Saturday, November 22, 2014

Cancer survivor Deb Wegent advises: LIVE IT UP!!!

Her husband calls her Wonder Woman. Her sons call her their hero.

I just call her Debra, my strong Italian, laughing, caring, dancing and determined friend since seventh grade who kicked two kinds of lymphoma with a slogan of “it’s not about cancer. It’s about life.”

And four years after a devastating diagnosis, I wasn’t surprised that Deb Lovoy Wegent was one of the cancer survivors selected to help carry the holy water when St. Vincent’s Hospital dedicated and blessed its new Bruno Cancer Center, a place where Deb and thousands of others (including me) have found hope and healing.

A blessing at the blessing: Deb Lovoy Wegent
with Bishop Emeritus David E. Foley
and Monsignor Michael Sexton
 at Bruno Cancer Center Dedication and Blessing.

“I was honored and thrilled beyond words,” Deb says about being selected to participate in the August 6, 2014 dedication and blessing.  “All those thousands of patients who have been treated there, and for my humble self to participate, I was floored.”  She accompanied Msgr. Michael Sexton as he blessed rooms and hallways of the new 71,000 square-foot facility. And her friend Louis Josof, an oncology counselor at the center and double cancer survivor, carried the holy water for Bishop Emeritus David E. Foley.

“They blessed every room, even the bathrooms, and we laughed when monsignor double blessed the break room because he said, “I bet there’s a lot of gossiping in there. A double dose.”

I was not really surprised that Deb would be selected to represent her fellow cancer patients at the dedication and blessing. I was so proud for her and thought her story needed to be told. So I insisted on telling it. 

Debra and me, as seniors, at FHS
Folks who know her understand that the barely five-foot-tall Debra would stand out as a smiling example of staying positive and seizing the day. She has always let her light shine, with laughter and care and fierce dedication to the people she loves and to her joy for life.

I met Deb Lovoy when Fairfield’s middle school kids all came together at Fairfield Junior High School. Deb had the first and the best “boy-girl parties” at Joe and Pauline Lovoy’s house in Fair Oaks, where we danced and perfected the “round-the-world,” a dance she and I still think we invented and can do better than anyone else (‘cept now we have to be careful with our old knees).  We went together to the Catholic school dances, where Deb knew everybody because she’s Catholic and double Italian, I call it, or “all Italian,” her daddy a Lovoy and her mother a Vizzina. Then, Debra and I worked at Mr. Steak together, wearing short-short skirts and making 75 cents an hour plus tips. And, we laughed a lot then, too.

Then, she and Frank Wegent -- her soul mate who graduated from  John Carroll and was older than us and had a cool car, always a cool car -- got married as soon as we graduated high school. I was a dotted-Swiss covered bridesmaid at their wedding at St. Paul’s Cathedral downtown, the first wedding party I’d ever been to where they had real food, not just mints and cake, but also a champagne fountain, a band and dance floor, and where the bride carried around a silk bag, just like in The Godfather, where people kept stashing money after they hugged and kissed the bride and groom. The Wegents lived in Birmingham, then, Selma, where we crossed paths again for several years, then back to Alabaster.

In June of 2010, Deb was a healthy banking professional, a financial specialist with 25 years with Regions Financial, and a fun-loving, Roll Tide yelling mother of two grown sons who are still the apples of her loving Italian-mother eyes. Then her life changed -- after severe leg and knee pain and coughing took her to her doctor’s office. An ultrasound revealed a two-and-one-half inch tumor in her groin area and 70 cancerous nodules in her chest and lungs.  They knew it was cancer that day, June 10, ironically the same day as her and Frank’s 36th wedding anniversary.

“I cried that day,” she remembers now. “I cried, Frank cried,” she says. “My boys cried,” she said of Sammy and Patrick Wegent.

Then, after a painful bone biopsy and a three week wait while results were analyzed at Vanderbilt, they learned the frightening full, confirmed diagnosis: a rare one-two-punch of Hodgkins and Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma.  

“I decided then that it was my new job to conquer cancer,” she says, laughing.

Laughter, she said, and humor, guided her and her close-knit family through 46 chemotherapy treatments over four years -- six months of chemotherapy with four different drugs, then a couple years later, five weeks of more intense treatments and a stem cell transplant, from her own chemically-scrubbed cells, at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

Through it all, Deb found reasons to smile and laugh – with help from her clever husband Frank, who runs grocery stores, started out working for Mr. Joseph Bruno and cracks wry-humor jokes as easy as egg shells. He was literally Nurse Frank during  their five weeks living at the Nebraska hospital’s treatment center.  He trained on how to check vital signs, dispense her medicine and serve as fulltime practically-a-nurse. “I tried to steal him a white coat,” she laughs, but never did.

