Conquering cancer with community support
By McKenna Ownby
Art and Debra Schreck celebrated their 38th wedding anniversary in October 2017. Just months before, Debra was fearful that her husband may not live to see that day.
In August 2017, Art visited MultiCare Tacoma General Hospital for an exam on his neck where he’d noticed a lump. Within a week, they received the devastating news: Art had head and neck cancer. The weeks and months that followed were filled with surgeries and various forms of treatment to stop the cancer from spreading.
“They took my tonsils first, since they were closest to where the cancer started,” Art explains. Then came the radiation and chemotherapy.
Art chose to stay within the MultiCare system for all of his treatments, splitting appointments between Tacoma General Hospital and Auburn Regional Cancer Center. The first doctor they met with at Tacoma General was Nehal Masood, an oncology physician. “When we got the diagnosis, we had maybe 10 family members in his office,” Debra recalls. “He took the time to explain what was going on to each and every one of them, and answer everybody’s questions. He was absolutely amazing.”
Art and Debra were so pleased with the level of attentiveness they received from Dr. Masood that they chose to continue making weekly trips to Tacoma General so that Art could receive all of his chemotherapy under his care. For radiation treatments, they visited the Auburn Regional Cancer Center up to five times per week where he would see Natalie Xu, a radiation oncologist, who they also chose specifically for her exceptional level of care.
After a few months of treatment, the constant back and forth became a financial challenge. Realizing this and not wanting Art to have to choose between paying for gas and continuing to see the providers he’d grown so close to, Lorna Pella found a way to help.
Lorna is a social worker for the Cancer Center in Auburn and had been with Art every step of the way, listening to his needs and seeking out resources to assist him and his family.
“It’s vital for us to have funding that helps patients pay for these types of barriers,” Lorna explained. “If the patient doesn’t have the transportation they need, treatment won’t occur, and they won’t get better.”
Thanks to generous community donations, Lorna could provide Art and Debra with gas cards to get him to and from his treatments. Betsy Allen, an oncology social worker for Tacoma General Hospital, also went above and beyond to make sure they had the resources they needed.
Debra says there are no words to describe how much that support meant, especially since the funding was made possible by people they didn’t even know.
“There were many times where I broke down crying to Lorna and others because we didn’t know what to do, but they were so supportive and helpful through it all,” she says.
Today, Art is on the road to recovery and has even gained back 10 of the 43 pounds he lost as a result of chemotherapy. Because the chemotherapy and radiation were concentrated on his neck, though, the muscles around Art’s jaw and throat are too for him to chew or swallow any food. The treatments also destroyed his taste buds, so Art can only eat with the help of a feeding tube.
His nutritional needs require regular visits with a dietitian, and that’s how they met Joe Gonzales; an oncology dietitian at the Auburn Regional Cancer Center. Art and Debra have gotten so close to Joe that they consider him a trusted friend.
In March, Art and Debra moved from Washington to California to be closer to their son, transferring Art’s recovery treatments to the Stanford University School of Medicine. They couldn’t leave Auburn before making one last stop at the Cancer Center, and this time, it wasn’t for an appointment.
“We just had to visit Joe one last time,” Debra says, “to thank him for everything he and the team have done for us. It’s made all the difference.”
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