At 74, she’s more active than many folks half her age, volunteering at her local hospital several days a week to welcome patients, help others being discharged and taking specimens to the lab. Once a month, she volunteers for the Sunshine Group at her local adult center, providing respite for area residents whose loved ones need full time care. She’s active in her church. She takes part in the King William Relay for Life fundraiser.
After 32 years as secretary at the local high school, the bustle is familiar to her – as are the faces of “her kids” coming through the doors of the hospital. Of course, many of “her kids” are now parents with their own families. Seeing Ann brings a sense of calm and joy as they head in and out of the hospital. But that calm isn’t limited to people she knows. Ann radiates tranquility to everyone she meets. “Yesterday, I was wheeling a patient to oncology and she mentioned that she has stage 4 cancer. I told her that I was a survivor as well and she perked up, ‘Seeing what you’re doing, here helping me, gives me hope. ‘”
Deciding to help
For Ann, the decision to help is necessary. “Helping people makes you forget about yourself. It brings a peace to you about where you are in your life.”
As a Support Volunteer, Ann serves in multiple roles – as a survivor of bladder cancer and as a caregiver. Her expertise in both roles is hard won. Clarence, her beloved husband of 45 years suffered a stroke. One week later, Ann was diagnosed with her first bout of cancer. Clarence recovered. She battled through. She had recurrence followed by recurrence (six in total) followed by major surgery to remove her bladder and create a new one from a part of her small intestine. Five years after his stroke and Ann’s initial cancer diagnosis, Clarence was also diagnosed with bladder cancer.
For many people this series of events would be a perfect excuse to curl up in a ball and shut out the world. It’d be more than enough reason to become bitter, angry and despondent.
For Ann, it’s been an opportunity to rely on her personal faith and to deepen her commitment to helping others. A practical Southern Lady in the truest sense of the word, she focuses on the happy memories, the best of the times. Talk to Ann for more than a few moments and you get the feeling that she’s the kind of person who could find the “silver lining” in any situation. “I meet some families who are going through so much you wonder how they do it. I never found anything was too difficult for me (as she cared for him in his final years.) since I had the Lord with me.”
Focusing on what matters most
Ann focuses on what’s important – in the years between her initial diagnosis and Clarence’s death, they traveled, an activity they’ve enjoyed for decades. “He got to go to Alabama to see the grandchildren for six years,” she recalls. “We took a lot of Sunshine Bus tours, from Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island to Branson, Missouri. He was on the quiet side and I’m a people person. We really liked taking trips together.”
She offers suggestions – and hope – for fellow patients and caregivers still in their cancer struggle. “They’re coming out with new treatments, new research and new drugs all the time. Don’t lose faith in the possibility of hope. Once you give up, there’s nothing a doctor can do. Of course it’s ok to get your affairs in order, but try to remember that the Lord is in charge.”
Managing life as a caregiver
She encourages them to concentrate on what they can control, not all of the possibilities the might happen. “I tell other caregivers not to get caught up in thinking too far ahead,” Ann says. “Focus on what’s right in front of you. Take one day at a time. I learned that lesson from my mother, as she took care of my father. Just get through this day.”
“It’s ok to let it all out, to cry your eyes out. I’ve learned over the years that it’s not healthy to keep everything bottled up. “
She reminds caregivers to ask for help when they need it. “You can’t do it by yourself. You’re a person, you’re a human and you cannot do this by yourself. There were days I’d call my daughter to come stay with her father while I stepped away for a few hours. I spoke to my best friend all the time.” It’s an important reminder, seconded by medical professionals. “My oncologist said I had to listen to my body. It doesn’t matter if it’s a balmy 80 degrees out and you just know that you should be outside planting flowers. If you’re tired, lay down and take a nap.”
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