining armor,” she said, “He’s been through every appointment, every test. He’s been my cheerleader. He makes me laugh and is there when I need to cry.” At first, her daughter, now 50, “her guardian angel,” was in denial about her mother’s illness. In the early years of college life, she stayed away, avoiding the evidence of what was happening and fearing what could happen. Meanwhile her son would fret over her every move, not wanting to leave her side in case she needed something. Charlene said she understood that her family was suffering as well and each had to cope in their own way. A couple of years later, when they were all at home together, Charlene and her husband were watching the movie, “Miles to Go,” about a woman who battles cancer multiple times. Towards the end of the movie, Charlene’s daughter who had been watching it in her bedroom, came running down the stairs “a mass of tears,” and hugged her mother. “She poured her heart out about how she couldn’t stand to see what had been happening to me.” It was just the catharsis they needed to heal together. Charlene’s story is a reminder that the process of fighting, living and surviving cancer is difficult for everyone and each individual handles that fight and supporting the fight as best as they can.
SIX: The difference between Hodgkin’s and Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma
Lymphoma is cancer that begins in lymphocytes, a subset of white blood cells, an integral part of our immune system. There are many varieties of lymphoma. One specific variety contains a specific type of cell. If the lymphocytes contain giant, overgrown cells called Reed-Sternberg cells (named after the two scientist who found and described them) then the cancer is classified as Hodgkin’s Lymphoma (named after the Dr. Thomas Hodgkin’s who described the disease containing the cells). All other lymphomas are called Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphomas. Since more is known about Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, it is easier to treat with targeted drugs.
SEVEN: Write, share and tell your story.
Charlene has written extensively about her experiences through creative writing classes. When asked if she ever gets tired of talking about her fight with cancer she said, “I don’t ever get tired of it because, if I have experiences that can help someone learn something and if I can give them the courage to come to a place like Miles Perret and realize all the help they can get, I’m happy to talk about it. There’s so much here to help you get through the good times as well as the bad times.”
by: Nicole LaCour