Sarah Jorgensen is a fiercely independent woman. Her spirit is entirely positive and upbeat, and her words tumble over themselves in their exuberance. She’s not so much into warm and fuzzy, but she’s confident, self-sufficient and supremely practical. She emanates an efficient, get-’er-done approach to life.
Cancer put a new twist on that.
As the holidays approached, her best friend asked whether her company could provide Thanksgiving dinner for Sarah’s family and some gifts for the holidays. Sarah’s first answer was “no.” It was: No, thank you very much, but still — no.
She says: “It was way easier to say ‘no’ because I had to be strong and not rely on someone else.
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“But people want to help. They want to help. … ”
In March 2016, Sarah was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. It’s a sneaky cancer because there’s no preventative test. The symptoms are often mild — fatigue, back pain, constipation, abdominal swelling — and can occur just as often in women who don’t have ovarian cancer.
Sarah had been having pain under her ribcage but attributed it to scar tissue from a previous surgery. Significant bloating sent her to a medical doctor. But cancer?
And so it had been a roller coaster of a year, from diagnosis to chemotherapy; from loss of income to facing mortality. From denial to springing into action. From independence to openness.
“Before all this, I had a really hard time asking for help and accepting help. Meeting (my fiancé) started that change, and having kids — but through the journey, you can’t do it all yourself.”
She reconsidered her best friend’s offer.
“This is what I learned … it takes more to say ‘yes’ to accept help than it does to say ‘no.’ It’s so much harder to say ‘yes.’
“And it’s so much more gratifying and rewarding to say ‘yes.’ I didn’t know that until this journey.”
• • •
In her late 30s and single — she is 48 now — Sarah was ready to have children.
“I was like, OK: No man in sight and I wanted to have children and I wasn’t excited to bear a child. (I decided I) wanted to adopt. (Adopting from Guatemala) seemed like an obvious way to go after we explored options — when I say we, (I mean) me and the dogs.”
She became Mom when daughters Isabella, now 11, and a year later, Vanessa, now almost 10, came into her life as babies.
And then fiancé Dan Norton did, too, although years later. They met through a mutual friend.
“My little joke is it took me about (a minute). Seriously, he took off his hat and I was, OK, I’m keeping him. It took him about 60 days. I didn’t tell him I was keeping him; I didn’t want to scare him.
“But I joke, yep, that’s the one I’ve waited my entire life for. Now I’ve got my girls, now I got my man.”
As a family, they dealt with Sarah’s cancer together.
“We sat the girls down. We said, here’s what’s going on. This is me, this is your mom. …
“You’re going to hear a lot of stories. Some of them are scary and some of them are sad, but you have to remember — this is us. This is my story and our story and everyone else’s story doesn’t matter (because) it’s not us. …”
That was a recurring theme, and one that Sarah told her doctors as well.
“This is my story and I’m not a statistic. … I don’t want odds; I don’t want numbers.”
• • •
They researched every treatment option. Cutting-edge research, naturopathic options, alternative and supportive therapies. What’s the latest research and who does it and where do they do it?
“I joke that I became a graduate of Google University.”
She decided early on that she wasn’t going to use a “fight” approach.
“The word that had been in our lives for a long time for a variety of reasons is ‘embrace.’ It’s actually the tag line from a company I started, which is: ‘Embrace your body, embrace your life.’
“You’ve got to embrace the cancer, make your body be one with it so you can heal yourself as much as possible. Communicate to your body and to the universe, hey, OK, we’re not mad at the cancer cells. … We’re going to heal what caused this and move forward from there.”
Sarah dedicated herself to treatment with the same energy she brings to life.
“You have to pay attention to the whole journey. If you don’t, you’re missing the whole reason you’re going through (this experience) — and the reason you’re going to survive. …”
Dan and Sarah, both mortgage loan officers with Banc Home Loans, split their time between Jackson, Wyo., and Boise. When they decided on Seattle’s Cancer Care Alliance for treatment, Boise became home base. Every Tuesday for 24 weeks, Sarah would catch a 6 a.m. flight to Seattle, take light rail to the hospital; get her chemotherapy and head back to the airport (with a stop for flowers at Pike Place Market).
A PET scan, which can detect cancerous tissues and cells in the body, in August still showed cancer and led to additional chemo, and in October, she had a second scan. A biopsy confirmed, yes. It’s still cancer.
“The PET scan in October looked exactly the same as August. The doctor told me I was not curable — but can I live like this? Can one live like this? And the doctor was like, well, technically, yeah.
“I’m like all right. That’s what we’re going for then.
“Then I read a book and (found a) term ‘progression free.’ … I decided, I want to use the term ‘progression free.’”
