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Manes: Lowell woman faces terminal cancer with courage

Nanci Mazzaro-Sanders her grandchildren MasAddi Umfleet. | Jeff Manes~for Sun-Times Media

Nanci Mazzaro-Sanders and her grandchildren, Mason and Addi Umfleet. | Jeff Manes~for Sun-Times Media

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Updated: December 7, 2013 6:07AM



“I see trees of green...red roses too

I see ‘em bloom... for me and for you

And I think to myself...what a wonderful world.

I see skies of blue...clouds of white

Bright blessed days... dark sacred nights

And I think to myself... what a wonderful world.”

— Weiss, Douglas, Thiele (performed by Louis Armstrong)

On Mother’s Day, with her children at her side, Nanci Mazzaro-Sanders was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. The oncologist gave her less than a year. The tumor is lodged against her aorta.

Nanci is a good friend of mine. Being as November is Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month, this brave woman decided it would be a good time to be interviewed.

Mazzaro-Sanders, 61, lives in Lowell with her husband, Brian Sanders. She has raised two adult children from a previous marriage.

Mazzaro-Sanders graduated from Lew Wallace High School and Indiana University, Bloomington.

***

“My mom was Polish and my dad was Italian,” Mazzaro-Sanders began.

Must have been some good eats at family reunions.

“Good eating, but a very stubborn home — nobody would give in.”

Life after college?

“I became a special education teacher at Jane Ball Elementary School in Cedar Lake. After five years, I quit because I had my daughter. I never went back to teaching.”

I didn’t know that about you. I just knew you from the Lowell Tribune.

“Because of my illness, I had to quit the newspaper. In late March of this year, I started feeling fatigued all the time. At work, I told Jackie Smith: ‘I could go home and take a nap right now.’”

That’s not you.

“I told myself it was age. In early May, my urine starting turning colors. Then, it turned reddish-brown. Again, I tried to brush it off: ‘Do I have a red robe and it’s reflecting into the toilet water? Is this my imagination?’ And then it really started turning darker and darker. Finally, I decided that I’d better see the doctor.”

Then what?

“The doctor did some blood work on me. I had been to the doctor three months earlier for something else and my blood work came out great. Anyway, this was on a Friday and the doctor told me I’d hear from him on Monday.”

And?

“I received a phone call at 11:30 that night. He told me that I needed to go to the hospital immediately. He told me that my liver was not functioning.”

Lord.

“My husband is a long-distance truck driver and was in California, so I had my daughter pick me up. I noticed that she had tears in her eyes. I told her: ‘I know, this upsetting. We’ll just see what it is.’ She said: ‘Mom, have you looked in the mirror? You’re eyes and skin are yellow.’”

Not good.

“On Sunday morning, May 12, with my kids at my side, an oncologist told me that I had a tumor on my pancreas. I told him: ‘Please don’t tell me pancreas. I know what that means. I’ve had friends die from pancreatic cancer. Out of 365 days of the year, DON’T TELL ME PANCREAS ON MOTHER’S DAY!’”

Go ahead and cry, Nanci. Get it out.

“He told me they couldn’t do anything more for me. I had to decide whether to go to Chicago or Indianapolis. I chose the University of Chicago.

“On May 16, I told the doctor in Chicago: ‘I’m a realist. I don’t want anything sugarcoated. I need to know what we’re talking here.’”

The doctor’s reply?

“Eleven months.”

Damn.

“Every time I turn the page of a calendar... Well, it’s a hard thing to do. How did that month go by so fast?”

Some pancreatic cancers are curable.

“Yes, but mine is terminal because the tumor is wrapped around my aorta. My surgeon told me he could never remove the tumor. He told me to pray for a miracle.”

Chemotherapy.

“They put me on chemo treatments that are very toxic. I go 12 rounds. I take it every two weeks. I’m on round 10 right now. After 12 rounds, they halt it. A person’s body can’t take more than that.

“Jeff, I don’t feel this tumor whatsoever. The only thing I feel is side effects from the chemo. I can’t taste my wonderful pasta fagioli. Everything tastes like metal. I’ve lost my hair. I didn’t think I’d ever wear a wig because of my sweet Aunt Josephine. She was a 4-feet, 6-inch Italian lady. I don’t know how she kept her head up with that huge wig she wore. It was sooo fake-looking. I told myself, ‘I’m not going to look like Auntie Jo.’ But wigs have come a long way.”

You’ve been keeping a daily journal on Facebook.

“I started it for my children. Then I added my niece, then my girlfriend and it has just grown. I decided to do that because I know how I feel when someone I know is diagnosed with a terminal disease. You don’t know how to approach them. You don’t know what to say. It can be uncomfortable. Should I say something? Should I just move my cart to aisle five and pretend I don’t see her? I don’t want any of my friends or family to feel that way.

“If I have to go through this thing, I have to have a purpose. And my purpose is to get the word out about pancreatic cancer. Funds are needed to get research going.”

Screening.

“Yes, it’s so hard to detect it. They have screening for prostate cancer and breast cancer. Once you get diagnosed with pancreatic, you have a 6 percent chance of surviving. There are no symptoms. My oncologist said it is on the increase and they don’t know why because they don’t know what causes it.”

Have you made arrangements?

“I told Brian the other day, ‘Don’t go sticking me in a cornfield. Some of his family is buried in West Creek out in the middle of nowhere. I need to be right here at Lowell Memorial where I can see what’s going on and I can be the first one to know where the fire department is going. I need to be in the mix. I’m a city girl and a reporter. I’m an inquiring mind. You ain’t stickin’ me in no cornfield! “

That’s the Nanci I know. But on a more serious note, I’m sure this situation has changed your outlook on life.

“I call it my ironic blessing. It has given me a new way to live. It has opened my eyes to living life to the fullest. I don’t sweat the small stuff. My son and I have gotten so close because of this. Today, I see clouds floating like a tapestry across the sky. I hear birds chirping. I feel a gentle breeze in my face. I smell a delightful rainfall. I crave Farina. It makes me think of my mother every day. Farina is the only thing that tastes good. And it still comes in that same damn box. Mostly, I stop to smell the roses.”

***

Nanci has quite a support group. She has received sand from the Holy Land, holy water from Fatima, (Italy) and a clutch cross. She posted on Facebook that she is a huge Bon Jovi fan and received an 8-by-10 color photograph of the rock group that was signed by Jon Bon Jovi. The sender of the photo has remained anonymous. She has received tiny slivers of the rock that Jesus Christ was laid upon after being crucified.

By the end of this month Nanci will have finished all 12 rounds of chemotherapy. Like she said, she comes from a stubborn family and I have no doubt my friend will go the distance in her bout with pancreatic cancer.

And she’ll do it with dignity and courage.



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