Colorful Darlene Will Always Be Remembered as Cancer Center Cheerleader

September 23, 2014

Patient Darlene Therezo and nurse Valerie Davis

Once you meet Darlene Therezo, you don’t forget her. You can’t. The fiery, former redhead, former military wife makes a distinct impression with her colorful personality and, often, her equally colorful vocabulary.

But there is one word in the English language that was tough for even gritty Darlene to hear… “cancer.”

That bad word came out of the mouth of her physician five years ago when he diagnosed Darlene with early ovarian cancer and a hysterectomy was performed. She heard it again a few months later, when a large tumor was removed during a colonoscopy procedure, and Darlene was referred to the Mercy Cancer Center in Independence for treatment. It was the absolute last place she wanted to be!

“When I first came, I was so negative, because I was so scared,” she recalled. “As soon as you hear the word ‘cancer,’ it just scares the living shhhh, um, daylights out of you. You think it’s the end.

“I was adamant that this was not happening to me.”

On that first day in the cancer center, Darlene looked around at the other faces in the treatment chairs. Good God, she thought, could she really be one of “them?”

She was introduced that day to a man who, like her, was suffering from colon cancer. He had been fighting the disease for five years.

Darlene told him flatly, “I don’t want to be here.”

His simple reply would put everything into perspective for her, “We don’t either.”

“Then, he reached out to me and put his arms around me and said, ‘It’s going to be okay.’

“I needed that so bad that day.”

Somehow, the man’s instinctive gesture gave Darlene the inspiration she needed to accept her diagnosis and embrace the challenge ahead of her. In the months – now years – since, Darlene has held that first day’s experience close to her heart and drawn upon it (along with her gifts of gab and personality) to encourage her fellow patients.

“That hug gave me hope,” she said. “We all need that. I use that experience, and I try to give that comfort to everyone else here,” Darlene said. “I tell them, ‘Keep it up!’… ‘Do your chemo ‘til the wheels fall off!’”

In fact, after nearly five years in her own cancer fight, Darlene is pretty much a walking, talking resource manual for her fellow patients and the nursing staff. From advice on what foods to eat to boost energy, what medications to steer clear of because they make you “feel like crap” to even more personal, intimate discussions about her life’s experiences unrelated to cancer, Darlene is always willing to share. Sometimes the coach. Sometimes the cheerleader.

“I’ve always tried to be the strong meanie in here. That’s my façade.

“I’m so happy every time that (celebration) bell rings. It makes you so happy to know that someone has finished treatment and won the fight.

“You see the (other) patients and you can’t help but get involved,” she explained. “You’re a sister and brotherhood of people who need to give each other good words.”

Darlene has three grown children, seven grandchildren and one great-grandchild spread across the country, but she considers her fellow patients and the “amazing “ nurses in the cancer center also part of her family.

She describes it like "a household, with a mom (nurses Valerie, Alison, Jennifer and Michele) and dad (Drs. Phu Truong and Shaker Dakhil) and the kids (the patients).

“The nurses are phenomenal. They are always there to help you, lift you up, give you the strength you need…even when you’re having a ‘cry baby’ day. If you have to have some rotten disease, the most important thing is the nurses.”

A few weeks ago, those nurses and physicians – the ones who are like family - had to deliver Darlene the news that her cancer treatment options were exhausted. Yet another dirty word had crept into her vocabulary…“terminal.”

“I’ve always been in reality since the beginning, and we’ve always been honest with one another. Some things you don’t want to hear, but you need to hear it.”

But Darlene has come to understand that, just like the word “cancer,” she can write her own definition.

“Terminal? What is that? Terminal is not until you’re on your last leg. When I was first diagnosed, they told me I only had three months, and I’ve lived five years since.”

Someone less stubborn might have bought into that original prognosis and given up. But Darlene has chosen instead to embrace life and recognize the joy in every new day she’s granted.

“Above all, you’ve got to have the drive to keep going.”

And while a few years ago, the Mercy Cancer Center was the last place Darlene wanted to experience, in her final phase of life, there was no place Darlene would rather be. After discontinuing treatment, she continued to visit the center weekly for hydration and, most important, to check in with her “family” for as long as she was physically able to make the trip. In recent days, the progression of her disease has confined her to her home, where she receives care from Mercy Hospice and our cancer center nurses continue to check in with her daily.

“It’s been a wonderful experience for a rotten thing,” she said. “If you have to experience something this devastating, this is the place to be. There’s always somebody to help you or cry with you or walk with you. You’re never alone.”