As she was coming to terms with living a healthy life in tandem with cancer, Sarah simultaneously learned two things. First, her body doesn’t respond to chemotherapy. It’s called “platinum-resistant ovarian cancer.” Secondly, her prognosis was a year. Less than a year to live.
“So I had 10 days of terror. Well, 10 months of it, but 10 days were the worst. During chemo, the entire time, you’re like: This is going to work, right? …
“(After the prognosis) I woke up every single day just shaking. Is this the day I’m going to start feeling like crap? Is this the day that it changes? Because you just don’t know. … It was so terrifying.”
In the midst of all this, Sarah’s best friend texted her.
• • •
For the holidays, HomeStreet Bank employees usually do a white elephant party. But this year, they decided to do something a bit more meaningful. Sarah’s best friend, Jayne Bick, a loan officer, told her colleagues about her friend going through a rough time — and they decided to they wanted to help out.
“When Jayne texted, I thought, my gosh, we’re not a family in need. That doesn’t seem fair compared to other families who truly need (help).
“But learning the connection (between people)— that here is one of my best friends and she obviously felt a need and/or a want to do this. It’s not my place to deny her that. That’s what I learned.”
So on Thanksgiving Day, mashed potatoes and gravy and turkey made their way through Sarah and Dan’s door and on to their table. Salad and cranberries and pies. And two enormous bags filled to overflowing with gifts.
“It was holy guacamole. It was over the top.”
Christmas morning took a long time. Under the tree were thoughtful gifts, useful gifts; family gifts, gifts for the girls. A digital picture frame, grocery cards. Interactive games, coloring books, art supplies. Words are hard to come by.
“They went beyond-beyond …
“The realization and the generosity … and seeing how I felt with the kids opening the presents … Just knowing what we had gone through the whole year — it’s going to make me cry (remembering). ”
The memories are particularly poignant, because the generosity of Home Street Bank came on top of a tsunami of good news.
After the 10 days when her world was caving in, Sarah’s doctor called to report that there was a newly approved drug that addressed her specific diagnosis — ovarian cancer, BRACA-1 gene, platinum resistant. And — her insurance company had agreed to pay.
“I asked (my doctor), so this is my miracle? And she said, yes, this is your miracle.”
Six pills, twice a day. Twelve pills a day for the rest of her natural life.
“So 138 years. I told (Dan) when we met, we’re going to be together 140 years. We’re down to 138 years.”
• • •
With the Christmas gifts also came an overwhelming need — responsibility — desire — to pay back the generosity that the family received. Sarah and Dan formed a nonprofit called Empower: A Foundation for Ovarian Cancer Patients.
In a role sort of like a coach or mentor, Sarah (and as it grows, other volunteers) will help ovarian cancer patients one-on-one, exploring treatment options, building a team of wellness, finding information and resources.
“(A patient might say), what else can I do as I go through chemo so I’m in a state of wellness? … Well, there’s naturopathic doctors, there’s acupuncture. There’s meditation, there’s this and this and this. And so can you pay for it? No? Then let’s find some help. …
“(She might say), well, I don’t know how insurance works. Great. Let me help with that. Just all the things that a lot of people don’t know are options or how to make them options. We want to bridge that.”
Sarah credits her friend Jayne for helping her open up to a whole other part of her personality — the part that said ‘yes.’
“I am empowered to start this foundation and make a difference, hopefully, for someone else who has to go through this. …
“It’s a way of taking what Home Street did for me and us and … paying it forward for other women. …
“Extreme gratitude and love. …”
Ninety days after beginning the “miracle drug,” Sarah went back to Seattle in mid-February for a follow-up PET scan.
“In theory, one can live like this their whole life, so that’s why we’re comfortable with a ‘progression free’ status. As long as the PET scan stays the same, great.
“If it’s better, bonus. But we’re going for staying the same.”
Her doctor called with the results two weeks ago.
“(We went) from ‘I’m not curable,’ to ‘less than a year to live,’ to ‘the cancer is gone.’ I don’t think I ever thought I would hear those words.
“The power of the words, ‘It’s gone’ — probably the strongest and most amazing words I have ever heard and felt outside of ‘I love you.’”
Dan proposed shortly after Sarah was diagnosed. They will be married April 4 in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, with their daughters at their side
OVARIAN CANCER FACTS
▪ Ovarian cancer ranks fifth in cancer deaths among women
▪ The No. 8 most common cancer among women
▪ It is the deadliest of gynecologic cancers
There is no know way to prevent ovarian cancer. While the following are not recommended ways to prevent ovarian cancer, they may lower a woman’s chance of getting ovarian cancer:
▪ Having used birth control pills
▪ Having had a tubal ligation, both ovaries removed or a hysterectomy
▪ Having given birth
▪ Breastfeeding for a year or more