Within a short period of time, Darlene Benson lost her dog, brother-in-law, and some of her best friends. But, at the same time, she conquered cancer. She says that if she can face that, she can face anything.
On October 9, 2019, I was on my way to church when I noticed that a small sore on the back of my neck was bothering me again. My necklace was rubbing the sore, and it was hurting. Since the hospital was just down the street from the church, I decided to first visit the emergency room to possibly obtain some pain medication.
The ER personnel checked me in. As I realized I would obviously be there for a while, I called one of my sons and he came to visit me. He is an X-ray specialist, and agreed it was a good idea to get the sore checked out. When the doctor lanced the big, deep sore, the substance that oozed out looked like rotting cheese. The doctor then felt a couple more lumps around my neck and throat and suggested an immediate biopsy.
On December 12th of that year, my brother-in-law died in Texas. I did not feel up to going there to be with my sister, Joy, but my children insisted I should do so. It was cold and rainy when I arrived at her home in Odessa, Texas. After the funeral, Joy wanted to come with me to California, so her son drove us here. She stayed a week with me, then they returned to Texas. Meanwhile, I received a letter from Quest Diagnostics that notified me I had an infection in my blood and needed to talk about it with my doctor.
The Saturday after my sister left, I felt a pain in my right side. It was so bad that I went to the ER and spent all morning there. They ran all kinds of tests and despite the fact the doctor even checked for a blood clot in my lungs, they could not determine the cause of my pain. Despite the pain, the doctor sent me home. It was hard for me to believe that all this pain could not have an obvious cause.
Meanwhile, my family doctor had gotten the results of my earlier blood test, and her call came as a huge shock. “Darlene, you have cancer. But don’t worry, it’s curable.” She told me it was follicular lymphoma, stage 4, and is caused when tumors develop from the lymphocytes. She said it had also been the cause of my recent pain, and recommended that I visit Dr. Todd Yates, whom she said was the best cancer doctor in Ventura County.
I think I was still in shock when I went to see him. I was 82 years old and had cancer; it didn’t look good. Well, Dr. Yates told me I would need to undergo six treatments, six times every four weeks. Each treatment would take six hours one day and another hour the next, as they could not mix the second day’s meds with the previous days. Then they started the chemo treatments with bendamustine and Rituxan (rituximab).
It takes a team to help you get through chemo treatments, and I will say I had a wonderful team. My team included Dr. Yates, my sons, the nurses in the chemo room, and my church friends. My treatments started in February of 2020 … then my little dog died. I’d had her 13 years, and my lungs were so full of cancer I couldn’t even cry. Fortunately, my first two chemo treatments were a snap, and I thought, “I can handle this!”
However, after these treatments I soon discovered that I could not swallow water. My lungs were so full of the cancer that, when I drank water, I felt like I was drowning. The nurse had told me to drink a lot of water before I left from my chemo treatment. I called the doctor, and he told me that it sounded like I was retaining water, so just take sips. As a result, the next treatment was not as bad; I could drink all the water I wanted.
Each chemo treatment began on the first Tuesday of the month. I would go in for six hours, and then one hour on Wednesday. On Thursday I would feel pretty good, but then on Friday, Saturday and Sunday I would be sick with nausea and running to the bathroom. As the months went by, the nausea would last longer, and when my white blood cell count fell, I would feel even worse.
Then, I heard that my friend Edith was sick. I called her home to see how she was doing, and she told me that an ambulance had arrived to take her to the hospital. Unfortunately, she died the next day. I wept over her. I had known her 50 years but could not attend her funeral because this was during one of the weeks when I was so sick. This made my week even worse.
The nurses made me comfortable, and I began to sleep through most of my treatments. I began crocheting a bedspread for my son while hooked up to various tubes and wires. One day when I was working on a section, my arm action kept setting off the alarm on my IV monitor so that didn’t work. My son gave me a small CD player, on which I was able to listen to music and my preacher’s sermons.
After the first chemotherapy session, my white blood cell count was getting low. It went from a count of four, all the way down to one. I asked Google, “What can I eat to bring my white blood cell count up?” The answer was ginger, turmeric, spinach, broccoli, almonds, yogurt, and any citrus fruits. I made ginger snap cookies and started putting ginger in my tea.
When my white blood cell count spiraled down to one, I had to delay my next chemo treatment. This was on a Tuesday. That Friday I went in at noon for another blood test and was astounded to hear that my count was now up to four! How could that be? I had been eating the various foods that were supposed to raise my count, but I had never previously seen it come up so fast.
But still, my reaction to the treatment was powerful. The nausea began to set in. Everything tasted like cardboard, so I would not eat. I suffered from powerful diarrhea. The mood swings were worsening. I would cry, become depressed, would think God had forgotten me. “God, why are you allowing me to feel this bad? You could heal me … so do it!” I would even yell at God, saying, “Here I am, where are you? I need help! Have you forsaken me?” Yet during these days I would always get a card from someone at the church, telling me God still loves me, and had not forsaken me. Those cards were a real blessing to me.
The doctor told me it would now be a bad idea to go to church — or anywhere else — because my white blood cell count was so low. He told me I needed to stay home, as he did not want me to get sick. With my immune system so low, if I did get sick, they might not be able to help me. I decided to stay home.
I was very sick following my fourth treatment and had no energy because my white blood cell count was so low. At that point I decided that I was not going to finish my treatments. However, when it came time for the next session, I was feeling better, took it, but decided not to do anymore.
Now I had only one more treatment to go, and I didn’t want to go through that again, but thought to myself, “This is my last one. I should finish what I started.” Reluctantly I took my last treatment and am now glad that I did.
A year has now passed. I completed the treatments and the doctor tells me I am cancer free. I do have chemo brain, though, and can’t remember things. In fact, I sometimes forget my grandchildren’s names. Still I feel good, I’m optimistic, and I thank God. Within a short time, I had lost my dog, my brother-in-law, some of my best friends, and yet I had beaten cancer. If I can face this, well, I can face anything.
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