This article is part of the “Caregivers of the Life Raft Group” series. The series focuses on the spouses, children, siblings or friends who walk alongside the patients in sickness and in health.

By Erin Kristoff

 

Leigh Borland was at her lowest point. On November 14, 2005 she had gone into the hospital for a hysterectomy. The doctors thought they had found a mass on her ovaries. What they actually found was a 5-6 cm primary tumor on her colon and two smaller tumors nearby; the pathology report listed it as “unknown malignant potential.” The oncologist decided to send slides out to the Cleveland Clinic and got a GIST confirmation. From that moment on Leigh’s life became more and more confusing. The Chief of Surgery at Good Samaritan Hospital in Illinois approached Leigh and told her that she needed a second opinion; he explained he knew little of GIST. That night the gynecologist she had been seeing called to tell her not to worry, that she was fine and the tumor was “benign.” In mid-December she finally had an appointment with an oncologist who came highly recommended. Leigh thought that he would know exactly what was going on and that he had been researching GIST this whole time. When she began speaking to him she knew he hadn’t looked at her file. He told her she looked fine and to return in six months for a CT scan; he didn’t know she had not had an initial scan yet. Leigh left the office feeling disheartened and alone, she decided to call her sister, Pam Broadus.

“When she told me what had happened she said, ‘We’ve got to figure out what to do.’” Even though the sisters lived miles away from each other (Pam lives in Virginia while Leigh lives in Illinois), they were partners in this ordeal, and spoke daily. Pam picked up the phone and started making phone calls for her. “We sort of teamed up together to figure out what to do, it’s been she and I together.”

Pam called Memorial Sloan-Kettering and was referred to Dr. Evens of Northwestern University. She flew out for the first appointment without hesitation. “The first thing [Leigh] said was, ‘Do I have cancer?’ he said ‘Yes, you do’ and we went from there. From the minute we got there we thought, ‘This is so great’, it’s just night and day from the terrible experience she had had before. When you’re in good hands you can just breathe a little bit.”

Pam is mindful of the twists and turns this GIST path has taken, “It’s kind of like a roller coaster, when she was at a low point I kicked in.”

One support system for the ladies came when a high school friend of Leigh’s told her about her mother being misdiagnosed with GIST, though it could offer no information for her mother, she told Leigh about the Life Raft Group. Leigh wasn’t ready for that yet so Pam took the reins, “I decided to be her information line, her conduit to everything.”

Besides her family (which includes her husband Barry; son Matthew, 9; daughter Allison, 15 and older daughter Emily, 19) and the LRG, Pam finds additional support at her church, where she is the church secretary.

She also finds enjoyment in reading and spending time with friends. But mostly Pam enjoys spending her time with her kids and talking to her sister, “She’s wonderful and like a best friend to me.”

She admits that there are times that are difficult, but on one occasion, when she was feeling really down, her pastor told her, “Don’t borrow trouble from tomorrow because today has enough of its own.”

“I repeat that to myself whenever I feel overwhelmed. I focus on each day and what I can do that day for her.”

Pam is careful in remembering the pastor’s words, “I found it important to focus on the present. I really don’t worry about 5 or 10 years from now. I just decided that I was not going to entertain terrible thoughts, I would literally take it each day and I was able to do that, but it’s hard to do.”

Despite this steadfast mantra, “living in the now” is not the only way Pam faces her challenges, “Laughter is what really get us through, my mother, my sister and I laugh all the time, we try to find the humor in everything.”

All in all, Pam is optimistic for the future. “I just think that every family and every person is going to have something they have to face, some worse than others, and through our loved ones and organizations like LRG is how we get through it. One thing that amazed me is the connections and the support. It really helps me to see the connection between all of this and how people really pull together—when you do it you can get through it, it makes it bearable.”