Cathy Tharby twice heard the words “you only have months to live.”
But five years later, she is still pushing forward with her fight against the rare type of cervical cancer that led several doctors to write off her chances for living a long, full life.
“They said they can’t cure me, but they would do what they could to have me live as long as possible. We’ve all been amazed at how long it’s worked,” Tharby said.
For Tharby, the difference has been her attitude and a willingness to try a wide array of chemotherapy options and other treatments offered by the staff at Christiana Care’s Helen F. Graham Cancer Center.
“Cathy has such a great attitude about this even though they were so negative to start with,” said Sharyl Mossinger, a family member who has helped Tharby get back and forth to her various treatments over the years. “I think that’s why she’s still here and having fun, because your mental attitude can really do a lot.”
Tharby’s symptoms started so innocuously that she thought she was just going through menopause and put off a visit to the doctor.
“I let things go. I thought I was going through the change of life … It wasn’t change of life, although my mother had gone through the same thing, and that’s why I just assumed,” Tharby said. “I ignored the situation for a long time until I finally was having dizzy spells because I was losing so much blood.”
Tharby was diagnosed with a non-HPV (human papillomavirus) form of cervical cancer and initially told she had three months to live. In an effort to treat her cancer, Tharby underwent a radical hysterectomy at Christiana Hospital and was told it had been a successful intervention. But a few months later, Tharby developed problems walking and pain in her left hip. A CT scan revealed that all was not well.
“I had a huge growth that was attached to this hip and upper leg, and the reason I couldn’t walk is it was pressing on the nerve,” Tharby said.
It was back to Christiana Hospital for Tharby to begin radiation therapy in an effort to shrink the tumor before starting her on a chemotherapy regimen. Once again, the prognosis was not encouraging.
“Again they were telling me I would probably only have a couple of months to live,” she said. “Well, the chemotherapy pretty much slowed it to almost a stop.”
Numerous rounds of chemotherapy followed over the next four years. New drugs were tried as soon as the cancer showed any signs of a comeback. Tharby underwent a Cyberknife treatment to cut off the blood supply to the tumor in her hip, halting its growth.
One service in particular helped her deal with the side effects from the chemotherapy treatments. A program at the Helen F. Graham Cancer Center helps teach women various style and make-up tricks to cover up the loss of hair.
“My first chemo was the strongest and the one that hit me the most. Of course, I lost all my hair,” said Tharby, who wore her hair long all her life. “[The program] was fun … getting a lot of little tricks and things to do so you feel better about yourself. That’s important at that point.”
That positive attitude in the face of a devastating illness is a hallmark of the treatment Tharby has experienced at the cancer center.
“[The Helen F. Graham Cancer Center] has the best positive attitude of any place I’ve dealt with,” Mossinger said. “Twice in all this time, she’s been in ‘stable disease,’ where nothing has grown. It’s just amazing.”
The end result for Tharby has been five years of living with cancer rather than the bleak prognosis of a few months of dying from it.
“You live with it, but you can live,” she said. “You still have a life and you go on.”