“I get tired of articles sugar-coating the truth. The truth is it’s scary. It’s terrifying. It’s a long, lonely journey.”
Tina Huffine has beaten cancer twice already.
For her, cancer means mouth sores so bad you can’t eat. Burning skin, vomiting, insomnia. Memory loss. No appetite. Bone pain and “chemo brain”—when chemotherapy affects your ability to speak and think. “I get words stuck in my head and can’t get them to come out my mouth. You can’t communicate your thoughts.”
It’s also a chance for her to pay it forward, to raise money for research, to help others. “It’s so important to not walk away from someone who has cancer. It’s so important to know that you’re still important.”
Huffine, who resides in Hobart, was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma for the first time in June 2000. She went into remission in February 2001. Then, in September 2008, she went alone to the doctor for the results to her yearly tests.
“It had been a little over seven years since my last journey with cancer and I felt fine,” she says. “But as soon as I sat down in the patient room to wait for the doctor, it hit me. The minute the doctor walked through the door I looked at her and said, ‘It’s back, isn’t it?’”
Stunned, numb, Tina listened as the doctor told her that the cancer was not just in her bone marrow, but in every lymph node from her chin to her waist and especially around her liver. The early diagnosis likely saved her life, and Tina went into her second remission on April 3, 2009.
But non-Hodgkins isn’t curable. “You’re always looking over your shoulder for it to reappear,” she says. Just days before sharing her story she finds two large, inflamed lymph nodes. “Inside, I know it has returned for a third time,” she says before her scheduled appointment. “Of course we will need to run tests, but a cancer patient knows. And, I know.”
Two days later she receives her test results. The cancer is back, for the third time.
“It’s back. It’s back and there’s nothing I can do about it but fight.” Her voice shakes over the phone. It has only been three hours since she found out. She spent the time telling her friends and loved ones. “They’re scared, but they’re ready to help me fight.”
Tina doesn’t have biological children, but she does count many as “her kids.” She tells people her family is her partner, her sister and seventeen kids. “Their eyes bug out!”
“It’s tough for them, too. It’s as hard if not harder on the caregivers and the people around us.”
Tina’s specialist, Dr. Cheryl Morgan-Ihrig, vice president of Cancer Health Treatment Centers in Munster, says this time the cancer is currently only visible in some neck nodes on the right side. “She’s a fighter. She tends to be relatively direct and matter-of-fact, which helps, I think.”
Before learning the harsh news, Tina was realistic about her chances. “If I’m headed for a third journey, it will be very, very difficult. It came back so fast!”
“We just have to take it one day at a time,” Dr. Morgan-Ihrig says. “Obviously research is important—new things are found and we do what we can, when we can.”
Tina is always trying to raise money for research and awareness. “Cancer will affect everyone in some way, one way or another, whether directly or someone you know.”
She has been involved in Relay for Life and Chemo Angels since her first remission in 2001. She thinks of it as paying it forward—“I know, first hand, that having people around you to support you does make a difference.”
Both times she was diagnosed with cancer Tina had friends walk away from her. “It hurts. Some people can’t handle it—people don’t seem to want to touch a cancer patient if they look sick.”
The first time she lost her hair one of her kids didn’t want to hug her. They were afraid they might catch it. The second time she had a hair-cutting party with two of her kids, aged four and six. “We ordered pizza; I explained to them what was going to happen and gave each of them a swipe at my hair with the dog cutters.” This time her kids weren’t afraid.
“It means the world to me—even when I’m worn out, can’t get out of bed, puking my guts out and not feeling good at all—to know that someone has called, or sent a card, or visited me during chemo. It lets you know you aren’t forgotten.”
No matter how bad she feels, she will always smile. “This journey, it’s not for nothing. You are someone. You are important.”