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Toula Aris: How Overcoming Tragedy Made Me Grateful for Every Day

"I was at Fox Chase every day, but I never complained. This institution and these people were saving my life. I felt deep respect for my doctors and the institution, and was grateful the entire time, even when things got hard."

— Toula Aris

As a cancer survivor of over 20 years and as a mother who lost a daughter to cancer, I can say with certainty that cancer does not discriminate. Prior to my diagnosis, there was no family history of cancer and I always lived a healthy lifestyle, yet this disease affected me. A diagnosis can sneak up on anyone, regardless of how healthy they appear.

Growing up in Greece until I was 17, I lived a very active and healthy lifestyle. I never drank or smoked; I ate a mostly Mediterranean diet (which consists of consuming healthy fats, fresh fruits and vegetables, and seafood) and exercised frequently. So on July 3, 1996, at 48 years old, when I felt a lump in my breast I remember being very surprised and concerned. I knew it was abnormal so I made an appointment with my doctor immediately. I had a biopsy done within a few days, and on August 5 I had my first appointment with Dr. John Hoffman, a surgical oncologist at Fox Chase Cancer Center. Before seeing Dr. Hoffman however, we did some research as to where the best place was to seek treatment. I felt confident that Fox Chase was where I needed to be.

During my initial appointment with Dr. Hoffman, I also met with several other doctors – a group of people who would become my team. Dr. Margaret von Mehren, a medical oncologist, Dr. Penny Anderson, a radiation oncologist, and a hematologist, among others. Dr. Hoffman explained that the whole team would monitor my progress and keep each other informed every step of the way. They had one mission, to help me get well. I felt very secure in their hands.

Because the cancer was so aggressive and I was diagnosed at Stage 3, surgery was scheduled within days. The day of my surgery, I remember Dr. Hoffman coming into the room to see how I was doing. That meant a lot to me and put me at ease.

Pushing my Body to New Limits 

The surgery went well, and I began high-dose chemotherapy a month later. The plan was for three months of chemo followed by an autologous bone marrow transplant, and then a course of radiation. After my first chemotherapy treatment, I knew this would be the hardest part. I was sick the entire time. I had sores in my mouth, vomiting, diarrhea, weakness – you name it, I had it. But I endured with support from my family, friends, and staff members at Fox Chase.

In those days, many women with breast cancer received an autologous bone marrow transplant after chemotherapy, in order to make sure that all cancer cells were eradicated and to help restore the body, since the chemotherapy was extremely harsh. This is no longer the standard treatment. In January of 1997 I had my peripheral stem cell harvesting and in February the bone marrow transplant. After the transplant, I was on a strict diet for 100 days. I was unable to eat anything fresh – including yogurt, fruits, or vegetables – because these foods could potentially contain harmful bacteria that could cause an infection that my fragile immune system wouldn’t be able to fight off.

Time was not wasted between treatments, so in June 1997 I began five weeks of radiation treatment. I was at Fox Chase every day, but I never complained. This institution and these people were saving my life. I felt deep respect for my doctors and the institution, and was grateful the entire time, even when things got hard.

After radiation my treatment finally concluded, nearly a year after my diagnosis. Everyone was confident that the cancer was gone and I could go back to my life. About a year after that, I had an array of tests done to determine whether the cancer had returned. I received the news that I was not in remission, but I was considered cancer free. I couldn’t believe it. All of the treatments, the pain, and the time spent had been worth it. I was healthy again.

Over the years, I continued to see Fox Chase doctors who followed up with my progress and also for conditions that came about as a result of my cancer treatment. In the last couple of years, I’ve developed lymphedema in my arm, an unfortunate side effect caused by a lymph node extraction radiation therapy. In December 2017 I was treated by Dr. Patel, a surgical oncologist at Fox Chase, who performed a lymphaticovenular bypass surgery, which is a microsurgical procedure performed to reduce fluid buildup in the affected limb. The surgery went well and I thought I was fortunate to have yet another good and caring doctor at Fox Chase.

Currently, I see my original team once a year and routinely see Dr. Patel for my lymphedema. It’s been more than 20 years since I found out I was cancer free and even now when I run into Dr. Hoffman he takes the time to stop and check on me. It’s amazing how he and all of the doctors at Fox Chase care for their patients. They don’t see you as a number or a statistic, but as a human being, and for me that makes all of the difference.

Life After Loss

I recently turned 70, and I realize the significance of that. Without Fox Chase, without my quick action in getting the lump removed and treated, I wouldn’t be here. I wouldn’t be here for my family. I wouldn’t have been able to take care of my mother before she passed and also my daughter, who unfortunately passed from ovarian cancer six years ago. Losing my daughter has been very hard, but I am so grateful that I was here to care for her in the same way she cared for me when I was going through treatment. Although the outcome wasn’t what we wanted, she fought hard just like I did, I am happy to have been there to love her and to care for her to the end.

Now, I am happily retired from my job at the New Jersey Department of Education and enjoy spending time with my son’s family and especially my three granddaughters. They are the joy of my life.

During one of my physical therapy appointments at Fox Chase, which I have routinely to help treat my lymphedema, a nurse noticed the scar on my arm from my recent surgery, and she asked if I wanted some creams to reduce the appearance of it. I just laughed and said no, I wouldn’t care if I had a huge scar on my face. These scars are part of who I am. I’m proud of them, just like I am proud of my wrinkles. Both serve as reminders of what I’ve overcome and how long my life was extended. 

 

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