Raeleen’s Facebook page sums up the mesothelioma survivor’s courage and chutzpah: Team KickAss Raeleen’s Journey.
The 37-year-old from Yorkton in Saskatchewan, Canada, turned a stunning and tragic diagnosis of peritoneal mesothelioma and a host of serious complications into a lesson of strength and love that may conquer all.
“I was always the tough one in the family growing up,” Raeleen told Asbestos.com. “When my dad first heard the diagnosis, it just broke his heart. But he knows what a fighter I am. He told me, ‘You are your father’s daughter. You’re Ukrainian, so kick this cancer’s ass.’ ”
The name was born. The wagons circled. The battle began.
Surrounded by five siblings, her father, her own young children, her new husband, two in-laws, a mother-like aunt, many fiercely loyal friends and a God she holds dear, Raeleen pulled herself off the mat and punched mesothelioma in the face.
Asbestos.com is withholding her last name for privacy purposes.
“You can die from this cancer, or you can live with it,” she said. “My oncologist told me up front that I was going to die rather quickly. But I decided I wasn’t going to die. Not right now. I got past the anger-giving-up-depression stage. I’ve been a fighter since I came out of the womb, and that’s not stopping now.”
Her nightmare began last September with a ruptured ovarian cyst.
Back-to-back surgeries changed the diagnosis to ovarian cancer. Doctors stapled her intestines and repaired a hernia. Mistakes were made.
By mid-October, more experienced eyes and hands revealed stage III peritoneal mesothelioma, which already had spread throughout the abdominal cavity.
“I was pretty much told to just get my affairs in order. We were all stunned. Even the doctors and nurses said they never had seen this in a woman so young,” she said. “It was unbelievable at first. They basically gave me no hope.”
Then she started asking questions, challenging doctors, probing and prodding the Canadian health care system. She demanded answers and action. She took charge of her care.
Much like she has been throughout her life, she was blunt, brutally honest, often irreverent, and held back nothing.
Raeleen traveled 600 miles to the Tom Baker Cancer Centre in Calgary and sought help from surgical oncologist and mesothelioma specialist Dr. Walley Temple.
She says he saved her life.
Five months after Raeleen’s first two surgeries, Temple performed an extensive cytoreductive surgery that lasted more than 10 hours.
She also received a Heated Intraperitoneal Chemotherapy procedure, or HIPEC, which continued for five days.
Temple removed her gall bladder, appendix, ovaries, uterus, colon, diaphragm, 19 feet of small bowel, part of her liver and stomach lining, half of her bladder, and 31 feet of her intestinal tract to eliminate as much of the cancer as possible.
Although considerably lighter now, she remained straightforward and determined as ever.
“It was like 15 surgeries in one,” she said. “They opened me from breast bone to pelvic bone. I heard it was the biggest surgery they had ever done. But the scar is healing beautifully now.”
Four months after that life-changing and life-saving surgery, she posed in a bikini and posted the photo on her Facebook page.
She has spent much of the past four months in different hospitals, dealing with multiple complications but still showing no sign of new tumor growth for now.
In the midst of it all, between the diagnosis in October 2014 and surgery in February, she also found time to plan her wedding. She married the love of her life, Justin. He had proposed last August.
They had been in love long before that, but they had drifted apart and married others, only to reconnect 14 years later after both their divorces.
“It was wonderful. I got to experience my first love twice,” she said. “The wedding was great, something I’ll never forget. It was a day, not about cancer, but a day about love. He never wavered. He has stuck with me through the good, the bad and the ugly. At times, he’s been my punching bag, but it made me realize that cancer affects everyone around you. It’s important to pay attention to your caregiver, and take care of him, too. It’s not just about you as a patient.”
Raeleen is optimistic and surprisingly energetic today, determined to regain her once vibrant life. She returned home recently with her own intravenous feeding machine, something she will need for many months and possibly the rest of her life because of her intestinal rebuild.
Doctors are surprised at her resiliency: Recovering from each setback and complication, setting new goals and new challenges each time.
“I’m a problem solver, a multitasker. I planned a wedding in the midst of being really sick from the chemotherapy,” she said. “And my family means everything to me. I wouldn’t have reached this point without them. And I won’t let them down now.”
She was athletic and scholarly in her younger years, playing volleyball and basketball, running track, learning karate, moving from one season to another without slowing.
As a single mother, she earned a college business degree and graduated with honors. She has a history of beating the odds.
Her sons are 11 and 15 now. Her stepdaughters are 6 and 7. She wants to be home with all of them. She wants to watch them graduate from college one day. She wants to fish with her father again, return the loyalty her new husband showed and thank the surgeon who saved her. There is so much on her to-do list.
Too many friends and family have driven too far and spent too many nights in unfamiliar motel rooms to be close to her during treatments at various hospitals for her to stop now.
This will be a fight for all of them.
“The thought of my children without a mom scares me now,” Raeleen said. “And there are so many places I haven’t been, things I haven’t seen yet. I hope to get my health in order again, to thank everyone who prayed for me. I’m not about to give up this fight. People who know me know that by now.”