Recurring cancer survivor endures
Connie Meeks advises not settling for negative diagnosis
Connie Meeks has had cancer so many times she has lost count.
She has been told to go home and get her affairs in order. She had a hysterectomy that uncovered ovarian cancer, which is usually fatal.
She had breast cancer diagnosed at age 26. She’s now 50.
“Watching my daughter graduate from high school was fantastic,” Meeks said. “Seeing her graduate from college was amazing.
“When my father-in-law was told he had lung cancer, I saw the expression on his face like he’d been given a death sentence. I told him, ‘I’m still here.’ I believe we’re all here on borrowed time. I’m a warrior for God. I had to go through some pretty crappy stuff. What kind of warrior am I going to be if I hadn’t?”
When she was first diagnosed, Meeks admits she didn’t know anything about cancer. She credits Dr. Mark Costley for not discounting her symptoms. She was the youngest patient up to that time diagnosed with breast cancer at the clinic in Springfield where she sought treatment, a record broken only 10 years ago.
Part of keys to Meeks’ survival has been knowing her family history. Her grandmother, Katherine Robinson, had been diagnosed with breast cancer the previous year, so it was known to be in the family genetic line. Meeks said her grandmother’s case was typically non-aggressive for older subjects. She received a mastectomy and the drug Tamoxifen, recovering easily.
Meeks’ own cases were much different, much more aggressive. When it came back two years later, the disease had metastasized outside of the original location, which is not considered curable. At this point, Meeks had to dig deeper, go beyond what she knew and set her mind onto every survival strategy out there.
Her doctor, oncologist William Cunningham in Springfield, also didn’t accept the standard hopeless assessment. “You’re not just a number, come back here,” he told her over the phone.
Cunningham connected Meeks with a college roommate who worked at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Md. She was warned she would be trying experimental drugs and insurance wouldn’t pay for it. She went. It worked.
A few years later, the cancer returned. This time Cunningham sent her to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. Again, their approach worked.
Yet still, the cancer kept coming back. Once it surfaced on an eardrum. They took it off, but it took her hearing in that ear.
Another year, she had pain in her abdomen. The doctor she was referred to told her she was depressed and that’s why she hurt.
“I’m depressed because I hurt,” Meeks declared, storming out of the office.
Blood tests found nothing. Exploratory surgery found nothing. With Cunningham’s help, the doctors ultimately decided to perform a hysterectomy, no small decision for a 32-year-old woman. In the extracted tissue, they found ovarian cancer.
“The hysterectomy was probably in my best interests,” Meeks said. “You know your body better than anybody. Don’t let them tell you it’s depression. Find the source of the pain. You’ve just got to pay attention to your body and don’t give up. If your doctor won’t listen to you, find another doctor.”
Having dealt with many doctors, Meeks added doctors tend to focus on what’s happening at the moment, the latest symptoms. She said it’s important to refocus the conversation on past history, background for the illness that could provide the clues to what’s happening.
Survival is more than a medical procedure. Meeks had reason to be depressed when her medical bills reached $1,100 a week, topping out at a debt of $1.4 million, something she can never pay off. She and her husband, James, today have to clear $4,000 a month to cover her debts and the medicine that keeps her going.
“Having a support network is extremely important,” Meeks said. “At 26, I was scared to death of a mastectomy, of what life was going to the like. I crawled under by bed at 5 a.m. when we were supposed to leave for the surgery. My husband crawled under the bed with me and said, ‘If you’re dying, me too. I’m not going on without you.’ That was enough to get me to go.
“I’m passionate about finding a good support group. Let your doctor give your phone number to someone else. Be sure to find someone who has been down the path you’re on.”
Meeks recalls many women she has met over the years in support groups. Many gave her mementos, like the cat-shaped sticky note holder on her office desk. She noted because she has been in the fight for so many years now, many of those women have gone on, some to cancer. But, their strength and encouragement stays with her with just the sight of those mementos.
Her neighbors, too, formed a tight bond around her family. Meeks said when she was undergoing treatments, she never had to worry about feeding her family, picking up the kids from school or getting the lawn mowed. Her neighbors provided that priceless support and peace of mind.
Nor is it easy to explain even to the immediate family. Meeks described how her mother, Sally Walker, would drive her home from her treatments and tell her to wait in the car for her to come back for her. After unlocking the house, Walker would come back and find Meeks crawling across the lawn to the house.
“I couldn’t explain to her why I had to do that,” Meeks said. “I had to make myself live. That was how I did it.”
Meeks has tried to give back to fellow survivors by participating in support groups, actively organizing early Relays for Life in Monett for the American Cancer Society. While she now admits the American Cancer Society’s focus on funneling fundraising into research, research which has helped her, Meeks struggled with the lack on help for local patients. She helped found the Breast Cancer Foundation of the Ozarks, which provides money for mammograms to help people who need them.
There are wins and losses. Meeks lost her mother to breast cancer. She blames her mother for seeing the signs but not reacting, maybe because she was too busy with her real estate business or maybe because she was afraid.
Meeks has carried on her mother’s business, but tries to live life fully, taking time for family and going bicycle riding with her husband to get out of the house. She believes in being as active as possible, knowing she feels better when her body is engaged. She also uses music and meditation to work through the bad days.
“You’ve just go to pay attention to your body and don’t give up,” she said. “I hate to see people give up. Not all chemo is bad. I never lost my hair with any of it, but that’s extremely rare. Everybody’s different. You’ve got to keep a positive attitude. When you’re taking chemotherapy, you’re going to have bad days. Tomorrow you get up. You need to fight.
“Not everybody’s going to survive cancer. It doesn’t have to be the end. You’ve got to fight.”