New Castle News

November 22, 2012

Giving Thanks: Reflecting on cancer battle, Jackie and Harold Taylor count their blessings

Kayleen Cubbal
New Castle News

NEW CASTLE — Harold and Jackie Taylor were a bundle of nerves.

A nurse practitioner had just met with the Shenango Township couple in the Hermitage UPMC WomanCare office of ovarian oncologist Dr. Robert Edwards. After examining Jackie, she said, “well, if you don’t have any questions, we’ll see you in three months.”

Harold and Jackie stared at the nurse practitioner, then at each other. Finally Jackie broke the silence.

“Three months?” she said. “You don’t need to see me for three months?”

The nurse practitioner smiled and said, “Maybe I better get the doctor.”

Jackie was expecting to receive details during last week’s visit on a proposed second surgery that might buy her some more time in her battle against fallopian tube cancer. What she got instead left the husband and wife of 21 years speechless.

“Surgery is not needed,” Edwards told the stunned Taylors, “because there is nothing left to pluck.

“Enjoy your good health,” he said as he left the room.

And with that, Harold and Jackie Taylor simultaneously laughed and cried at the miracle they had just been given.



THE BEGINNING

It was Christmas Eve 2011, and Harold and Jackie were hosting a family gathering.

“It was the first time that we had the entire family together in a long time — we were so happy to be able to do it,” 46-year-old Jackie said. “We were opening gifts and all of a sudden, I felt like something exploded in my lower left abdomen. The pain was so intense, I yelled out loud.

“But as soon as it came, it went,” she added. “And I pretty much forgot about it.”

Later in the winter, her stomach felt sore and in March, she was lying on her bed when she felt a hard spot in her stomach.

The 1984 Laurel High graduate immediately contacted her OB/GYN, Dr. Joseph Ciocca of Ellwood City. When a March 29 ultrasound showed nothing conclusive, Ciocca ordered a CAT scan, which was done April 6. Three days later, she found herself sitting in the office of ovarian oncologist Dr. Scott Richard, then of UPMC-Passavant.

“Dr. Richard said, ‘I’m not telling you that you have cancer, but something is going on here and we have to find out what it is.’ ”

Richard recommended exploratory surgery to examine a fist-sized cyst attached to Jackie’s ovaries.

“They had to see if they could get to it and if so if it could be removed,” Jackie said. “But I was told that if it proved to be cancerous, they would just go ahead and do a total hysterectomy while they were in there.”

Jackie said that her first reaction when she woke up in the recovery room at Passavant after the May 3 surgery was to grab at her stomach.

“I could tell it was bad just from what I felt,” she said. “I knew they did the hysterectomy, but they didn’t get the tumor out.”

Pathology tests, which included testing of two lymph nodes that were removed during the surgery, confirmed what Richard had suspected. A cancerous tumor had metastasized to Jackie’s left peritoneum — the membrane that lines the stomach — and was compromising her organs.

The diagnosis was Stage 4 fallopian tube cancer.



HERALDING HAROLD

Through it all, 51-year-old Harold, an assistant football coach at his Shenango High alma mater for the past 27 years, was a rock for his wife — with one exception.

“I guess I never thought that the news would be bad,” the soft-spoken Harold said. “It never entered my mind. I was calm as anything in the waiting room, in fact I almost dozed off.

“Our pastor and his wife (Bill and Sherry Whisel of New Hope Family Worship Center in Union Township) were there with me and when I was told that the doctor wanted to talk to me after the surgery was over, they asked if I wanted them to go in with me and I said, ‘no, I’ll be fine, I’m not worried.’

“I walked in, sat down and Dr. Richard immediately dropped the cancer word on me,” Harold said. “And I pretty much lost my mind.”

As soon as the initial shock wore off for Harold, he went into proactive mode.

“OK, she has cancer,” Harold remembers telling the doctor after gathering himself. “What do we do to now? I’m ready to fight.”

If Harold was calm, Jackie was even calmer.

“I put it in God’s hands,” she said. “I had such a peace about me, it is hard to describe. I know that Stage 4 cancer of any kind is often considered a death sentence, but even in my worst moments, I somehow felt that everything was going to be OK in the end.”

