Continuing to Bloom

Patient with Pharyngeal Cancer Continues to Thrive

Nancy Cool in her backyard garden in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

If you were to strike up a conversation with Nancy Cool in a grocery store check-out line, you would probably describe her as a type-A, energetic, enthusiastic go-getter. You’d notice that this petite woman with a firmly positive attitude might even have been an athlete. And you’d be right. In her youth, she was a gymnast for an American team that competed overseas.

What you wouldn’t know immediately is that Nancy has endured a year of medical treatment—including multiple surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation—for stage 4 pharyngeal cancer, which is incurable. She doesn’t look ill. She has her hair and a tan. She seems fit, and she smiles a lot.

In light of her “new normal,” Nancy hesitantly made the difficult decision to retire from the job she loved—teaching children with autism.

Cancer leaves each patient with a unique version of new normal. Nancy’s involves changes to many aspects of her life: an inability to taste or produce saliva; a constant need for water to lubricate her throat; disturbed sleep from “cotton mouth,” reduced energy and thyroid problems, as well as stomach and digestion issues from scar tissue from her previous feeding tubes.

Despite all she has endured, Nancy delights in having become a grandmother and working part-time as a gardening specialist at a local store. Her backyard looks is a park-like setting with colorful, beautiful flowers.

Editor’s Note: What follows is Nancy’s story in her own words.

My story began with a sore throat and swelling…and then a biopsy…and then a diagnosis of cancer that originated in the base of my tongue and spread to my lymph nodes. I was in the hospital quite a few times during a year of treatment, and that’s where I met all of these wonderful people and teams of specialists at Mercy Health.

Most people have a church family that helps during cancer. It was my school that helped out. They started a campaign called “Feed Poor Mark” to provide meals for my husband—my rock. I didn’t need meals because I was being fed through a tube, but the staff took care of Mark, who gained 25 pounds!

The other people who took special care of us as a couple were members of Mercy Health’s Palliative and Supportive Care Team at Lacks Cancer Center. They were our angels. They sincerely cared for me as a human being…you could tell by their face and body language. They gave me hugs and physical contact, which I craved. They understand how hellish the treatment for cancer can be and that each patient is an individual, with specific needs.

Whenever I called them, even if they were busy, they’d get back to me immediately. I never felt alone. If a pain medication didn’t work, they’d do research to find something else to ease my pain. During a particularly difficult two-week period, I was curled up in a ball in intense pain from the feeding tube. The team members found a way to provide relief.

Even my Mercy Health primary care doctor and his wife came to visit me in the hospital. He came as a friend, and we talked for two hours enjoying our time together. Who does that?

Cancer teaches you to rely on others. There is a lot of follow-up care. At this time, everything looks good—my scans are clear. I have regular appointments with my surgeons and oncologists. A speech therapist has helped me to learn to swallow again, and my dentist is keeping on top of  my oral health. I choose not to take pain medication right now, but I know I can get help from the Palliative and Supportive Care team at Mercy Health if I need it.

Time each day goes so quickly. Sometimes I get mad if I sleep too long. There is so much still for me to do. I will join a gym so I can stay active when I can’t be outdoors.  I will continue to plant my garden. My husband and I will go somewhere warm in the winter for a break.

Yes, I have cancer, but I am continuing to live my life. I’m in full bloom and grateful that I’m here.

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