“You can’t admit me to the hospital; I have a four o’ clock appointment!” Val told her doctor.
Paul and Roberta Long brought up their daughter Valerie to be self-sufficient, dependable and to always be positive. “My brother Rex and I were just saying how fortunate we were to have the family that we were born into. We had our share of problems like anyone, but we really were blessed,” Val says.
Val doesn’t recall what aspirations she might have had when she was little but she knew she liked to create. “I wanted to make something that was mine, either in writing or creating something with computers somehow …and I wanted a job where I could afford good shoes,” she laughs.
As a young girl Val was thrown from her horse, but she was determined to get back on. Being thrown a second time, which resulted in a concussion and losing part of her long term memory, Val did shy away from getting back on for the time being. It would only be after fighting for her very life that getting back on a horse would not be quite as fearful after having faced “the big C”.
Val works for Dako, a recruiting company in the Southeast region. She has been in HR and recruiting for about 17 years. “I absolutely love what I do. I am one of those people who are blessed to do what they love and I enjoy coming to work every day,” Val says.
Ever a positive person and always encouraging others, Val says, “You may not always feel positive, but one of my adages is ‘you fake it until you feel it.’ I would attribute my attitude to my whole family. They have been through so many struggles in life and I watched my mom and dad just pick up the pieces and move forward. My brother and I both were taught that. You deal with what comes and you keep going,” she attests.
Val was diagnosed with cancer in September of 2009. “I had a doctor that I truly credit for saving my life – Dr. Forrest Sowell of Chattanooga Internal Medicine. I called telling them I was having swelling in my abdomen and thigh area. When I saw Dr. Sowell he wanted to admit me to the hospital. I said, ‘You can’t do that I have a four o’clock appointment!’ but he knew that I knew my body – something was wrong,” she stressed.
Val underwent a CA125 blood test and a CAT scan. The CA125 was a little off but not enough for concern. The CAT scan, however, showed a mass behind her ovary.
Val had had Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome for some time and Dr. Sowell suggested that she have a full hysterectomy. “It wasn’t until the surgery that they realized it wasn’t a mass on my ovary - it was actually my ovary itself that enlarged,” Val recalls.
During the operation the enlarged ovary ruptured causing cancer cells to spill into Val’s abdomen. It was unknown to Val at the time that she had cancer but the physicians suspected it and performed an abdominal cavity wash.
“My diagnosis was ovarian cancer stage 2C. Dr. Steven Depasquale was my gynecologic oncologist. He teased me and said, ‘I handled all your internal organs’ because he had to take them out and wash them with gauze and saline so you make sure there weren’t any rogue cancer cells. I said, ‘As long as you put everything back and not put my kidney where my liver should be, then we're ok’,” Val joked.
“He is an outstanding doctor and was very forward-thinking in my treatment. He saved my life. It was a huge thing to have these people in my corner,” Val declares.
The medical team felt they removed all the cancer cells, but Val would still have to undergo treatment for cancer. “It is that sentence, ‘Valerie you have cancer’ that just stops you in your tracks and you can’t breathe. For that second you think – ‘oh my gosh, I have cancer’. It is a momentary flash of mortality. Everything is taken away with one sentence,” she voiced.
Val’s family was told about the cancer while she was in recovery. The physicians had to wait to tell her. “My family was there and my sweet daddy had to turn his head away from me when the doctor told me – he couldn’t watch my face. I had lots of support there with me. It’s just that one sentence and your life is totally changed,” Val says.
“I asked him only two questions at first. ‘Can you help me survive?’ He said yes, that there was a treatment and we’d talk about that. My second question was silly but I asked, ‘Am I going to lose my hair?’ I remember thinking that was a stupid question to ask but it was a control thing and it was going to take all of my will and make me struggle and now it’s going to take my hair, my eyelashes and my eyebrows,” Val professed.
Her doctor told her that everyone asks that question and it was perfectly normal. He informed her that she would lose her hair and that it would happen rather quickly.
The chemo started one week after surgery and it made Val violently sick. “Once I started it, I had 90 days to complete it - you can’t stop it in that period of time or it would diminish the success of your outcome,” Val insists.
“I had three different kinds of chemo, three bags a day. The infusions were very aggressive – heavy hitters. My doctor said if I could make it through the treatment, then my prognosis will be very good,” Val says.
Chemo takes such a toll on the body and it will affect individuals differently. “I told him I would make it through the treatment. People asked me if I ever considered not doing it. Never. That was never a consideration at all. I was told about all the side effects and it was pretty nasty. The pain and the nausea that it causes – it’s just unbearable. I would watch the bags drip as it went inside me and I thought ‘that is poison going into my body’. I wondered ‘How does your body take poison and it be ok?’” Val queried.
