Virginia Beach spent four years researching and writing hundreds of pages of family history.
She began her memoirs with her ancestors’ voyage to America on the Mayflower in 1620, and then across generations, including the birth of her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. Her move into hospice care in 2014 because of a malignant pleural mesothelioma diagnosis is also part of the tale.
But her story doesn’t end there because mesothelioma did not win.
Beach, 88, recovered from the cancer miraculously, left hospice care and returned to independent living at the Presbyterian Retirement Community near Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Now she is eagerly awaiting the birth of three more great grandchildren to add to her chronicles and her growing correspondence list.
Last month, she passed the 10-year survival mark for a patient with malignant pleural mesothelioma — a rare moment — stunning doctors with her ability to fight off this incurable cancer.
She also returned to the church choir and her job as a librarian at the retirement community.
“My oncologist doesn’t say it’s in remission. He says it’s in control,” Beach said recently from her home. “I’ve been very fortunate. When I was originally diagnosed, they gave me a year and a half to live. That was 10 years ago. Then last year, they said it was time for hospice. The tumors had doubled in size, but after six months, I graduated out.”
Beach is a pastor’s daughter and widowed wife of a pastor. She believes strongly in the power of prayer. Her faith never wavers. Each day starts and ends with a Bible passage. She gives thanks to God.
She mentions mesothelioma only once in her 250-page autobiography. And it’s only in passing — nothing more.
“I live with a lot of elderly people here. Everyone suffers from one thing or another. I just don’t like to hear sad stories. I’m not going to be one,” she said. “It’s not a huge part of my life right now, so I don’t talk about it. It’s not how I want my grandchildren to remember me. I’m an optimistic person who looks at the bright side.”
When Virginia was first diagnosed, they put her name in the church bulletin so that everyone could pray for her and the other cancer patients. As much as she appreciated the prayers, she asked church members to remove her name. She believed God would handle it just fine. And he has.
Her father may have died at age 54 from lung cancer, which doctors originally thought she had. But her mother lived to be 104 and gave speeches in her community throughout her 90s.
Virginia inherited her mother’s strong genes.
She had fought off malignant melanoma cancer in the late 1990s. Her husband, Roger, suffered through dementia in the final years of his life and died in 2009, leaving her with the fondest of memories.
But there is a clarity, purpose and sharpness to her today that defies her age.
Beach has 20 grandchildren and 13 great grandchildren between her five daughters who are spread across the country in Oregon, New York and Ohio. Some of her grandchildren live as far away as Japan, Thailand and Colombia.
One son-in-law became a minister. One grandson is overseas on a church mission.
She keeps a spreadsheet with everyone’s birth dates, wedding anniversaries and addresses. Every year, she sends each family member Christmas and birthday cards with personalized, handwritten notes.
“It’s a wonderful family,” she said. “I’ve been blessed.”
Beach underwent eight rounds of chemotherapy shortly after she was diagnosed a decade ago, and doctors were pleased with the results. Since then, she opted against undergoing any other aggressive treatment.
But last summer, she became frightened by a sudden shortness of breath, prompting her oncologist to recommend hospice and palliative care.
A nurse and a social worker started visiting her regularly. Her primary care physician also continued to stop by. Even the local chaplain started making house calls. But her health improved, and she waved off much of the help they were offering.
“After a while, the doctor told me my lungs were clear. I didn’t need them to do much, but the nurse did help me understand my iPad, and how to use it better,” she laughed. “That was a big help to me.”
Beach remains active today and takes classes on balance five days a week at a wellness center. She traveled to Oxford, Ohio, earlier this summer for a grandson’s wedding and visited Portland the previous summer.
She uses her iPad to send emails to her daughters, grandchildren and great grandchildren. The organizational skills she learned throughout the years as a librarian are evident today in her writing.
Family members help format, edit and create graphics for her memoirs, but Beach maintains full control, amending her story each time another event takes place in her life.
Despite her mesothelioma, Beach has accomplished much in her life, and that’s why she has aptly titled her memoirs “Journey to Joy.”