August 2, 2014
In loving memory to Sheryl Elizabeth Hartzheim.
My little sister passed on 11 October 2013; today would have been her
I think back about the 18 years plus that she was a cancer survivor.
The incredible battle that she waged against cancer remains fresh in
my mind. Sheryl and I always talked about writing a book about the
plight of a person fighting against cancer. She helped so many people
in their fight, always giving advice to the newcomers in the doctor's
office as to what effects they might experience from the chemotherapy.
Even until the very end of her last chemo treatments, she would hide
her own pain and thoughts about her own illness, always presenting a
smile to everyone encouraging them to fight on.
During the eighteen years of on-off chemo treatments, one is reminded
every day of the presence of cancer in one's body, a virtual time-bomb
that causes so much fear. Yet, Sheryl was able to overcome those fears
when she was up and about doing her daily activities. But, she would
always tell me how she suffered and cried at home when alone, not
letting her family see her that way.
In 1963, on this day fifty-one years ago, I was blessed with a little
sister. And, for the entire time that Sheryl was ill, I was blessed to
be with her and witness her strength and assistance to so many others.
There is a billboard that says, "You don't fight cancer alone". The
reason for that statement, I suspect is because many people do fight
cancer alone. During Sheryl's chemo treatments, we were always
surprised at the number of people who went for their treatments by
themselves. Many people are accompanied by loved ones, but there is a
vast majority who sit alone while they receive their chemo treatments.
Sheryl used to comment to me that people did not know or understand
what a person goes through when receiving chemo. She would often say,
they have no idea, until they might walk in someone else's shoes. She
obviously never wished any ill upon anyone, but simply wanted people
to understand so ha maybe they would help those who were fighting
I learned all those years in accompanying Sheryl to her treatments
that there are far too many people who do fight cancer alone, who are
alone when they sit alone in their chairs for hours on end and receive
the chemical cocktails as they call them that help them remain here on
Earth a little longer. The horror stories of spouses who suddenly
disappear when they learn their wife or husband has cancer. It is
impossible to communicate the degree of sadness to learn about a
mother of three children who when diagnosed with cancer had her
husband walk out on her, leaving the three children with her to attend
to them alone as well. Or, the husband who took the children and left
his wife to fight cancer alone. These kinds of notices that are talked
about in the doctor's office are far too many to be able to
One has difficulty receiving such information. And, every time a new
story would surface about someone being abandoned, the negative
effects were devastating for the other cancer patients. They too felt
the rejection that was being shown to other patients like themselves.
When a cancer patient hears about a wife and her children being
abandoned by her husband and the children's father, that patient takes
it also as a rejection of oneself. The cancer patients are made to
feel as though they are less of a human being, as though something far
more serious is wrong with them than just their illness.
There are too many stories to call to memory over the eighteen years
that Sheryl went to her chemo treatments. All I can recall now is the
pain felt during that time. Receiving the chemo was like a new lease
on life, a little more time had been bought. No one wants to leave
this Earth, at least, no one in their right mind. So, receiving the
chemo was a joy, even during and after all the sometimes nasty
side-effects. And, that was because the chemo made one feel that
something had been accomplished, the disease had been put in its place
for just a little longer, or maybe even in remissions. All kinds of
wishful thinking and ideas run through one's mind. A hope for a
miracle, for something to eliminate the illness.
But, the bad news about spouses, friends and family, relatives
rejecting or abandoning the cancer patient was always devastating. It
often counteracted all the good felt from receiving the chemo
treatments. Because the rejection coming from family and friends,
spouses reminded the cancer patients of their illness. No amount of
chemo and its positive effects cold counter the psychological
devastation from insensitive people who stopped relating to their
cancer-patient friend or relative. The rejection by friends and family
represents a nagging reminder throughout the entire time a cancer
patient receives his or her treatments. The chemo medicine is great,
but it won't bring back all the friendships and relatives lost.
Sheryl and I would always ask one another whether people abandon
cancer patients out of fear of contracting cancer, like some
contagious disease. Or, whether they do it out of laziness, not
wanting to have to contribute anything during a person's fight against
cancer; not wanting to be bothered in having to do something for the
patients. Something like assist in accompanying the cancer patients to
their chemo treatments and sit with them for hours in a room full of
other patients. We figured that this was not the reason, because most
people do not know how the chemo treatments are administered anyway.
For if people did know the situation of chemo treatments in a doctor's
office, they would certainly out of solidarity accompany cancer
patients during their hours-long treatments.
It was difficult to understand how or why people, relatives, friends,
abandon cancer patients. Often times I thought it was out of simple
selfishness; they just did not want to be bothered and wanted to go on
with their lives. Any excuse, as I witnessed, was a good excuse to
talk oneself out of accompanying a cancer patient to their treatments.
Some people would accompany them to the doctor's office, but as soon
as the patient sat down in the big arm chair to get connected to the
IV, they were out of there, gone for the day, until they would come
back and pick them up. At least, that was something. But, one could
always notice the impatience of the person dropping the cancer patient
off at the doctor's office, and the desire to rush out of that room as
quickly as possible. There are too many examples to ponder during
those eighteen years.
Shetyl was always attentive to the needs of other patients in the
room. And, she would quickly assist anyone who seemed nervous or down
or concerned. She would strike up a conversation and offer as much
information and encouragement as possible to others. At times, she
would go into much detail about her own illness or ask detailed
questions about the other person's illness, in an effort to come up
with some idea or solution to being able to get over the hump, the
downside of the illness. She would let people know the ill effects of
a certain chemo cocktail that she had already taken and what they
should look for, and she would tell them how to combat those ill
effects. So many times, I would see the look on a person's face
change, as Sheryl shared her hard-fought information, as that person
would become more relaxed knowing what to expect from the treatments.
Many times it was difficult for me to even listen to the
conversations about the details of their illnesses and the ill effects
that would arise or might arise from the treatments. I marveled at how
strong Sheryl was in being able to talk about her own disease and
comfort others about their disease. She was suffering inside herself,
but she would not show it. She gave tremendous comfort to others,
hiding her own pain, which would surface at times when we got out to
the car after her treatments. Sheryl was a rock to everyone she
touched with her smile and happiness.
Right now, the underlying pain from those eighteen years comes
rushing upon me as I write these words. During that entire period one
looks for the magic bullet to take away all the pain and suffering
One way to help out is to make that billboard statement come true,
"You do not fight cancer alone".