Catching Rhonda Wilson on hiatus from her world adventures is no small task. With an Air Force trained Air Tran pilot for a husband, they take to the skies often. Treating every day as the miracle it is, Rhonda cites Erma Bombeck’s poem, “If I Had My Life To Live Over” as an ode to seizing every minute and never giving it back.
“We tend to put away or protect our ‘good things’ and wait for a special occasion to use them when the time is now,” said Rhonda, a consummate entertainer who, despite living with self-detected HER2-positive breast cancer since 2000, refuses to stop celebrating. “I’m never going to miss a moment to be around the people I love.”
Remarkably, Rhonda has fought only one site metastases since her breast specialists referred her to Northwest Georgia Oncology Centers (NGOC) since her diagnosis. The cancer spread to her spine in 2001, two months before 9/11. “I remember thinking a lot of people went to work that day and had problems or perhaps cross words with the people they love,” reminisces Rhonda. “Even though my cancer became Stage IV, I was given a gift. At least I was given time to make things right with the people around me. It put my cancer and prognosis into proper perspective.”
Rhonda was told she had a three percent survival rate to make it 20 years. That’s when Rhonda decided she was in the three percent. “If someone has to be in the three percent, why not me?”
Even more remarkable was her response to the chemotherapy drug, Herceptin. She holds the NGOC record as the patient treated with the drug for the longest period of time without re-occurrence. (Typically the drug’s effectiveness lasts on average from 18 to 24 months before the patient’s body builds immunity to it.) Rhonda’s under the watchful care of Dr. Don Shaffer, who adeptly explained Rhonda’s predicament living with cancer but without active disease.
“He told me the cancer travelled throughout my body and somewhere a ‘souvenir’ was dropped off and not picked up yet,” said Rhonda, who gets an annual PET scan to help detect cancer activity. She’s confident in the care she receives, describing her treatment by Dr. Shaffer and NGOC as amazing. “When I go, I’m at home. Everyone remembers your name. You can call at any time. I would say God’s angels are the oncology nurses,” said Rhonda.
She also raves about the expertise and high energy of Dr. Shaffer. “We connected right away. He takes the time to explain things so I’ll understand and listens to my concerns and questions. And I’m grateful he’ll pray with me or let me cry. That doesn’t happen at my other doctors’ offices,” said Rhonda. “Northwest Georgia Oncology Centers is a large practice but you feel like family. In a crisis they put their big arms around you and that’s very comforting.”
Rhonda’s experiences and feelings of isolation living with Stage IV cancer drive her conviction to share her cancer story with others. Without much thought, Rhonda can weave practical and profound words to lift the spirit of a newly diagnosed cancer patient: Get educated, but don’t spend too much time surfing the web – it’ll scare you. Believe you are going to be in the survivorship percentage. Have hope. Get your house in order by mending fences with others and don’t forget to tend to your spiritual house as well. Only then can you concentrate on the healing process and getting through cancer treatment. And lastly, hold your family and friends close to you along the journey.
“I still have moments riddled with anxiety, but fortunately, they’re fleeting,” said Rhonda, describing the ebb and flow of emotions as time goes by – her double-edged sword. “It’s great I’ve been in remission for so long, but you also wonder when the other shoe may drop,” said Rhonda. “Despite the uncertainty, I try to focus on the positive. And as I like to say, ‘I’m not going to ruin today worried about tomorrow.’”
In other words, she doesn’t wait for a special occasion anymore. They happen every day.
See Rhonda share her cancer journey in a video prepared by the American Cancer Society: