Jeanine’s Journey: Becoming Bolder
“I pulled the car over along the Blue Ridge Mountains. I could see forever, and it made me realize how big the world is and how much there is to do….I don’t have time for cancer.”
~ Jeanine Schantz
“The first thing I thought when I received my diagnosis of multiple myeloma was, ‘I don’t have time for cancer. I have lots of things I want to do and people I want to take care of. So, let’s fix it so I can get on with my life,’” says Jeanine Schantz, smiling widely, as she recalled the events of a few years ago.
“I was already out on disability with a heart ailment when this hit.” The mother of three adult children continues: “Maybe because of my job—as a deputy coroner—where I routinely saw death as part of life, I understood it. I wasn’t scared.
“The part that bothered me was what the diagnosis and disease did to my kids and my elderly parents. I didn’t like that part.” Jeanine’s silver bangle slips to her wrist. “And I didn’t like the isolation after my stem cell transplant, either.”
The beginning of Jeanine’s cancer journey was circuitous. She’d started passing out at work. After several cardiac ablations as doctors searched for the problem, she finally had her diagnosis: sinus node dysfunction. A pacemaker solved that problem, but triggered another–hypertension so extreme that she lost the sight in her left eye and began to have severe back pain.
“You get used to it,” the Bethlehem native says matter-of-factly, referring to her sight. “Life has thrown a lot of stones my way but I am still here. I still wake up and drink my coffee and hear birds. And I am here for my kids and parents. That’s a big deal for me.” One son, a recent college graduate, lives at home, and the other moved back from Tennessee when she was diagnosed. Her daughter lives in North Carolina.
Because of her ongoing back pain, Jeanine saw a pain management specialist, who, when she told him that her joints were swelling, suggested she see an endocrinologist; perhaps she had arthritis. The endocrinologist ordered blood work before her appointment.
But she never made it to the appointment, for when the endocrinologist saw the lab results, he phoned, advising her to head straight to a hematologist. That’s when she learned she had MGUS, a condition whereby M proteins—abnormal proteins produced by the bone marrow’s plasma cells—appear in one’s blood.
The first year, the doctors just watched. Maybe she wouldn’t be part of the one percent who develop multiple myeloma each year from MGUS. After all, she didn’t fit the profile: older, male, black, with a family or personal history. Jeanine was 47, female, Caucasian, with no history.
Twelve months later, MGUS had developed into a multiple myeloma diagnosis. Her specialist recommended an autologous stem cell transplant, in which her own stem cells were removed and frozen while she underwent chemo to destroy diseased bone marrow. Then they were returned to her body to rebuild her bone marrow.
“I didn’t question it. I trusted the doctor, and I just wanted to get it over with. But the information I got was mind-numbing,” Jeanine’s eyes widen as she speaks. “As the doctor talked about my disease and treatment, I was thinking about the wash and the grocery shopping I needed to do.” She pushes up the sleeves of her embroidered off-white blouse.
“The hardest part was when they harvested my stem cells before the transplant. I was in an isolation area in the hospital. My family would change into gowns to cover their street clothes to visit me. When it was time for them to leave, I would stand behind a glass wall and watch them walk down the hallway and get on the elevator—and I’d be alone.” Jeanine runs her fingers through her short reddish hair.
After the transplant, she remained in the hospital in partial isolation for two weeks. “As much as I wanted my children to visit, I didn’t want them to see me sick,” she says. She’d been the strong one—but now she wasn’t.
Still, every day, she saw herself get better. The nurses would write her blood count on a white board in her room, and she saw her body regenerating. Finally, after two weeks—on schedule—she was able to go home.
“So much is attitude,” she continues. “There were people in the isolation floor before I got there who were still there as I got ready to leave. The nurses kept reminding us that attitude could get us home faster, and that the treatment worked better if we weren’t negative. At first, I didn’t believe them, but then I realized that I had to fight this. I couldn’t say, ‘Cancer, come get me.’”
First, she visited her father, who was too frail to visit her in the hospital. Then she adjusted to being home. The first three months were hard. Her hair, which had fallen out, began to grow back curly and grey, rather than straight and brown. She had to stay away from children who might carry random illnesses; she wore a mask when she went outside; and she was sapped of energy.
“But I kicked this thing in the butt.” Her laugh rings throughout the room.
While multiple myeloma has no cure, daily medication can keep it in remission. At first, Jeanine had infusions, but now she takes a single pill and visits the doctor every three months.
“I don’t know when this disease will fire up again, but I have a new view of life. Material possessions aren’t important to me anymore. I don’t care about the kind of car I drive or the purse I carry. What means something are my friends and family who rallied around me and love me.”
She goes on, “I have always been a fighter. I went to college when my kids were older, getting a chemistry degree, and then one in forensics. I haven’t worked in three years, but I hope to get back in the coroner’s office in some capacity, even though I can’t lift bodies anymore and only have sight in one eye.” Jeanine shifts in the chair. “Those are hindrances,” she says laughingly.
“While I’ve been home, I taught myself how to paint and to crochet through U-Tube. I cook. In the summer I garden. When we bought our house 17 years ago, I had two Hosta plants. I started splitting them, and now they surround the house. And I just took my bike out and dusted it. Now I have to find my helmet,” she smiles confidently.
And she got a Westiepoo puppy last year. “Pets,” Jeanine fingers her silver hoop earring, “are wonderful to have during this battle because they don’t see you as being sick. They love you with or without hair. And they keep you busy every day.”
Jeanine changed in other ways too. She became more independent, bolder. Though her marriage had been strained, she had done nothing about ending it until after her cancer experience. “I don’t want to be unhappy,” she merely says. She began divorce proceedings.
For the first time, she traveled; she took a trip by herself, driving nine hours to North Carolina to visit her daughter. It was a scary decision—and then it became life-altering. “I pulled the car over along the Blue Ridge Mountains. I could see forever, and it made me realize how big the world is and how much there is to do…I don’t have time for cancer,” she says simply.
“The important thing is not to be afraid. Now that I have done it, I can do it again.”
Jeanine joined a Cancer Support Community support group after her diagnosis, and her mother attended a group for caregivers. She rekindled her CSC involvement when she competed—and won—a CSC Facebook competition, telling her Survivor’s Story.