New London woman shares her survival story
By Scott Bellile
March 30, 2018, was “the best Good Friday” to Barb Gassen. She was thrilled to get to spend 10 days with her grandson.
“I thought, God, I am really in a good place with my life. I feel good. Everything is just really good,” Gassen said. “Well, on April 1, which was ironically April Fools’ Day, I experienced post-menopausal bleeding. I knew it wasn’t right and it wasn’t normal. I had a feeling I was going to be in trouble.”
After some medical appointments, in early May Gassen was diagnosed with stage 2 uterine cancer diagnosis. Then a few days later, she was told it was actually stage 4.
“To say I was devastated doesn’t even begin to cover how I felt,” Gassen said. “But I thought, well, OK, this is it, this is what it is and I’ll just go for it. I can do this.”
Gassen, a New London resident, shared her story of overcoming cancer with patients, survivors and their supporters who were walking for a cure at the 23rd annual New London-Clintonville Relay for Life at New London Intermediate/Middle School on Friday, June 7.
Gassen said her cancer diagnosis led to “a whole range of emotions.”
“Fear and confusion were first,” she said. “I was afraid: ‘Am I going to die?’ I was confused: ‘How could this happen to me?’ I thought I did everything I should. Then came embarrassment. I just felt stupid: ‘How can I be so stupid to let this happen to me? And people must just think I’m stupid.’
“Then after that it was anger,” Gassen continued. “I was just mad. I was mad at everybody who didn’t have cancer and I did. If you didn’t have cancer, I was mad at you. It was just the way it was. I got over that. After that it was just plain old pity. I had a big, long pity party, I had. And then I knew I couldn’t keep going on like that.”
Gassen gets treated
On May 16, 2018, Gassen visited Dr. Edgard Badine at ThedaCare Regional Cancer Center in Appleton and learned her chemotherapy schedule. She would receive treatment every 21 days for six rounds.
Before she began, Gassen tagged along with her husband, Rick, on his trip to the DMV.
“When we got there, I looked at my driver’s license and I thought, oh my god, my license is going to expire this year and they’re going to take my picture and I’m not going to have hair,” Gassen said. “So I thought, OK, I have to have that taken care of. I had my picture taken and my license renewed. I know it sounds like it was vain, but at that time it was kind of important to me and it was something I had control of.”
A week after her first chemo appointment, Gassen returned home from a walk on a windy day.
“I discovered that the part of my hair had gotten to be like a half an inch wide, and I had like a third less hair, so I knew it was time it had to go,” Gassen said. “So Rick had to shave my hair off and I cried a little, but when it was done, it was one less thing I had to worry about.”
From June through October, Gassen continued chemo. It was rough, but her tumor marker levels improved greatly and the cancer stopped developing.
As she underwent her final round of chemo, Gassen was also sad to learn Badine was moving out of the country, so she would lose his “wonderful” team.
She joked her “chemo brain” hindered her ability to process the news.
“I said, ‘Well, where is Dr. Badine going?’ And they told me, ‘Well he’s going to Lebanon,’” Gassen said. “Without even thinking, I said, ‘Lebanon? That’s just by Sugar Bush! Why’s he got to leave?’ I realized that it was Lebanon the country.”
A new outlook
Although Gassen was in remission, cancer still brought uncertainty, she said. As she dwelled on whether Christmas with the family or a slow dance with Rick would be her last, Gassen decided she had to reframe her mindset.
Now instead of fixating on her possible lasts, Gassen pursues firsts.
Gassen rode her first duck boat at Wisconsin Dells. She cooked a batch of divinity candy. She learned a new wood crafting skill. And now she can do the floss dance with her grandson.
“They were small things to other people, but to me they were really epic,” Gassen said.
She told attendees that with their continued support of fundraisers such as Relay for Life, a cancer cure will be discovered.
“My hope and my wish is that a cure is found for cancer soon so every man, woman and child can continue to live their normal life,” Gassen said.
Researchers making inroads
Dr. Erin Stevens, gynecologic oncologist at Prevea Health HSHS St. Vincent Hospital in Green Bay, said cancer research has come “a really long way” since the community’s Relay for Life event started 23 years ago.
Within the last couple years, the number of drugs Stevens has available to treat her patients has increased by 50 percent, she said.
Oncologists and researchers are better understanding how to target problematic cells, provide patients individualized treatment and study the growing number of survivors, Stevens said.
“So if we keep doing this research and we keep trying to better understand cancer, we can get to a point that cancer either becomes a chronic disease that we have a cure for it, or even better, a way to prevent it,” Stevens said.
“So not only can you live with cancer, you can thrive after having had cancer,” she said.