Surviving Cancer: An Interview with Theresa Priolo


DSC_9326.jpg(Photo Property of Julia Richard-Priolo)

"You'll never know the outcome, but if you have a lot of faith and you're strong, you have better chances of making it." When questioned about her support network during her two and a half year treatment, this was Theresa Priolo's answer, a 53-year-old lymphoma cancer survivor, wife, and mother of two. Armed with a bachelor in biology from our very own Concordia University (1986), and over 25 years of first-hand experience working at the Montreal General Hospital in parasitology, microbiology and hematology, Theresa's field experience elegantly compliments the retelling of her lengthy journey to recovery. Her knowledge base allows you into the world of a cancer patient's sentiments like never before seen, while her endless praise for church and family serves as a reminder that having a support network is key in all such circumstances.

An interview with a cancer survivor, one who has also worked in the very system she was treated, lends a fresh perspective to the inner workings of cancer rehabilitation. When asked about her treatment experience, Theresa affirmed that her specialized knowledge, experience, and personnel resources allowed her to be better prepared for the two-and-a-half-year-long journey she was about to embark on. "I was blessed, I really was. Within a week and a half, everything was done." How nerve-wracking it must have been to witness the systematic caring of patients from the opposite end of the health spectrum: Theresa was no longer the caregiver but now one of her own patients. She was now under the very microscope and scrutiny that her patients once were.

Throughout the retelling of her experience, Theresa continued to identify with her occupation and its corresponding duties rather than her condition. "First, they give you a large dose of Benadryl to avoid developing an allergy towards the chemo. Some people can be allergic to the rituximab, which is a protein, so we don't take any chances."

"To everyone afraid of getting cancer, just live. Just surround yourself with people. You need people, you really do," said Mrs. Priolo when asked to supply encouragement and advice to concerned readers or current cancer patients. The following is the remainder of the interview she so graciously consented to with Montrealités.


When were you diagnosed and how old were you?

I was diagnosed on November 1st, 2007. I was 46 years old and I was diagnosed with a follicular Lymphoma, which is a non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma.

What stage were you diagnosed with?

I was at stage four. I was at an advanced stage where the Lymph nodes were big. They were about 15 centimetres. I had maybe 2 or 3 that were about 15 centimeters in diameter, which is relatively big.

How was the cancer initially detected?

I had a pain, almost like a sharp knife in the abdomen every now and again. I didn't have a clue. Two months before, I was having profuse night sweats and I was drenched. But I thought "Ok, this can be pre-menopause." But as it went forward, I was tired all the time. I would do something for 2-3 hours and immediately tired; I had to go back to bed. I would sleep 3-4 hours, then I would get up again and I was tired. That's when I decided "Hey, it's time to go get checked."

Who did you go get it checked with?

My husband is a physician so he said, "You know what, well do an ultrasound." So, he put in the requisition and I went the day after. I got it right away. And that was the heavy duty!

How did you feel when you received the news?

Because I worked at the hospital for 25 years, I knew everyone, including the lady that performed my ultrasound test. As she was doing the test, I see her calculating and going over and over, and because I knew her well, I could see that she was concerned. And I said to myself "There's something wrong." And then she says "You know, you have some large Lymph nodes." And I thought, "OK, cancer." She said "Let me go get the radiologist." So the radiologist comes in and says "You have large Lymph nodes which requires further investigation." Already convinced, I reaffirmed that I had cancer, to which he replied, "No, not necessarily." I said "I have Lymphoma." I didn't travel, I didn't have an Epstein - Barr virus; this has to be lymphoma. He said "You need to do further tests." Afterwards, I was just in tears, going to my husband's office. When my husband saw the results that were forwarded to him, he looked at the screen and just sat and was shocked. He said "This is cancer." He called his friend Denis, which is my current hematologist and filled him in. We were both crying. Denis said "Stop it. Tomorrow, I want to see you both in my office." So the next day at the office, Denis says "Terry, I can tell you with 99% certainty that this is lymphoma. After seeing so many cases, I'm sure, just by the way it presents itself." He said he'd get me to do a bone marrow test, a PET scan, as well as blood tests and another ultrasound on my heart before I received the chemo. It was nice because within a week and a half, everything was done. And then the downfall of all of this was that I was just so beside myself, I wanted to know what the results in pathology were. I wanted to know: if it's cancer, what type is it? Because my husband is a doctor, he calls again and Dr. Dennis Cournoyer told us to come back in and he would explain it before we start panicking and going all over the place. He had told us that it's a cancer that's very slow growing. This is good and it's not good. Slow growing means that you know you can keep it; it can go for a long time, and usually it's a recessive cancer. In other words, when your cells multiply quickly, the chemo gets them all, it just zaps them. But when they're slow growing, you don't know if they're all zapped. So chances are good that it returns. Afterwards, he laid out the treatment. My husband and I both gave our separate opinions. He didn't want me to have certain chemotherapies that affect the heart, so we were in disagreement. Ultimately, I said "This is my treatment, I'm going to decide."

