A bell rang on Sep. 12 in Northeast Georgia Medical Center’s gynecologic cancer infusion suite, signifying Erica Mokarem’s last cycle of treatment.
Cheers echoed from women undergoing therapy for ovarian cancer and the nurses who support them.
“It’s honesty exciting, but also sad because this has been my routine for a year and a half,” Mokarem said.
To Mokarem, this symbolizes a bittersweet end to her battle with cancer. To others in the room, it reminded them to keep persisting.
“That’s so exciting. I can’t wait to ring the bell,” Emily Pursley, who was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in October 2018, said.
Unlike other forms of cancer, the symptoms of ovarian cancer are subtle and often confused with other diseases.
It was only when Mokarem had a CT scan in May 2018 from her gastroenterologist, that she found out about her condition.
Mokarem describes the experience as “eye opening.”
Read other stories in this series at gainesvilletimes.com/cancer.
Before she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, she didn’t know much about the disease. Now she takes it upon herself to educate the public via social media about it.
“We as women, we’re strong. I don’t want to say that we’re stronger than men, but we’re stronger than men,” Mokarem said, laughing. “When we have aches and pains, we ignore them. We keep going. We have to listen to our bodies.”
Mokarem watched her mother’s journey through cancer until she beat it 20 years ago. After surviving the first disease, lung cancer hit her like a tidal wave. Mokarem said her mother “gave up” and died.
Seeing what happened to her mother, she couldn’t let herself stop fighting.
Mokarem’s advice to other women with gynecologic cancer is to “never give up, no matter how dark it seems.”
“You have to remain positive — you have to keep going because if you give up and you just lay down, that’s it,” she said. “I have a lot to keep going for like my kids, husband and granddaughter. Even without that, there’s always a rainbow after the deepest, darkest storm.”
On Sep. 12, Mokarem saw her rainbow.
Her daughter, Lexi Mokarem, walked into the infusion suite on her last day, bringing her newborn granddaughter.
Mokarem said her daughter was one of her biggest supporters while undergoing chemotherapy.
“Watching her was hard, but it showed how strong she is and that she can beat anything,” Lexi said. “This is the hardest thing she’s gone through.”
Although the battle is finished for now, Mokarem said she knows it has a 70% chance of coming back.
She worries about it, but does her best to not let it control her.
Cathy Cone has been a regular in the infusion suite since November 2016. Just when she thought she had seen the last of her ovarian cancer, it returned in August 2018.
“It was more shocking to me the second time, but at the same time, I didn’t completely fall apart. I told myself, ‘You’ve got to do this again, and you’re going to do this again.”
Cone said one of the most challenging aspects of her cancer is its impact on her family.
Like most parents, she wants to protect her kids.
However, she finds it hard at times to allow them to worry about her.
“It doesn’t just affect you, it affects your whole family,” Cone said. “When you get a cancer diagnosis, it’s like someone writing down that your future is compromised.”
While most days undergoing chemotherapy seemed dark and dreary, Cone said she always looked forward to seeing the nurses in the infusion suite.
Angie Persyn’s kind and energetic personality gave Cone a reason to smile and laugh.
Persyn has worked as a registered nurse in the infusion suite for six years.
She makes a point to decorate the room for every holiday, especially Christmas and Halloween.
Many of the patients in the suite appreciate this small touch, commenting on how it makes the room feel lively and comfortable.
“We let them know that you’re going to get through this,” Persyn sais. “We’re here to take care of you and you’re going to have fun.”
Cone said she owes Persyn and the other nurses for helping keep her spirits up in the infusion suite, and also God.
Praying for herself and knowing that a lot of people were praying for her added comfort to her journey.
“I never trusted yet questioned God more in my life — all at the same time.” Cone said. “I think if you don’t have faith, I can’t answer how to get through it.”
Keeping the faith
Like Cone, Emily Pursley said her faith in God offered her an otherworldly support that she couldn’t find within herself.
For people battling cancer, she encourages them to find faith or something else to which they can cling.
“It’s really important to have that,” Pursley said. “While I’m not through the journey, I feel like my darkest days are behind me.”
Pursley said she will never forget getting the call on Halloween in 2018 about the results of her outpatient surgery.
In a shocked voice, the surgeon told her she had ovarian cancer.
“It was surreal. I didn’t break down. I didn’t cry,” Pursley said. “I said, ‘You sure?’ He said, ‘Yeah.’”
Two weeks after the diagnosis, she went into surgery for an intense abdominal hysterectomy.
Compared to the healing process of the surgery, Pursley said both chemotherapy and getting a C-section were a breeze.
“Honestly the healing has been the hardest part,” she said. “It was a whirlwind, and I didn’t have time to prep myself for that part of it. I’m so thankful to have that behind me.
Pursley, Cone and Mokarem all continued their full-time jobs during the process of chemotherapy and followup infusions.
In all cases, their bosses were understanding and found a way to incorporate their infusion days into the work schedule.
In the beginning, Pursley said being OK with taking off work proved difficult for her. She works as a credit writer for BB&T and considers herself “very dedicated to the job.”
She had to learn to let people care for her, including her boss.
In addition to her workplace, Pursley’s mom, husband and daughter have offered her the most support.
Pursley said the reality of her cancer seemed to reach her 7-year-old daughter when her hair started falling out.
As soon as a large chunk of her hair came out in the shower, Pursley decided it was time to take the plunge.
Both her husband and daughter helped shave her head.
“Through the whole thing, that was the biggest thing for her,” she said. “Now that my hair is back, she feels like everything is OK now.”
April 2020 is Pursley’s light at the end of the tunnel. By then she will be finished with her infusions.
Although the cancer has a high chance of coming back, she’s not going to let that hurt her faith.
“I was determined from the beginning: I’m not letting this get me down,” she said. “You can’t because that’s letting the enemy win. You can’t even go there.
“Of course there have been times when I break down and have a pity party, but I don’t allow myself to stay there.”