Missie Charon sat in a tan chair, chemotherapy drugs dripping into her body from a bag atop a nearby IV pole.
Instead, she launched herself into the future, a future she fully expects to be a part of.
As the drugs dripped, Charon glanced at her boyfriend, Dan Wilde, in the adjacent chair.
After sliding reading glasses onto the bridge of his nose, Wilde punched numbers into the calculator of his cell phone as he scribbled notes on the blueprint of what will someday be their home.
It’s more than a dream. The walls are up, the house is in progress.
But despite the dream home under construction, Charon has been living a nightmare.
30 surgeries later
Charon is no stranger to pain. Or surgeries. She’s endured 30 abdominal surgeries in the past 27 years.
But her greatest hurt came nine years ago.
After spending a week in the intensive care unit following surgery, she returned home.
“The day after I got home from the hospital my son found my husband dead,” Charon said.
Charon struggled to pick up the pieces of her life with her sons, 11 and 12 at the time.
“It’s been a struggle over the years being an only parent and with health issues on top of it,” she said.
The Cedar Springs, Michigan, resident said she knew something was wrong three years ago when she was in almost constant pain, but doctors couldn’t pinpoint the problem.
“At first they thought it was scar tissue from all the surgeries,” she said.
Shortly before Thanksgiving last year, an MRI revealed “what looked like a cancerous tumor clogging my bile duct.”
A biopsy came back positive for pancreatic cancer, but Charon didn’t see that as a negative.
“We caught it very early,” Charon said. “It was dime-sized. It was almost a relief that they found something they could treat. Most people say it’s horrific when they find out they have cancer. I had a sense of relief. I could finally get rid of this pain.”
A promising procedure
On December 12, Charon underwent a Whipple procedure.
During a 10-hour surgery, Andrea Wolf, MD, a Spectrum Health surgical oncologist, removed the head of Charon’s pancreas, part of her intestines, part of her stomach and 12 lymph nodes.
“The Whipple was amazing,” Charon said. “I was supposed to be in the hospital for 14 days and I left after five days.”
She undergoes chemotherapy for three weeks every Wednesday, then has a week off.
Charon is also part of a clinical study with Sreenivasa Chandana, MD, PhD, a Spectrum Health hematology and oncology specialist.
“It’s a national study,” Dr. Chandana said. “We’re looking at chemotherapy as a standard of care versus chemotherapy followed by radiation therapy. She is doing very well. Once in a while she has some infection here and there, but I think she is tolerating very well.”
Dr. Chandana said Dr. Wolf did an excellent job with the Whipple procedure.
“I don’t think she has cancer now,” Dr. Chandana said. “We typically recommend only chemotherapy but we’re looking at adding radiation to help patients live longer. The hypothesis is that adding radiation improves survival.”
As chemotherapy drugs continued to drip into Charon’s body and her boyfriend calculated log siding lengths, Charon looked up and spotted a familiar face.
“There’s my nurse navigator,” she said.
Navigating the medical world
Spectrum Health nurse navigator Deborah Ritz-Holland hugged Charon and asked how she’s been feeling. They chatted about Charon’s physical and emotional well-being.
Wilde shared some photos with the nurse navigator, of Charon reeling in a shark in Florida.
Charon described other Florida adventures—seeing manatees and dolphins in the river in front of their vacation home, seeing dolphins surrounding their boat as they fished on the Gulf.
She not only has a friend in Ritz-Holland, she has a skilled professional who helps guide her through an often confusing medical system.
“I think this is the best thing they ever came up with, assigning nurse navigators,” Charon said. “You get so overwhelmed with so many appointments, treatments and people. Especially after getting a diagnosis, you just flat-line emotionally. She sets up the appointments for you. No matter what time you call, day or night, she answers.”
Wilde showed a picture of Charon sitting on the bow of the boat, serene aqua water and sunshine framing the focal point. Charon seemed to melt into the photo, lost in memories.
A beep interrupted the moment. Infusion complete.
“The poison is in,” Charon said.
Instead of poisoning her life, Charon hopes her cancer experience can intensify it, and teach her the gift of each moment.
“I just keep thinking there are so many things I haven’t done that I want to do,” she said. “I hope I have time to do them. I’m trying to stay positive and think I have endless time. But being the only parent to my two boys, it’s been a struggle. They lost their father. Now they’re facing losing me. I want to make sure I don’t leave anything behind or have any regrets.”
She doesn’t regret building a home with Wilde, who is doing much of the work himself.
“He’s been there for me every single step of this in every way, shape and form,” Charon said. “Even though my boys aren’t his, he treats them like they are. I know I can break down with him.”
Charon remains hopeful she will be the victor in this fight for life.
“My oncologist believes we can beat this,” Charon said. “He thinks there is a good chance that I can be cured. We won’t know until my next CT (in June). I’m hopeful. I feel strong. I don’t feel like I have less time than anybody else.”
Pancreatic cancer has a reputation as being a fast killer. Charon knows that.
“When I tell somebody I have pancreatic cancer, their face drops and they go pale,” she said. “They say, ‘I’m so sorry, I know so and so who passed away from pancreatic cancer.’ It tends to hit me hard but I try not to think about that.”
When she needs a break from the reality of her world, she goes for a walk, or out for lunch or dinner with her sons, Brody, 22, and Ben, 21.
“I am so blessed,” Charon said. “I’m so proud of them. They don’t let a day go by without texting me or calling me just to tell me they love me. With the world the way it is, to have two boys do that, it melts my heart.”
Charon isn’t just fighting for herself. She’s fighting for her sons, her boyfriend, her new home, for summer, fall and winter, for outdoor adventures, for the chance to grow old.
A tattoo on her left ankle shares her sentiment. It reads: “My story isn’t over yet,” with a semi-colon.
“I want to beat the odds,” Charon said. “I have with past surgeries. I know that I can again. I plan to be part of the 1 percent who survive longer than two to five years.”