And you didn't agree that your husband might have known best?

Nope! I think that my hematologist is the best one to decide that. I told my husband "This is my cancer, and I'm going to deal with it." Because if something were to happen, I would blame him. I wanted to put the chance in my hands. I really trust my hematologist. So, I went through, regardless of how bad it was. I decided and my hematologist told me what the treatment would consist of. For the chemo, the cycle is every 21 days and I had to have 8 of those. He told me I'd lose my hair, my eyelashes, everything. I got sick because I was taking heavy prednisone. I got inflated [gestures face], all swollen up. I took prednisone, and then a few days after the chemo I started taking Neupogen for ten days. Neupogen is injected into the stomach as a liquid. It creates red blood cells in your bone marrow and the process is excruciating because it works inside the marrow, inside the bones. For ten days, I had to do what I had to do. I did 8 cycles of those.

IMG_8038.JPG(Photo Property of Julia Richard-Priolo)

Is there a family history of this type of cancer?

Funny enough, on my mother's side, one of my cousins got it. But hers was a Hodgkin's, mine wasn't. And then on my dad's side, there was somebody that had a non- Hodgkin's, like me. They say that there's no genetic correlation, but I'm not sure about that.

Can it function similar to recessive genes, skipping a generation?

I honestly think it's related to a lot of the environment. Maybe somewhere along the line I had that gene but with the epigenetics now and the harsh environmental factors, pesticides, and pollution, you'll never know. While I was in there doing chemo, I met a 39-year-old woman that never smoked a day in her life, but she had lung cancer. She was never around people that smoked and she didn't have a contaminated house. She died. 39 years old. Hello? Never smoked! So, I really think it's an environmental factor. You may have a small genetic predisposition, but the fact remains that everything is against us. I'm going to move and go to Sardinia, an island in Italy, off the coast of Pisa. They say that people live past 100 years there. It's a beautiful country.

Did you have a support network? If so, can you tell me about it?

Oh God! Did I have a support network? I have my family, my church. They're so important to me. I had the people in my church and my pastor praying for me, my sisters and mom coming to chemo with me, my sisters cooking for me. I've been blessed. If you don't have that, forget it! You're doomed! You're not going to make it, if you have to go through this and you don't have anyone, I don't know how you're going to do it.

Can you talk about your treatment process?

The treatment process involved zapping your cancer cells. First, they give you a large dose of Benadryl to avoid developing an allergy towards the chemo. Some people can be allergic to the rituximab, which is a protein. So we don't take any chances. They gave me the Benadryl and after I started with 100mg of prednisone, which makes you go all over the place. You become very erratic, similar to having a psychosis. It makes you extremely happy and nearly impossible to sleep with this medication. It's like speed. After, they would give me three other medications by intravenous. We're looking at about eight hours in the day. I would be in bed, long chair, or even a regular chair, sitting with my wig, eight hours a day. This was every three weeks. After I finished the eight treatments, I had to do only the rituximab for two years. I would go there for one day, maybe 2-3 hours, every three months, and that had to last for two years,

The rituximab is a protein that really hits. The treatment itself was about 8 months. That's the aggressive treatment. You're looking at about two and half years, all in all. However, the most aggressive was that eight months. The rituximab, every three months was nothing compared to the chemo itself. It's like a walk in the park.

Were there any programs or services offered to you that would help with the treatment process?

They did offer some services, one of which was how to put makeup on. Unfortunately, actually, it's really full. There's too many sick people and there's not enough nurses. There's not enough help. They just don't have the resources. It's very unfortunate because at times I had to sit on a chair for my chemo because obviously the older patients require the beds. Here you are on a chair, and you're dozing off because you're on Benadryl. What can you do? Nothing! In this area, oh my God, easily 50 people crammed doing chemo. Some for three hours, depending on the type of chemo. Now my hematologist tells me that it has tripled. Unfortunately, you don't get any attention. It's the system. Nobody else's fault.

IMG_8034.JPG(Photo Property of Julia Richard-Priolo)

Did you face any obstacles during your treatment process? If you did, how did you overcome them?