Jackie was sent home to heal and on May 18, Harold and Jackie got the full diagnosis in a follow-up visit.

Chemotherapy might slow the process, but at best, Jackie was told she had a life expectancy of about six years. Jackie faced six rounds of chemotherapy — three weeks apart, 6 to 8 hours per treatment —  and was warned the experience would not be a pleasant one.

Although they had limited the information with their children — Ethan, 15, and Isaiah, 14, ninth- and eighth-graders, respectively, in the Shenango school district — Harold and Jackie knew the time had come to level with them.

“I was scared,” Isaiah admitted as he cuddled with Jackie on a living room couch. “I didn’t want to lose my mom.”

Jackie was able to undergo her chemotherapy at UPMC CancerCenter in New Castle, overseen by oncologist Dr. William Spielvogle. She was told before beginning her treatments on June 4 that she would lose her full head of curly hair and likely develop neuropathy, leading to permanent nerve damage.

Although the outlook was relatively grim, Jackie said she felt she had a leg up on cancer.

“First off, I knew I had a great support system,” she said. “I had my church, my family, my friends and my neighbors. So I knew I didn’t have to make this journey alone.”

Jackie said her incredible faith was the source of her greatest comfort.

“God gives you the faith of a mustard seed and you have to cultivate that,” she said. “I had always wanted to embrace my faith even more and this was my chance. I knew that God had his hand on my shoulder.”



LIVING THEIR LIVES

Although she had to take a leave of absence from her jobs in the cafeteria at George Washington Intermediate Elementary School and the GAP Outlet in Grove City, Jackie forged ahead for as long as she could, cooking, cleaning and shuttling the boys to their various school activities.

“We decided to live our lives in as normal a way as possible,” Harold said. “When she needed to sit down, she sat down. We decided not to let cancer defeat us.”

Ethan and Isaiah, who share Harold’s and Jackie’s outgoing, fun-loving personalities, rallied around their mom, as did Lacey, the family’s 9-year-old collie mix.

“For months before I was diagnosed, Lacey would not leave my side,” Jackie said as the dog nuzzled her way in for some attention. “She would sit by me and cry and she had never done that before. We actually put her on doggie Prozac, thinking she had an anxiety disorder.

“It turned out that Lacey knew something was wrong before any of the rest of us did.”

Jackie lost all of the hair on her body after her second chemotherapy treatment and hit her lowest point between her fourth and fifth. Her blood counts dropped dangerously and at one point, she passed out at home.



THE SUPPORT SYSTEM

While Jackie was fighting the greatest battle of her life, people by the hundreds were rallying around the Taylor family.

Her best friend of 20 years, Bobbi Tillia, led the charge, setting up a “Prayer Warriors” page on Facebook, where friends, family and people the Taylors never had heard of — some from as far away as Australia, Canada, Germany and the Philippines — joined in to offer prayers and support.

“When I lost my hair one day in the shower, I called Bobbi and said, ‘I forgot to buy a bandana, do you have a bandana I can wear?’ ”

Within hours, Bobbi dropped off boxes containing dozens of brand-new bandanas and scarves.

Another longtime friend, Lorri Smiley, joined forces with takethemameal.com, which provided a stream of hot dinners to the Taylor family for the duration of Jackie’s treatment.

Ethan and Isaiah gave a big thumbs-up to the meals, voting Debbie Peters Tanner’s roast beef and mashed potatoes as the best.

Still another close friend, Robin Session-Cain, helped with rides to and from chemo, as did Jackie’s sister, Carrie Solomon.

“Mostly these people were there for me,” Jackie said. “Your realize in times like these who your true friends really are.”

“The response was overwhelming and humbling,” said Harold, wiping tears from his eyes. “People would anticipate our needs and be there before we even asked. I’d go to a meeting or to pick something up somewhere and someone would stop me and hand me money and say, ‘Here, take this. Get some food for your family. Buy your wife something to make her feel better.’

“People stepped way out of their comfort zone to help us.”



