Wilcox: Fighting, getting mad at cancer is empowering

© 2018-Uinta County Herald

EVANSTON — About a year ago, when Uinta County Clerk Lana Wilcox was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer, she was confused, tired and sad. 

“I mean, I was really sad in the beginning, but at a point I went, ‘You know what? I’ve had enough of this crap.’”

It’s hard to imagine someone winning a fight without trying. For Wilcox, the fighting spirit within her may mean as much as the fight on the cellular level, where cancer has attacked her liver and one of her hips.

Doctors told her a year ago that she had terminal cancer and that she had a year to live.

“… It’s been almost a year,” Wilcox said, “and look at me — I’m fine — so, I just think … I don’t know. I’m mad. And I flip the bird at cancer when I start feeling crappy. …  I really do. My husband goes, ‘What are you doing?’ and I’ll go, ‘Damn cancer!’ And I’ll flip the bird…”

Wilcox said the anger and the fighting empowers her, shows she’s not just giving up. She said it also helps those around her.

“I think you kind of have to get mad and fight, you know? And I think it helps the people around you, too,” she said. “The hardest thing for me has been seeing the people, that I know care about me, hurt. That’s the hardest part — having to tell my family and people I work with and people that I know care about me. Because I know I’m hurting them, and I don’t like to do that. So I think fighting kind of empowers them a little bit, and then I think they empower me. I think we kind of empower each other by having that ‘bullshit, this isn’t gonna get me’ attitude. 

Wilcox said she’s thankful for her strong support system.

“I’ve been so lucky,” she said. “I have a wonderful support system and family. As a matter of fact, all my siblings are flying in from all over the country to go with me to get my scans on Friday. That’s the kind of support system I have.”

She said friends and coworkers have been very supportive, too. 

“I have these people in my office and in this county that have been … seriously, I don’t know what I would do without having that support system…”

Wilcox hadn’t been affected by cancer directly — and barely affected indirectly — when she was sitting at her desk at the Uinta County Complex on Feb. 24, 2016. She said no one in her family had ever had cancer, except a little skin cancer. She hadn’t had any close friends or family members die from cancer. And she didn’t know a whole lot about the disease. 

So cancer was the furthest thing from her mind when, at about 5 p.m., she felt a pain in the right side of her stomach.

“I was sitting right here [at my desk],” she said, “and one of my gals was standing in the doorway, and I said, ‘I’ve got a stomach cramp.’ And she goes, ‘I bet it’s the stomach flu. I had that last weekend.’”

Wilcox said she was mad.

“It pisses me off. I’ve got the stomach flu,” she thought. 

About 10 minutes later Wilcox was walking out of the office and the pain had become so bad that she had to lean over and hold her stomach as she walked to her car. By the time she got home, she could hardly walk. 

“And it just got worse and worse,” she said, “and then I started getting sick — throwing up, diarrhea — just really, really sick. A couple hours after that I started passing out. Finally, I told my husband, ‘Maybe I need to go to the hospital.’”

Her husband, Dean, went to warm up the truck.

“He comes in to get me and I’m … I’m on the bathroom floor and can’t move. I said, ‘I can crawl, let me crawl.’

As hard as she tried, though, she couldn’t even crawl.

“I just couldn’t even lift my head up off the floor,” Wilcox said. “I’d just pass out.”

That’s when they called an ambulance, which took her to Evanston Regional Hospital. She said a doctor there found a mass the size of her fist on the right side of her liver, and it had burst. Wilcox said she’d lost about one-third of her blood into her abdomen.

“So they LifeFlighted me from Evanston Regional — who, I have to say, the doctors and nurses there did … everybody did what they needed to do,” she said. “Our ambulance people, the EMTs, the emergency room doctor, the emergency room nurses … everybody just did everything perfectly or I probably wouldn’t be here, to be honest.”

She said they recognized something was very wrong and got her where she needed to be: University of Utah Hospital in Salt Lake City.

She had a couple of procedures and three days later she finally stopped bleeding internally. She said after about a week, she started feeling better; she was stable and it was time for doctors to remove the mass on her liver. 

She said they didn’t think it was cancer at first, but after opening her up for surgery, they found more masses on her liver and some “suspect tissue.”

She was in the hospital until the second week of March, and after doctors diagnosed her with hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC), she went to Arizona to get a second opinion, confirming the diagnosis. HCC, which started out in her liver and spread to her right hip, is usually caused by one of three things: hepatitis B, hepatitis C or cirrhosis, and Wilcox has none of them.

“I have zero of those three things, and the doctors, they just don’t know,” she said. “Some of them have said that it could be from hormone replacement from taking birth control for a lot of years. But then I’ve had other cancer doctors who’ve said, ‘Eh, probably not. You just got the short straw. You’re one of those people [to whom] we can’t explain why you have this cancer.”

She said that’s helped her stay positive, because her liver is fully-functional.

“… I don’t have a sick liver, my liver is perfectly healthy except where it has tumors, so I don’t think they really know,” she said. “I think if you have one of those three situations, the hepatitis or cirrhosis, your liver is sick and that’s really what ends up being your demise. … Your liver doesn’t function and you die. But my liver functions, so I don’t think they can really be sure that I’m not going to be around.”

She said doctors have found more masses on her liver. To treat the smaller masses, doctors inject balls soaked in chemotherapy drugs into the masses. That kills them. Wilcox said radiation treatments on her hip have kept that from spreading.

Three months ago, when she had her last scans (she’s in Utah today with siblings and will get two MRIs and a CT scan), she had no new tumors in her body. But she said that doesn’t necessarily mean she’s out of the woods.

She said that, based on lab results, her protein levels are “sky high.” That indicates cancer. 

“So, I’ve got it somewhere, it’s just, they don’t know where,” she said. “It’s not showing up anywhere.”

She takes two chemo pills per day, and she said she’s doing well.

“I’ve got some good energy right now, feeling good, doing well,” she said. “The side effects I have are more just irritating; they’re not debilitating, so I’m fortunate.”

Doctors told Wilcox that as long as her body tolerates the medicine, she can keep taking it. She asked what would happen if her body stops tolerating it.

“And they said, ‘Well, care and comfort. We’ll just provide you care and comfort.’ And I’m like, ‘That is not a solution.’

“But, ya know,” she said, “miracles happen every stinkin’ day, and you hear about them. I just think, ‘Maybe I’ll be one of those miracles.’ So, I just get up and go and do and get mad that I even have it.”

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