Facing Cancer Together
- Marilyn and Kevin Sittniewski have been through a lot during their 30 years of marriage. And now they’ve achieved their ultimate goal: ringing the bell that marks the end of their cancer treatment together.
- Leukemia is a type of blood cancer. Symptoms vary depending on the type of leukemia, but general symptoms for the disease include: Fever or chills, persistent fatigue, weakness, frequent or severe infections, losing weight without trying, swollen lymph nodes, an enlarged liver or spleen, easy bleeding or bruising, recurrent nosebleeds, tiny red spots in your skin (petechiae), excessive sweating as well as bone pain or tenderness.
- It’s normal to have negative feelings during a cancer journey, but experts say that people who find a way to work through the emotions and stay positive tend to have better outcomes.
Marilyn was diagnosed with leukemia years ago and struggled through two separate bone marrow transplants and three relapses before eventually being placed in an experimental study in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.Read More
“We couldn’t believe it,” Marilyn said. “Both of us. It broke us. What do we do now?”
But despite overwhelming financial stress and uncertain futures ahead, the couple trudged along.
“We just fought, and fought, and fought,” Marilyn said. “Life was too important not too.”
Then, years and countless treatments later, the couple got to ring the bell to signify the end of their treatments at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center in Buffalo, New York together.
“We knew we had to do it together. We’re the first husband and wife to ever ring the bell together at Roswell,” she added. “There’s nothing we can’t do.”
Now that Marilyn and Kevin are moving forward from that arduous chapter of their lives, the couple is determined to share their story to encourage others faced with unimaginable obstacles.
“We just want to help, to inspire those to keep fighting,” Marilyn said. “Whatever you can do, keep going.”
Leukemia is a blood cancer that develops when the body produces large quantities of abnormal white blood cells. These cells prevent the bone marrow from producing any other type of cell including red blood cells and platelets.
“One cell got really selfish and decided that it needed to take up all the resources of everybody else, and, in doing so, took up space and energy from the rest of the body,” Dr. Nina Shah, a hematologist at University of California San Francisco, explained.
In a more general sense, blood cancer means that your bone marrow is not functioning properly.
“And when your bone marrow doesn’t function correctly, it means that you can have something happen to you like anemia,” she said. “Or you can have low platelets, which makes it possible for you to bleed easily. Or your immune system is not functioning correctly.”
Symptoms of leukemia can vary depending on the type of leukemia. Common signs and symptoms of the disease include:
- Fever or chills
- Persistent fatigue, weakness
- Frequent or severe infections
- Losing weight without trying
- Swollen lymph nodes, enlarged liver or spleen
- Easy bleeding or bruising
- Recurrent nosebleeds
- Tiny red spots in your skin (petechiae)
- Excessive sweating, especially at night
- Bone pain or tenderness
Staying Positive during Cancer Treatment
It’s very normal to have negative feelings throughout your cancer journey – and it’s okay to express them too! Anger, shame, fear and anxiety are all to be expected. But doctors will tell you that people who find a way to work through the emotions and stay positive, like the Sittniewskis, tend to have better outcomes.
“A positive attitude is really important,” Dr. Zuri Murrell, a colorectal surgeon at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, previously told SurvivorNet. “I’m pretty good at telling what kind of patients are going to still have this attitude and probably going to live the longest, even with bad, bad disease. And those are patients who, they have gratitude in life.”
In a previous interview with SurvivorNet, Dr. Mona Robbins, a licensed psychologist at UT Southwestern Medical Center, shared that mindset can play a huge role in helping you throughout your cancer journey. She says it’s important to understand that there are some things you can control and some things you just can’t.
“There’s this connection with the mind and the body that if we adjust the way that we think, we can really help our bodies to heal,” Dr. Robbins said. “For areas where you can control, how can you either advocate for yourself, ask more questions, clarify the needs? Or even, then, where areas where you can’t, how can you take things one day at a time? Recognizing some of the good that may be present in the day, as opposed to all of the bad you may think is there.”
And one way to stay positive and focus on the ‘controllables’ is to make plans for the future and have something you’re looking ahead to.
“Have something to look forward to – either in a couple months, if not at the end of the week – so that that brings up your spirit and your energy so that you feel a little bit more hopeful about what’s happening,” she said.
Strong Relationships during a Cancer Journey
It’s no secret that fighting cancer can be extremely overwhelming, so having physical and emotional support during your battle is crucial. And as we saw in the unique case of the Sittniewskis, it’s apparent that having unwavering support from a partner can make all the difference.
That being said, it’s very important to know your limits on what you can handle – including relationships – during treatment.
“Going through treatment is a very vulnerable and emotionally exhausting experience,” licensed clinical psychologist Dr. Marianna Strongin wrote in a column for SurvivorNet. “Noticing what you have strength for and what is feeling like too much… [is] extremely important to pay attention to as you navigate treatment.”
Dr. Strongin does note, however, that having people by your side during this “arduous chapter” of your life can be hugely beneficial.
“Studies have found consistently that loneliness is a significant risk factor for physical and mental illnesses and the trajectory of recovery,” she wrote. “Therefore, it will be important that you surround yourself with individuals who care and support you throughout your treatment.”
For actress and melanoma survivor Jill Kargman, cancer was a true test of the strength for her relationship. In an earlier interview with SurvivorNet, Kargman says the disease “is a great way to find out if you’re with the love of your life or a shithead.”
“I think it presses the fast forward button on getting to the bottom of that answer, because a lot of people in middle age are kind of at a crossroads, waiting for their kids to fly the coop,” Kargman said. “I think if you’re with someone who is not supportive and kind of emotionally checked out or doesn’t tell you you’re still beautiful with that, this might not be your person.”