The hardest part was looking at yourself. You get depressed, you get very depressed. At first, I really isolated myself; I didn't want to talk to anybody. Afterwards, I went to church. That helped me through the time I was depressed. My pastor was very kind about it. He said "Terry will sit in the back and please don't shake her hand because she doesn't have any white blood cells, so she can't come in contact with anybody." I would sit in the back and he would just administer the prayers. I was very blessed to have my pastor and members of my church call me all the time to pray for me. It was more than depression. The loneliness, me thinking: what if I don't get through it? It was OK if I didn't make it but it wasn't OK for my kids. That was my biggest worry, but I got over the depression. The emotions are very hard. I went to therapy too, to help me through this. My doctor said "Terry, if you need therapy, go for it. Don't say you're going to do it alone, because it's really hard." So I went.

How often were you going to therapy?

Once a week at the very beginning, until maybe three-quarters of the way. It was very hard.

Is there a message you'd like to provide women in the community or anything you'd like to share with a fellow cancer person or someone afraid of getting cancer?

[Long pause] Everyone's afraid of getting cancer. For me, it's simple: just live. Life is meant to be lived, and if you have cancer, just surround yourself with people. You need people, you really do. Whatever support system you can get, you're going to need. You really need a support system so that people will walk with you. You can't do it by yourself, it's hard. I did it with the church because as a Christian, I'm a strong believer in God. That's what helped me through it. Women, men, whomever, I would say you need support. Surround yourself with whatever you believe in. I know at the beginning, it's hard to accept, because it was hard for me. You isolate yourself. But whatever you do, try and reach out, that's the most important thing otherwise it's way too hard.

If there's anything else you'd like to add, you're more than welcome.

I have a lot of thoughts of people that don't make it at a young age. It really breaks my heart, because they shouldn't have to go through that. In remembrance of all the people, just fight! Whatever happens will happen. You'll never know the outcome, but if have a lot of faith and you're a strong, you have better chances of making it. My doctor told me that thinking positive is more than half the battle, and that resonates with me until this very day. He said "I had two women that I don't know how they made it. I couldn't tell them you're going to die, but I just said it's going to be hard. Don't ask me how they made it. I have no idea. Scientifically, it doesn't make sense." He said "I had a gentleman that was so depressed always thinking 'Ah, I won't make it!' You will make it," he said. The guy abandoned himself, got depressed and did not make it. More than half the battle is the mental state. It doesn't matter whether you make it or not, but at least run the race.

May I have your credentials?

I have a bachelor's in biology and I've worked at the Montreal General Hospital for 25 years. I worked in parasitology and microbiology. The terminology of all the medical aspects was learned through the job itself.

Since you had experience working in the hospital before you were diagnosed, once you were diagnosed, did you feel like you were being man-handled by the system, sort of the way you would handle your patients?

I was really lucky. The sad part is that because my husband is a doctor, I got the royal treatment. I hate to say this, I really do, but I got A to Z. My husband just made sure I got everything. He would call the pharmacy and they would deliver, everything was always accounted for. But my heart goes out to the people that don't have that luxury, because they have to wait. I never waited. There are just no resources. And as they're waiting, the cancer is still growing! Mine wasn't as bad, but I've seen people with aggressive breast cancers that are waiting and they're just doomed and they don't know it yet.

Aren't patients tended to based on the severity of their cancer?

Yes, they are, but by the time you get to all these specialists, it's a long process. I just walked in. I was very blessed because of my husband. For someone that goes through their GP, you're looking at months.

It's a lot of bureaucracy.

Yes, and then by the time they get to the specialist, it's another couple of months. The system is really bad, it sucks. You guys are young, you don't realize the debt of how bad our system is: there are 20 000 people that die in hospitals due to negligence. "The nurse didn't see this." There's too many patients and not enough people to tend to them. Now our government just made some cuts in the health sector, so it's going to get worse. It's going to be a nightmare. I would tell people to put a lot of money in the bank for your medical services. You guys are young, you may not need it now, but you will eventually. Insurance, that's what's going to happen. We're going to have to do like the Americans: pay 20,000$ for a family. It's outrageous! But this is what it will eventually be. This province has no money anymore. It is what it is. Put money in the bank for health because in the states they get the royal treatment. I was with a lady in one of my chemo treatments and she said "My first time around, when I had cancer, I had my own TV and my own room." And I thought "Oh my God, really?" Here I have just a chair! She was telling me that it's a business. That's what it's going to become eventually. It's going to become a business. It's just a matter of time.


This is truly an inspirational story of suffering and surviving. She is a great inspiration to everyone.

Very touching and interesting interview! You ask very good questions.
What a strong woman! Truly inspiring!

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