She was given medicine for nausea as well as being given steroids. “You are taking so much that is going into your system for that concentrated period of time. You have to have the faith that the doctors know what they are doing and God is going to see you through it, because you have no control whatsoever,” Val declares.
Roberta never left her daughter’s side while Paul’s health was deteriorating. He had been ill before Val was diagnosed. After caring for her husband, Roberta now was trying to nurse her daughter back to health at the same time.
“I watched her own health decline because of it,” Val says.
“I stayed at my house for a little while, but then I became so ill I couldn’t stay alone. It was hard on my mom taking care of daddy at home and then me at my house – so I eventually moved in with my parents and friends and neighbors took care of my house while I was gone,” she says.
Val was hospitalized a few times during her illness and given Neupogen injections which made every bone in her body ache.
“They told me I would probably lose my hair after two weeks of chemo. I had long blond hair and decided to cut it short and take it in steps,” Val says.
Her cousin was a hair dresser and Val had told her that when her hair started to fall out she would want to go ahead and shave her head. “You mentally prepare the best you can because you know what is going to happen. I remember it was on a Wednesday night. I was sitting on the couch with my parents and I ran my hand through my hair and a big wad of hair came out,” Val says as she chokes up remembering that feeling; she excuses herself saying it is still hard to talk about.
“When I had my hair in my hands - it was just one more thing about ‘you’re not in control’. Your body is actually dying. My mom would call my brother whenever I would get hysterical or upset and my brother would get me in line,” Val maintains.
“I called my cousin and said, ‘I am coming to shave my head’. Mom went with me. We were the only ones there. We laughed and we cried and we just got through it. It was not so much a vanity thing - for me it was more of an actual sign of death. There was a part of my body that was dying and I couldn’t stop it. What nobody told me is that it hurts like the devil when your hair comes out. All of those hair follicles are dying. Besides the shock of losing your hair, for about a week you are in a lot of pain,” Val disclosed.
She donned wigs and also hats and scarves that friends had given her. “I have such wonderful supportive friends, family church and work. I am so very lucky. I wore the wigs some but chemo makes you hot and the wigs itch so during that time I wore a knit hat. Daddy would put my wigs on when I was feeling bad and he would dance for me. As I got better and got back in the world I started wearing the wigs,” Val says.
Had she not been given the patch to ease the nausea, she says she would have not made it. It cost $1,300 and someone had donated that to Val. “Cancer takes everything from you physically – but also financially,” she says.
Val was supposed to go back to work in July of that year but ended up going back in January because she was feeling better. “My job is a blessing,” Val says “Four months after joining them I was diagnosed and they were so supportive. Colleagues from corporate would call to encourage me. This company was phenomenal. They accommodated me with whatever I needed. They care about their people. Everything is in God’s plan and I was placed in this company for such a time as this. They were put in my life when I would need them,” Val confirms.
“I did get angry at the situation at times and I did have bad days. Something like this though, simplifies your faith - you either have your faith or you don’t,” she says.
“I remember when I would be lying in bed and I was too weak to talk – my daddy would crawl up on the bed with me and he would pat my hand and sing hymns to me. I would wake to see both of my parents kneeling at my bed and praying for me. That kind of stuff you can’t buy. Faith is a huge proponent in my recovery,” Val says
“I do think that is what got me though it and, having an incredible support system behind me. Getting out of the house and getting back to what I needed to do and not focusing on what I had lost was a key in my recovery,” she avers.
“Chemo causes a lot of problems. One is that I have lost about 35 percent of my hearing. The other is I have neuropathy. A lot of my high heel shoes I can’t wear anymore because they hurt. When people ask me what my biggest negative with chemo was I say, “I can’t wear my high heel shoes,” Val quips.
Val’s father passed away last summer. That was a time when Val’s stress was pretty high – which affects her cancer marker tests. “I won’t officially be cancer free until five years. I go every three months to have tests. They draw blood and check cancer markers every three months. When my daddy was dying my cancer markers showed pretty high and I was getting a little nervous, but other than that – everything has been great,” she insists.
“It was a horrible experience – I would never want to go through it again – but there were such wonderful moments that happened during that time that I would not trade for anything. Before my first round of chemo I remember looking in the mirror and I told God that I was not going to ask ‘why me’ but that I was only going to ask ‘that He let me survive and to have a wonderful testimony on the other side of this. Let me show integrity and grace in getting through this and I will walk whatever path I have to walk – just walk it with me’,” she said.
In 2014, Val will be considered cancer free. When asked if she plans to go to Disney World she laughs and says, “I was thinking more like Italy, but Disney World works.”
Then she says in a somber tone, “Life is fragile. I try not to sweat the little things – I look at things from a different perspective. You re-evaluate everything, you re-evaluate who you are dating, you evaluate people in your life, how you treat people and how they treat you. So, I don’t know what would be any different in 2014 than right now. I am thankful for every day that I can get up and get out of bed and I don’t take that for granted.”