It’s no secret that cancer has a tremendous impact on our society — there are few among us who haven’t been touched in a personal way by the disease.
There’s no doubt, however, that some are affected more deeply and more personally than others.
For Clyde resident Lori Rakowski, who went through not one but two separate cancer diagnoses before she was 35, the term “cancer survivor” doesn’t even apply.
“Everybody talks about survivors, and I’m thinking it’s a battle,” she said. “You’re not a survivor, you’re a warrior.”
Rakowski’s own battle with cancer began with a leukemia diagnosis in 2001, but she was no stranger to the disease prior to that first diagnosis.
Rakowski lost her mother to cancer when she was just 10 years old, and her grandmother died of cancer before that.
Back then, however, society’s prevailing attitudes about cancer were much different. Whereas today there are countless days, months, events and fundraisers in support of victims of a disease that claims nearly 1,500 people each week, the disease used to be something dealt with privately.
“Back then you didn’t talk about it, and she had breast cancer, so it was definitely a faux-pas to talk about it,” she said. “She didn’t want anybody to know she wasn’t healthy. She wanted to keep doing things — didn’t want rumours to spread.”
Rakowski grew up in a small town, Radway, and went to school in a “little itty bitty village.” Throughout her mother’s eight-year battle with cancer, she kept up a strong image and a positive personal attitude
“She’d beat it down; she’d get better then be able to do stuff, so I just thought this was the norm – this is how life is, so I didn’t think much of it,” she said.
Her mother eventually died while Rakowski was just two months away from her eleventh birthday.
“It’s interesting, because at the funeral one of the neighbours came over and said, ‘You know, I didn’t even know she was sick. I had no idea.’”
Those early experiences with the disease helped to shape her attitude going into adulthood, but it wasn’t something she dwelled on too much.
“That was a pretty big experience. It was scary, but you move forward,” she said. “What else can you do?”
Rakowski said she always knew she was at risk of cancer because of her family’s history, but she always suspected that if she was to develop cancer, it would be breast cancer.
“As I got older my doctors, knowing my mom died so young, knew I was at high risk,” she said. “I was very aware of the possibility at all times.”
At 19, her doctors started reminding her about doing regular self-examinations and getting regular physical assessments. For more than half a decade, there was no indication that anything was amiss, but she eventually started to feel tired and run down.
“When I was 25, I went for my regular physical and didn’t think anything of it,” Rakowski said. “I hadn’t been feeling 100 per cent, but I’d been pushing hard at work and trying to do everything; I was tired.”
What followed was a series of blood test and other diagnostic exams, and a lot of back-and-forth phone conversations with her doctor.
“The last time she called me back, she said, ‘You’re not going back to work, you’re going to the hospital,’” she said.
When the doctors told Rakowski she had Acute Myelogenous Leukemia, she could barely believe it.
“I was shocked to find out because mom had breast cancer, so I figured if I was getting any type of cancer it would be breast cancer,” she said.
She had a bone marrow test done on Dec. 21, 2001, which confirmed the diagnosis, and although that could be considered the worst time of year to get bad news, in a sense it worked to her advantage.
“I was all freaked out, so to get through it I sang Christmas carols,” she said with a smile. “What do you do, right?”
She began her treatments in earnest on Boxing Day that year, and the first course of treatment was the injection of a potent chemotherapy drug, Daunorubicin.
It takes about three days for that drug to break down and leave the human body, and Rakowski said it was one of the most difficult three days of her life.
“I had that one thought, ‘Really? Is it worth it?,’” she said. “I was at my lowest ever.”
There was one thought in particular, however, that helped her to keep going.
“I thought about my mom. Nobody knew mom was sick. Mom had a positive attitude the whole time,” she said. “When they diagnosed my mom they told her she had eight months to live. She almost made eight years. I believe it was totally because of her attitude.”
At that point, Rakowski said she decided to adopt the same positive attitude she saw in her mother during her early childhood, and look past her day-to-day struggle.
“I need to change my thought. I can beat this. I’ve got things to do. I’ve got a life to live,” she said. “It was positive thinking from then on, and it was almost instant that I started to feel better. I know it’s a mind-over-matter thing. I think anybody who’s focused on being sick will be sick.”
