by Nancy Novack
On April 29, 2004, I was diagnosed with stage IV ovarian cancer which had metastasized to my liver. I had no idea what any of that meant, despite living on this planet, mostly in northern California, for 60 years. I didn’t know anything about the treatment, the statistics, what was ahead of me. And I had no one to journey with me who had survived the same diagnosis.
It didn’t take long to get it. As is true of any teaching hospital, Stanford is notorious for sending out the troops to inspect every square inch of the body of an interesting case. That’s what they do, and they come in droves, and they ask a million questions, and they probe away.
The severity of the situation started to hit me, although it was still so very surreal. The surgeons came, sharpening their scalpels, ready to go. My sweet cousin Leslie managed beautifully the many terribly serious conversations, all the while holding my hand and my heart.
I was in a lovely room at Stanford Cancer Center gazing onto the flower gardens, feeling in an altered state of NO-consciousness, as if I were watching someone else’s movie. After several hours of the procession of medical staff, professors, fellows, assistants, nurses and the curious bystanders, a man walked into my room, looking a bit like Santa Claus. My recollection is that I said to him, “And who might you be?” and he responded that he was my DOCTOR. There was silence, a powerful sensitivity as we looked right into the other’s eyes. The healing began.
What really healed me? My relationship with Dr. Branimir Sikic, his courage and caring and intelligence and unwavering commitment to get me well, from that very first night. He announced to the bevy of eager surgeons impatiently waiting in the corner, “Nancy has no time for surgery. We will start treatment and chemo immediately.”
He told me, “Yours is a very bleak diagnosis. It will be a rocky road. But hang in there. I think I can help you. I am with you.” In those words, Brandy showed profound compassion. The kind of hope – the kind of love – that he exhibited throughout my treatment, define the essence of this man. He taught me everything I ever needed to know about healing and life and respect for my fellow human beings.
He looked around the room, crowded with my friends and loved ones, and said, “When all those who love you go home tonight and you start to freak out about what has happened today, here is my home phone number. Feel free to call me.” And I did, at about 2:30 in the morning. And Brandy was as gracious and generous in that phone call as he has always been, ever since.
Brandy Sikic really held my hand and my heart. Our relationship is based on trust. The deal we made was pretty simple: if ever something in my body felt different or wrong, my job was to contact him immediately. And he responded immediately from wherever he might be in the world. He never dismissed my calls or my fears and, rather, guided me through the next step — an emergency CT scan at midnight at Stanford, an emergency visit to Sloan-Kettering when my arm wouldn’t move. Even when Brandy was in Croatia, his hometown, on sabbatical, he was within earshot (e-mail) and he made decisions about my treatment. Once, when the doctors at Stanford were considering a liver transplant, he weighed in daily with his directives. Again, no surgery because of Brandy. We did not do the transplant. And all is well.
Few doctors have said to their patients what Brandy once said to me, but I wish they would. “This is very tough. I am giving you very aggressive treatments. If you are on antidepressants, double them. If you are not on them, get on them. And find yourself a solid psychologist, preferably someone who has been through cancer.”
Brandy made it possible for me to really trust—in him, the entire medical team, and the world. I was told that I could not do a lot of alternative methods while I was in treatment, since I was being so closely monitored. But when my sweet sister asked if I could have ice cream, Brandy said, “This is not the time to deprive Nancy of any pleasures.”
With this and so many other instances of extraordinary kindness and understanding over the past 13 1/2 years, he lay the foundation within my spirit for true trust: an opening of my heart to the amazing generosity of strangers, to the compassion and sensitivity of the chemo infusion teams, to other patients, and to the beauty of my friends and loved ones. When people ask, and they often do, “What happened? How did you make it when others did not?” I don’t have any answers to that mystery. I do know, for certain, that the opening of my heart, the receiving of the blessings and the love, the sense of abundance of good will coming my way changed my being—during my cancer and forever more. I learned to love again, to trust again, to let myself be loved, to live and love with wild abandon.
Those four words, I Am With You, are my four favorite words in the world. They sustained me, gave me hope, and transformed my understanding of the healing process. Every story in this anthology speaks to the power of those simple, exquisite words.
Please accept I Am With You as a bond of friendship to sustain you on the first frightening nights after hearing your diagnosis, and every night thereafter. I am with you, as is true of each of the writers who have grappled with cancer themselves or alongside their loved ones.
I am the luckiest lady in the world. I truly enjoy defying medical statistics AND being the poster child for Stanford’s Cancer Center.
I am immensely grateful.