Winter Park / Fundraiser: Woman faces fifth bout with cancer
February 18, 2008
Stephanie Sedlar walks into Carver’s Bakery Cafe in Winter Park, takes off her puffy green coat and casts a weary yet pleasant smile my way.
“Today is doctor day. It’s not a good day,” she said.
When I arranged this interview ” with a woman I knew was just diagnosed with cancer for the fifth time ” I expected to see someone who looked defeated, struggling, sick.
That’s was not who I saw.
Her brown hair was pulled back, wisps of hair framed her young face, and underneath her coat she wore a pretty white cotton blouse that had a Caribbean flare. When the waitress ” a friend of Stephanie’s ” took our order, Stephanie asked for French toast-style cinnamon rolls and bacon, with a Latte.
For someone with cancer, Stephanie appeared to be ready to take on the world.
“In my situation, you can’t take it seriously,” she said, as if reading my thoughts. “It’s serious. I know. But the flu can kill you, too. You just take your medications, do what you have to do and keep going.”
Stephanie has quite a history ” she is writing a book about her life.
She said good-bye to the corporate world in 1997 and moved to the Fraser Valley from Atlanta with her now ex-husband, Seth. She mountain biked, “played,” with all the eagerness of a newcomer to the Valley, until one day she started experiencing some pneumonia-like symptoms, like fever.
When Stephanie went to a hospital in Denver, the doctors told her she had a tumor across the left side of her chest cavity, she said. The tumor pressed on her lung. She had trouble breathing, but had always attributed it to the altitude, she said. She was diagnosed with Lymphoblastic Lymphoma, she said ” a cancer that essentially attacks the body’s way of fighting off infection.
“I did two years of chemotherapy. It worked really well,” Stephanie said, thoughtfully sipping her Latte. “But after the first year of chemo, I needed a wheelchair. Seth had to help me get from the bedroom to the sofa.”
That first diagnosis marked the beginning of a downhill spiral that would shape the next 10 years of Stephanie’s life. Toward the end of her treatment, she began physical therapy at Alpine Physical Therapy in Fraser to essentially “learn how to walk again,” she said.
After a couple months, she signed up to do a women’s triathlon in Denver to keep her mind focused.
“I was getting irritated with myself. My body wouldn’t let me do the things I wanted to do. I thought, I need to do something.” Two physical therapists helped train with Stephanie, and she managed to complete the triathlon and accomplish her goal.
But two years later, she was back in the hospital. She and Seth had just opened a book store and bagel shop inside the Fraser Shopping Center.
“I went for a check-up, and they found a new tumor in my chest.”
Stephanie underwent surgery, and received six to seven months of chemotherapy and radiation treatment, she said.
Despite the odds, Stephanie became pregnant in 2003 ” 14 months after receiving treatments. She wanted a child, and despite what doctors told her ” that becoming pregnant after two rounds of chemotherapy and treatment was unlikely ” Stephanie gave birth to a healthy baby boy on Dec. 10, 2003. Logan, now 4 years old, was born five weeks early, weighed 6 pounds, 2 ounces, and was 18 inches long.
“He’s my miracle baby,” she said, smiling.
Stephanie did “the baby thing” for a year, she said, stayed at home and played with her son. It was perfect, until something “felt wrong” again around Thanksgiving. She forewent her scheduled doctor’s appointment, however, so that she could enjoy her son’s first birthday and Christmas. A check up in January told her she had another tumor in her chest, she said.
“I lived in a hotel for four months in Denver with my mom, doing chemotherapy. Seth’s mom came to care for Logan,” Stephanie said, her face grim. “That time was hard.”
Seth and Stephanie were forced to close the bagel and bookstore in ’05, she said. They divorced at some point, and Stephanie would be diagnosed with tumors two more times.
By her fourth treatment, Stephanie’s doctors said they had done all they could, she said, so she found an experimental treatment center through her uncle ” and a doctor named Dr. Patrick Loehrer at the Indiana University Cancer Center. Stephanie received chemotherapy there three days a week while she worked part-time in Fraser, but although her flights to Indianapolis were paid for, she has maxed out two lifetime insurance policies and is working through her third.
The week before her last chemo treatment, her heart hurt, Stephanie said. Her aorta had “collapsed from the chemotherapy.”
She skipped her last chemo session, she said, and lived her life “day to day.”
“If I wasn’t sleeping, I was drinking, because I couldn’t deal with it,” she said.
Stephanie was still eating her second cinnamon roll when she talked of her latest diagnosis: Two tumors in her chest, she said. She is currently working at Prudential “as many hours as I can,” and sees her son once a week.
“My body is too tired to do this again,” she said of another treatment. “I’m feeling very tired. I sleep more than I’m awake. I take care of my son one night a week and afterwards, I’m exhausted ” it takes me two days to recover.”
Stephanie talks of the fundraiser her friends are putting together to help her pay her medical bills. It isn’t easy to ask for help, she admits.
After breakfast she plans to drive to Denver with a friend for another doctor’s visit, where she’ll find out what type of treatment schedule she’ll need for the two tumors, what drugs she’ll have to take, and what the odds are. The odds aren’t entirely in her favor, she pointed out.
“There’s two this time, and they’re both pressing on my heart. So I’ll have a cardiologist monitoring me during chemo to make sure my heart doesn’t give out,” she said. “This one’s not easy.”
Stephanie almost finishes her second cinnamon roll, but can’t; she’s too full, she declares, and finishes the last few sips of her Latte. I finished my eggs and potatoes a while ago, and am trying to hold back on my fifth cup of coffee. Knowing the interview is slowly coming to an end, she ponders.
“I have to end this with something positive,” she said.
She’s writing a book, and hopes it will help others learn from her experience, she said. There’s are a lot of resources out there, and she wants people to know about them.
She pauses again, and the possibility of her death becomes this thought bubble hanging over us ” a bubble that could burst any second and become a harsh reality.
For Stephanie, death is already a reality; five chemotherapy treatments isn’t good, no matter how you look at it.
Still, she isn’t “done yet,” is how she puts it.
“I have too much to offer to have this be it. I haven’t done my big thing yet; I know there’s more. So, as long as I have that teeny bit of hope …
“That’s what keeps me going,” she said, smiling. “That and my son.”
” To reach Stephanie Miller, call (970) 887-3334, ext. 19601 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.