Martha Ribbens creates colorful patchwork quilts with a place and purpose for every piece she sews.
But last summer, her world began to unravel, and the pieces fell apart.
During a routine surgery, doctors discovered her abdomen was full of cancer.
“I did not have any symptoms at all,” the Belding, Michigan resident said. “When they made the incision in my belly, they put in a camera and discovered cancer.”
She was diagnosed with primary peritoneal cancer, a relatively rare condition that originates in the abdominal lining.
“My first reaction was like an instant headache,” she said. “I couldn’t believe this was happening to me. My family has no history at all.”
Ribbens turned to Spectrum Health’s Regional Cancer Center and the gynecologic oncology specialists in the Lemmen-Holton Cancer Pavilion for help. That decision has made all the difference, the 57-year-old said.
“I love that group over there, love the nursing staff and love the physicians,” Ribbens said. “They were amazing through this whole thing. Two of the oncology nurses – Mary Fran and Kelli – those two girls are like a comedy act. Just two minutes with those girls and I’m smiling.”
Ribbens endured three months of chemotherapy, surgery to remove the cancer, then three more months of chemotherapy.
Her surgery was expected to take four hours. Gynecologic oncologist Leigh Seamon, DO, MPH, removed cancer from Ribbens’ body for almost twice that long.
“Dr. Seamon saved my life,” Ribbens said.
She’s comforted by her nurses, doctors, family, friends and cozy patchwork quilts, but she’s realistic, too. Her chemo ended on Dec. 30. Her body is tired.
“When I was first diagnosed, they told me the average life span is five years,” Ribbens said. “I could be the one that gets 10 or 15. I could be the one that gets one or two. You just don’t know. I told them from the start that I didn’t want to focus on that.”
But that anxiety has woven a new outlook, according to Ribbens, one that looks positively and purposefully on her circumstances.
She reaches out to help others.
She treasures her moments with friends, family and her five children. Even if they’re just sitting together.
“It changed everything for me,” Ribbens said. “I want everything to be positive. Whatever story I’m telling, I want it to be positive.”
When she met a fellow patient–a single mother with four children fighting for her life against cancer and fighting for child support at the same time–she anonymously bought a Meijer gift card for her.
She enjoyed chatting with another patient and her husband so much that she brought the couple a lily from her garden.
“I just want to give back,” Ribbens said. “Most of the time, it was just listening.”
Her biggest concern is not for herself, but for her friends and family.
“I don’t want them to feel the pain that comes with watching someone you love battle this disease,” Ribbens said.
Despite her own discomfort, Ribbens, assistant director of program accreditation and trainee certification at Michigan State University’s College of Osteopathic medicine’s Lansing campus, worked nearly full-time throughout her treatment.
On shorter chemotherapy days, she worked from home or even in the infusion center.
With her treatments completed, gyn-oncology specialists continue to monitor her.
Ribbens’ focus has become on the moment, drilling down to what’s important and weaving a tapestry of appreciation and gratitude for life and loved ones.
“That’s what my story became–what can I find that’s positive about this disease,” she said. “There’s a blessing in this. It’s been a godsend because it totally changed my life.”