Chase the Sunset

Michelle's Story of Cancer & Care

Michelle DeKok has always enjoyed watching the sun set. Since she entered the chapter of her life called remission, Michelle looks back on her original diagnosis of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma as a reminder to cherish all the moments in her life.

 

“I actually stop to smell the roses, take time to look at sunsets and sunrises and look at the beauty of Mount Baker. I don’t take things for granted that’s for sure,” she said.

As a longtime resident of Mount Vernon, Michelle had her family, her community and her faith close by when she received her diagnosis in April of 2006.

“I can’t imagine going through this alone, without family, without someone to help, or without friends to be there. That would have really been hard,” she said Michelle. The Skagit Regional Health Cancer Care Center was just down the street from her home, so, during her stays in the hospital or during treatments, she received frequent visits from friends and family who live nearby.

Michelle said she not only received support from her community, but also from the doctors and nurses at the Cancer Care Center.

Michelle is Cancer Free“It is important to have a support system of family and friends. I had a caregiver, my mother,” she said. “And I benefited from getting help from cancer center staff with accessing medications, financial help and negotiating the whole process.”

Michelle notes that the members of her care team were much more than just facilitators of her treatment.

“I felt like more than just a number, more than just a patient. I felt like they cared,” she said. “They showed it by their compassion and kindness and by their listening to me about my pain, or whatever I was going through, then helping me figure out how to take care of that or how to fix it.”

For patients managing the impact that cancer manifests in their life, one of the clearer intangibles is the presence or absence of a support system.

“Patients who have a robust natural support system (family, friends, community) tend to fair far better throughout the process then those of our patients who are having to fight the disease alone,” said Medical Social Worker Peter Wold, CTRS, MSW. “It is because of this disparity in patient quality of life during their cancer journey that resulted in the introduction of our Cancer Support Services to provide an extended support system for those patients.”

Cancer Support Services provides assistance in navigating hospital systems and appointments, locating financial resources to help mitigate the personal financial burden and compassionate care in reconciling the emotional and psychological toll cancer can have.

“Assistance is available to all cancer patients regardless of the existence of a natural support system, because the benefits are clear and necessary to promote at better overall outcome for the patient,” Wold said.

Oncologist Kiarash Kojouri, MD led the charge with Michelle’s medical treatment. Her mother, Melba, stepped in as her main caregiver aided by her father, Dennis. Michelle endured three separate chemotherapy treatments and three different radiation treatments with two stem cell transplants in between chemo and radiation treatments. Her own stem cells were used in one treatment and her sister Tricia’s were used the second time.

“When you get cancer, you have to jump in and start your treatment and just get it done. If one treatment didn’t work another one was tried. I wasn’t going to give up,” she said. However, in 2009, Michelle hit a roadblock when no treatments were effective.

“I did think that I was dying,” Michelle recalled. However, she wasn’t willing to give up. “I’m definitely thankful for the doctors and nurses who were able to help me and do the research and figure out what I needed to do next or what we needed to change,” she said.

Through Skagit Regional Health’s network membership with the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, a collaboration between Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, UW Medicine and Seattle Children’s, Dr. Kojouri had the connections to pursue additional resources and treatment options.

“My oncologist in Mount Vernon was talking with doctors at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance and that’s how we knew about the clinical trial,” she said.

Michelle continued to face her cancer with good humor and a positive attitude. “Everyone was wonderful from the receptionists to the RNs to the doctors, and I got to know them, made friendships,” she said, recalling opportunities to share stories of her life away from cancer with them.

The clinical trial worked and now Michelle only returns to the Cancer Care Center for follow-up doctor visits and labs.

“I’ll find somebody to catch up with that’s still there from when I started my treatment,” she added.

Michelle looking out across the riverThrough her experience, Michelle continues to find ways to give back to her community, to other cancer patients, and to Skagit Valley Hospital. “I think sometimes people need to vent or cry about it. I’m more than happy to listen if that’s what somebody wants or needs,” she said. Michelle volunteered at the hospital for more than two years after entering remission and has since made herself available to share her experiences with individuals preparing to face a similar fight.

“I have so much more compassion and empathy for people. I definitely feel like I’m here to be a witness because of what I lived through,” she said.

Michelle is also a proud aunt. She recalls her sister saying that there was a chance Michelle might not have been there to meet her nephews. “I just am thankful that God gave me my nephews and that I get to be a part of their life,” she said. She takes care of them every Friday often taking them to the beach or a park and makes their lunches. In return, she gets lots of cuddles and hugs.

Since her diagnosis, Michelle has found a new appreciation for the all the sensations in her day. “Instead of being in a hurry, I’m going to walk back to the window and look at the foothills and at Mount Baker. I’ll drive down the street and notice the short trees, the tall trees, the different color or greens of the trees, the skinny trees, the round trees,” she said.

As a hobbyist photographer, one of her favorite activities is capturing sunsets. “I just think they’re so beautiful and gorgeous and amazing and I’m just thankful to be able to see them,” she said.

Whether at home, wandering in Lions Park or making an excursion to Little Mountain, Michelle is committed to witnessing the close of each day and always looks for the positive in the negative.

“I definitely feel like there’s a reason for everything good or bad and God never gives us more than we can handle,” she said. Michelle maintains that her faith in God, in conjunction with the help from her doctors and support of her family, played a major role in her future. “I definitely believe that there is a reason that I’m still here. God isn’t finished with me yet,” she said.

As the sun sets over Mount Vernon each day, Michelle is surrounded by the comfort and support of family, church, community and expert medical care. Michelle is currently cancer free.