Surviving Renal Cell Cancer: Yaffa’s Story

Yaffa with baby Nesiya

Yaffa with baby Nesiya

My name is Yaffa Grace Penski. I am 45 years old, married and have four children ages 14, 13, 10 and 8 months. I am a career coach, life coach and recruiter. And my husband and I have a small fitness studio on Mercer Island for adults and kids. I love working out with my husband, spending time with my family, hiking, beach vacations, traveling and cooking.

I found out I had cancer Aug. 13, 2013, after a trip to the ER with what I thought was horrible food poisoning. Because I had a fever and abdominal pain, they had to rule out appendicitis and did a CT scan. That’s when they found the mass on my kidney. I was shocked and absolutely terrified. Not what you are expecting to hear when you haven’t had any warning signs. The next day I was totally fine. My kidney cancer was asymptomatic and that’s why I didn’t know there was a problem.

I needed surgery to remove the tumor. This was very risky because the cancer was in my “good” kidney. My other one only functions at 18 percent. If there were complications, I didn’t have a backup.

A friend of my husband urged us to get a second opinion and one of my husband’s clients highly recommended her colleague at Virginia Mason. I did some research and found that there are only two urologists in the Seattle area who are considered experts in the type of surgery I needed. I set up appointments with both, but after my husband and I met with the Virginia Mason urologist, there was no doubt about who I wanted to be my doctor. He took so much time to explain things and we left there at ease with what was going to happen.

Cancer doesn’t just affect your body like a broken bone. It’s an illness that impacts your body, mind and spirit. I felt like my urologist and everyone at Virginia Mason understood the impact not only on me, but also my family. They treated the entire “disease” process, but ultimately the experience felt like a “wellness” process. I felt cared about and I felt my family was cared about, too.

Compared to most cancer treatments, I think mine was relatively simple. Everyone always thinks “chemo” and “radiation” when you hear the “C” word but that wasn’t my experience. After my surgery, I spent five days in the hospital and then recovered at home for about seven weeks. It was painful, but my doctor and everyone else worked hard to address and lessen my pain throughout the stages of recovery.

Getting cancer changed my life in so many ways. For one thing, it seemed to create life — literally. I have 3 children from a previous marriage, but my husband did not have any of his own. We tried for two years to get pregnant and even went through fertility treatments. We were told the likelihood of us getting pregnant was almost zero and we had come to accept that we would not have a child together.

But three months after my cancer was removed, at almost 44 years old, I was pregnant, and now have a beautiful 8-month-old gorgeous daughter. We named her Nesiya, which means miracle of God.

I quit my job that was not fulfilling and started a new career because life’s too short to do something that doesn’t make you happy. I treasure each day and each person in my life. I created a blog, http://www.lifewithasideofcancer.com, when I first got diagnosed as a way to write about the entire experience and get my feelings out and inspire others. I named it “Life with a Side of Cancer” because life is the main course highlighted by a side of cancer, which is secondary. I am completely filled up with gratitude and I know with all my being what is truly important.

Today, there is no “normal.” There is only great. I have been given a second chance to create the life I want and that is my focus. I am so very blessed to be able to make my life happen and so very grateful for all the people at Virginia Mason who took care of me. Thank you!

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This story originally appeared on VirginiaMason.org. Meet other patients who bravely shared their stories of fighting cancer, and get the latest information on cancer treatment outcomes and wellness and support at Virginia Mason.

Surviving Pancreatic Cancer: Kris’s story

KrisMy name is Kris and I’m happy to say I turned 63 in April 2015. When I was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer on Jan. 6, 2011, it was a very, very dark day. At that time, I had a teenage son and daughter, two Bichon Frises, a bunny and a wonderful husband I’d been with for 27 years.

I also had two aunts who had died of pancreatic cancer, one that I was particularly close to. I remember very clearly when my primary care physician called to tell me the results of a CAT scan she had ordered. I told her, “Don’t tell me this! This is a death sentence!” I was horrified.

I immediately contacted my sister, a trauma surgeon at Cook County Hospital in Chicago. They say that the Lord works in mysterious ways. At that time, my sister was studying for another board certification. She had just read a paper written by a Virginia Mason oncologist about the team approach to treating pancreatic cancer.

She asked if I was aware of Virginia Mason and I responded that I had been getting my care there for more than 20 years! She urged me to talk with the physician who had written the article she had read because “he totally gets it” — that cancer has to be looked at holistically. His protocol and the Virginia Mason approach, she said, appeared to be quite unique in the treatment of pancreatic cancer.

I met this oncologist for the first time in a joint meeting with my surgeon. I loved him right away. He has twinkly eyes, a very honest, straightforward manner and a sense of humor. That trust was confirmed when he came in to my hospital room at 9:30 at night, the day after my surgery. The diagnosis of stage 2 pancreatic cancer had just been confirmed and my husband and I were both having a good cry.

This doctor introduced himself again and then sat down on the foot of my bed. He said, “What information can I give you that will help you sleep tonight?” He then proceeded to patiently answer our zillion questions. But the answer that meant most to me was when my husband asked him, “What do you consider to be your role in this proposed treatment?” He answered, “My role is to be Kris’s spiritual cheerleader. Anyone can write a script for chemotherapy. But if I can help keep her spirit strong, she will win.”

He proceeded to talk about how cancer was perceived to be a battle waged by the human body. But it was also a battle being waged by the human spirit. I knew I had found the right doctor. Oh, I checked out the competition — but it wasn’t even close.

It is still difficult to talk about the one year of adjuvant therapy. I was very sick and the physical toll it took was a mighty one. But I had the best team in the world. All the oncology nurses were the most compassionate, lovely people. They always gave me a boost, helped me to laugh, and worked so hard to alleviate the terrible side effects. This started even before I got to the treatment room, with the wonderful ladies at the front desk on the second floor who checked me in.

But as awful as 2011 was, it was also a year of many blessings. I developed an extraordinarily close relationship with my daughter. I learned to be a gracious recipient of help. I tell my children and everyone who asks, that my survival was not due to some special effort from me.

Rather, it was the prayers, compassion and kindness of a village. From the neighbors who snuck in at night to fill my garden with tulip bulbs, to the “soccer moms” who brought dinner to my family, every night, for months in a row, to my two best friends, who sat with me every day for an entire year, and to my Virginia Mason “team” — I am here because of you.

I saw my daughter graduate and head off to college. I taught my son how to drive (now there is a challenge!) I went back to work full time — something even the Social Security office had a hard time believing. My life has been changed irrevocably. I laugh more. I spend more time with the people I love. My faith has deepened.

I truly believe that Virginia Mason gave me the means to live a full and complete life. Having such a serious illness leaves a shadow. It is always there, flitting around the edges. I don’t dwell on it. I’ve been very fortunate to be invited to work with Virginia Mason to improve the patient experience, through workshops and participating in process improvement sessions.

The dedication I see from the Virginia Mason team is an inspiration. Life after cancer is not “normal.” It’s better than that. Continuing my relationship with Virginia Mason is part of that “better.” Whatever I can do to give back is such a small price to pay for the amazing care I received and continue to receive. Thank you, thank you. As my son would say, “You totally rock!”

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This story originally appeared on VirginiaMason.org. Meet other patients who bravely shared their stories of fighting cancer, and get the latest information on cancer treatment outcomes and wellness and support at Virginia Mason.