After a three-month series of treatments that involved some intensive drug therapy, the doctors told Rakowski that her cancer was in remission in April 2002.
Her battle with leukemia remains one of the toughest physical battles of her life.
“The best way I can explain it — especially with leukemia, because it’s such a harsh disease you have to hit it really hard — essentially, they would push me as close to death as humanly possible and then they’d bring me back,” she said.
After one year of taking medications as a precautionary measure, Rakowski’s doctors told her there was no sign of the cancer returning, and within five years, the doctors basically confirmed that she had beaten leukemia.
“I did a little jump for joy out in the parking lot,” she said.
Unfortunately, beating leukemia would not be the end of Rakowski’s battle. In July, 2009, Rakowski again found herself in a doctor’s office as the recipient of some bad news.
“I was pretty shocked. I always knew I had to watch and I needed to be careful, but I didn’t think it would happen,” she said.
The discovery that she did in fact have breast cancer came through an unlikely source: her cat.
“I have to say that my cat saved my life there,” she said.
It was a summer day and Rakowski was sitting in her house holding her cat, when a neighbour slammed their car door. The sound came into the house through an open window and startled the cat, which then scratched up Rakowski’s chest.
“At that point, the doctors figured there was something going on and the trauma from her pouncing off my chest just kicked it into high gear,” she said.
“I really, truly thought that it was just damaged tissue. She’s a really heavy cat.”
She had always been told that cancer didn’t hurt, and the injuries from her cat did hurt, so she figured she would just wait until her annual mammogram — which was scheduled for a month later. Sure enough, she got more bad news.
“My doctor told me I had breast cancer, and that I needed to make some tough decisions right away,” Rakowski said. “It was kind of a slap in the face … I don’t know how else to say it.”
With friends by her side, she once again set upon a course of treatment.
“Everything happened so fast when I had leukemia that I didn’t clue in as much. My second diagnosis was breast cancer, and things move a little bit slower with that,” she said.
Rakowski had surgery to remove a tumour in August, then she got a few months to recover.
“They let me recuperate from that, then I started my treatments in October.”
A few months later, she had once again been given the all-clear and could proudly say she had beaten cancer not once, but twice.
Rakowski’s experiences with not one, but two types of cancer have helped her become a stronger person, she said, but she might not have made it through without the support of her friends and family. “I had two friends with me, side by side, through the whole thing — all my appointments, everything,” she said. “I don’t think I would have got through without them.”
The support from friends and family was especially important because of how young she is. While there are countless support groups out there, the majority of new cancer cases are discovered in people in much older age groups.
“I did go to a support group, but I go there and people are 20, 30 and 40 years older than me. How do I relate to that? Here I am a single woman and I haven’t had my kids,” she said. “They’re all saying, ‘Oh, I’m going to miss my granddaughter’s dance recital,” and I’m thinking, ‘I’m going to miss my daughter.”
While her friends were “amazing,” she said, her friends didn’t and couldn’t understand what she was going through.
She has since discovered a website that connects young cancer survivors with each other. They hold four conferences each year — which Rakowski said is more like a camping./kayaking trip — and share their stories.
“I’ve learned a lot about the person I am today because of that website,” she said. “I hope to do more, I just need to figure out how. I’ve been thinking lots that we need young people to get out there and talk about their experiences, and help others through it.”
While more and better support groups are certainly a future consideration, what helped Rakowski through her own struggles was mostly the support of her friends, family and neighbours.
“I live in a really small community, and it’s amazing how people come out of the woodwork. I had a hard time accepting the help sometimes, but it is easier and nicer when you’ve got someone.
“You find out how amazing your friends are and how much they really do love you. I know I wouldn’t be able to do it without them. I wouldn’t be the positive person I am today without them.”
During her breast cancer treatment, Rakowski had to stay in the hospital for a month then had to stay in the city to be within seven minutes of the hospital. The positive support from her community really hit home for her when she returned. As you drive into the village, there is a large yellow sign on the highway that advertises various community events and issues. “The sign said, “Welcome home Lori,” she said. “It was awesome.”