Smiles, laughter and feeling blessed also came with the help of her sons, whom she still calls her “boys.”

Son Sammy, 35, flew in from San Francisco several times to take Mom to chemo treatments. On the west coast after earning bachelor and master’s degrees in theater and acting, Sammy works with computer game creator Zynga, does improv comedy and created a corporate training program called Speechless that uses the fear of the PowerPoint presentations, comedy, satire and improvisation to teach corporate folks how to better communicate and speak in public. Google just sent Sammy and his Speechless partners to India to present to its employees there. Deb has the Newsweek article from the week of Nov. 10, 2014, to prove it. Here’s the link. .

See, laughter runs in their family.

Patrick, 32, talked to his mom most every day and came for treatments and doctor meetings, too, from Pensacola where he is an accountant, having graduated from the Wegents’ beloved University of Alabama with a bachelor’s degree in accounting and a master’s in management. When his mother got sick, he posted a picture of him and his mom as his Facebook profile picture, and kept it there, calling her his hero.

Three months into her chemotherapy at Bruno Cancer Center, under the care of Dr. Ira Gore, who she calls “brilliant,” the doctor said Deb's latest PET scan “was spectacular.” The family celebrated. But they did three more months of chemo to be sure. Still, Sammy posted on his Facebook page when they heard the first good news, “My Mom just kicked cancer’s ass!”

Deb says she was blessed, blessed to have the Bruno Cancer Center, a brilliant oncologist, a devoted family, loving friends, supporters among other cancer patients and an early tolerance for chemo that left her bald (but with a Rachel Welch wig), but not badly nauseated or as sick as so many of her fellow patients. 

“During treatments, I’d unplug and go around visiting other patients, trying to help them feel better. At least make them laugh.” It was tough, and she would be wrung out, but, she says, “everytime I go to treatment, I feel blessed, because there are so many people in worse situations, so many people fighting.”  So, some days, she’d just tell herself, “Deb, quit your damn whining.”

Deb was on maintenance immunity treatments when the chance came to receive a stem cell transplant with Dr. Philip Bierman, a stem cell expert who Dr. Gore had consulted earlier about Deb’s case, at the famed University of Nebraska’s Medical Center.  The transplant might decrease the chances of the cancers returning.

So, Frank took five weeks off work, and in May of 2013, they were at the University of Nebraska. “The first morning, Frank looks at me, and says, now we are LIVING at the damn hospital,” she says, laughing again.

The chemo at Nebraska Medical did make her sick, severely so. She received  ten chemo treatments in six days. Heavy duty chemicals aimed to eliminate all cancer cells (and therefore all the white cells, too) before the stem cell transplant, which she says is sort of like dialysis. They used her own stem cells, cleaned, frozen, infused, and then thawed and returned to her in a six-hour infusion. “I called that my Life Machine.” She said Robin Roberts, television personality, had a similar stem cell treatment, and her sister donated the stem cells for Roberts’ procedure.

At Nebraska Medical and at Bruno Cancer Center, and in support groups at both, Deb said she’s met many people, strong people, people who became her heroes. Some of them are gone now; others, like Debra, are still fighting, every day.

These days, Deb has a monthly Gamma treatment, to boost her immune system, is having her “baby shots,” childhood immunizations again because the chemo and stem cell transplant stripped all the protection out of her system. She still has tests and rechecks, and she hopes and prays that the hard-fought stem cell treatment – and a positive attitude and lots of laughter and prayers  – keep the cancers at bay.

In the meantime, she still lives her mantra – one she always told her sons even before this happened  -- to “LIVE IT UP.”

Live it up today. Enjoy today. Cherish today. Dance today. Laugh today. You don’t know what’s coming tomorrow.

Picture of the day:

Deb Wegent at dedication and blessing event
with fellow cancer survivors Natalie Hooks, patient navigator, left,
and Louis Josof, right,who is oncology counselor at the Bruno Cancer Center

Song of the Day:

"Did you ever know that you're my hero
and everything I would like to be?
I can fly higher than an eagle,
'cause you are the wind beneath my wings."

-- From Wind Beneath My Wings (written by Jeff Silbar and Larry Henley), a special song to Debra