Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma Survivor

Survivor Story Entwined With Loss of Parents

Vicki Satovitz was diagnosed with Stage IE MALT (mucosa-associated lymphoid tissue) lymphoma in 2007 when she was 55  — just days before the death of both of her parents. Despite the tragic circumstances, she pursued treatment for her disease and is now cancer-free. She and her husband, Bert, have been married for more than 40 years and have a grown son and daughter.

I was diagnosed with lymphoma 10 days before my parents died. My cancer story was so intertwined with the year prior to their death that I hardly know where their story ends and mine begins. I believe the stress and difficulties could have contributed to my cancer diagnosis. My brother was diagnosed with prostate cancer at the same time.

My parents were an active, strong couple, even into their 80s. Mom was a piano teacher and Dad was a retired shoe salesman. Theirs was a love story like no other, and after retirement they even hoped that, if possible, they would die together. They were married for 63 years.

My parents were healthy seniors until Dad was diagnosed with lymphoma and my mother’s dementia worsened. Dad had kept the extent of her dementia from us, but then she contracted pneumonia and needed to go to a nursing home. Eventually her organs began to shut down. My father completed surgery and chemotherapy and started rehab. We thought he was in the clear, but his cancer returned, and he was admitted to a different nursing home from my mom.

My brother and I were integral to the care of our parents during this very stressful time. He and I were continually going to doctors’ appointments and running back and forth between the two nursing homes.

One day I happened to look in the mirror and noticed my cheek was severely swollen, but not painful, so I went to an oral surgeon. Two weeks after the biopsy, he called with terrible news — it was lymphoma. I was in shock! I was healthy and had no symptoms except the swollen cheek. I quickly took my results to my dad’s oncologist for verification.

In the meantime, my parents were failing. After being in hospice for a few days, my mother died at 3:30 a.m., July 22, 2007. Strangely enough, my dad had taken a sudden turn for the worse and was placed on a ventilator. The morning my mom died, we rushed to tell Dad, to tell him we loved him and say our goodbyes. Then right in front of us, he took his last breath and flatlined. It was horrible, but oddly, it was what they had hoped.

We had a double funeral and sat shiva (a Jewish mourning period) for five days. The following week, a bone marrow biopsy confirmed my diagnosis of Stage IE MALT lymphoma. A rare type of lymphoma, MALT normally shows up in the stomach. Because it was in my cheek, I think it saved my life, as we caught it early. I was frantic and immediately began a treatment plan and never even had time to grieve the passing of my parents.

My treatment included 20 radiation sessions, four-hour infusions three times a week and injections 30 minutes prior to each radiation treatment (to protect my salivary glands). What a blur.

The side effects included painful mouth sores, swollen lips, skin redness and difficulty eating and swallowing. Toward the end of the radiation, I was exhausted, but with my incredibly supportive husband by my side, I resolved to stay the course.

Since my treatment ended, I have remained cancer-free. However, my wonderful oncologist continues to see me every six months and until recently I had yearly PET and CT scans.

I can still get worried and I struggle to find a balance between being vigilant and being neurotic. But when I do, I call one of my “cancer sisters.” We began meeting as a local support group of survivors, but these women have become my go-to friends. We really understand one another.

As I reflect, I know my dad’s amazing strength inspired me through my journey. Today, my brother and I are both survivors and have learned to enjoy life, live in the moment and never take our good health for granted.