MAKING PROGRESS

Despite her positive attitude, the treatments wore Jackie out and she spent weeks on the couch of her Grigsby Street home.

“I couldn’t even go upstairs to say goodnight to the boys,” she said. “My spirit was there, but my energy was gone.”

She lost her appetite and 30 pounds in the process, but one craving remained.

“I wanted sauce,” she said. “Every day, I felt like the only thing I wanted was a big bowl of sauce. It just tasted really good to me for some reason. One day when I was at my lowest, sitting at home all alone, my neighbor stopped over and said ‘what can I get you?’ and I started to cry and said, ‘I want sauce, I just want a bowl of sauce.

“She said, ‘oh, good, because I have a big pot on my stove that I just made,’ and she ran over and brought me back spaghetti and a meatball and lots of sauce. It was the best sauce that I ever had.’

“It was a little thing, but it just meant so much to me at that moment.”

As badly as Jackie felt during the late-summer months, good things actually were starting to happen.

She was told that all-important tumor markers in her blood would monitor her progress.

“They started out at 483 when I was diagnosed and they needed to be less than 21,” she said. “We were told that they probably wouldn’t come down all that quickly, but as long as they were coming down, not going up, the chemo was working.”

Jackie’s tumor markers made an incredible drop to 269 following her first chemo treatment in June. After her second treatment, they were 94.2.

Shortly after her chemo ended Sept. 25, her tumor markers were 23.



RELIEVING A BURDEN

Jackie’s illness took a financial toll on the family as the months progressed. While his wife was unable to work, Harold took some time off from his job as a utility worker at Pennsylvania American Water Co. to get her through the roughest days.

“We did not have any savings, but the bills kept coming in,” Jackie said. “Insurance covered a good portion of my hospital, doctor and prescription bills, but month after month, there were a lot more bills than there was money.

“I know Harold was intercepting the mail so I couldn’t see what we were up against,” she added.

“Yeah, I tried to shield her as much as possible,” Harold said. “She had enough to worry about. I had to be strong for her. There were days when I cried like a 10-year-old girl, but she never saw me do it. When you’re done crying, what do you do? You pick yourself up and turn to your faith. Our faith has been the basis of our sanity.”

It was during their time of need, as the Taylors learned, that they reaped what they had sown as good neighbors and friends for so many in the past. Jackie’s GAP co-workers treated her to a shopping spree to buy some new clothes. And nearly every day, the mail brought cards and donations that lifted the Taylors’ spirits and lightened their load.

“Every time I was sure that we were at rock-bottom, that we weren’t going to be able to pay a utility bill, or get the medicine we needed, a card would come in the mail with a check inside,” Harold said. “Sometimes we’d open an envelope and find cash inside with no name. When we had a need, somehow it would be met.

“Anyone who says that there is so much bad in New Castle needed to spend time in our home over the past couple of months. “We were blessed by the amazing, kind-hearted people in this town.”



THE ROAD AHEAD

Several benefits that have been held in Jackie’s honor also have helped with the bills. New Hope Family Worship Center raised money for the family and Tillia, Session-Cain and Solomon led a group of friends who organized a pasta dinner benefit, which drew more than 500 people to Third Presbyterian Church. A bake sale was held and Shenango High’s Peer Leadership group sold wristbands in support of Jackie. The Shenango Football Boosters are hosting a flag football tournament Saturday, with half of the proceeds going to the Taylor family.

Although Jackie is not officially cancer-free — she will undergo monthly blood tests and see her doctor every three months for the time being — her long-term prognosis is good. She has learned to eat healthy foods and now follows a vegetarian, borderline vegan, diet. The peach fuzz on her formerly bald head grows a little longer every day, and she has returned to work at George Washington.

Harold and the children — and Lacey the dog — are thrilled that Jackie likely will be around for a long, long time.

“You could tell the doctor was pretty amazed,” Jackie said. “I think a higher power than a doctor had a hand in this.”

For now, Harold and Jackie wake up each day with a new outlook.

“Out of something really bad, a lifetime of good has come,” Harold said. “I will always be grateful to God for this second chance our family has been given.”

(Email: kcubbal @ncnewsonline.com)