Psychiatric nurse Veronica Decker, with her husband, Dr. David Decker, was diagnosed with breast cancer. (Robin Buckson / The Detroit News)
As a psychiatric nurse practitioner working along side her oncologist husband, Dr. David Decker, Veronica Decker has comforted and counseled thousands of cancer patients and their families through their practice, Cancer Care Associates in Royal Oak.
So it was only natural when she set out to write a thoughtful, proactive guide for patients, that the recently published "Coping with Cancer" (Hygeia Media, 2009) would be essential reading for those seeking coping strategies and a positive perspective.
What came as a surprise, or rather shock, was that this couple so accustomed to helping others grapple with this horrible disease found themselves on the receiving end of a cancer diagnosis.
Last February, Veronica Decker says she felt a lump while scratching an itch. Her husband of 34 years was right next to her so she had him feel it. "Nothing like having a medical oncologist in bed with you," she says, now smiling ruefully. But she wasn't smiling back then.
The Deckers went through the same battery of tests they'd shepherded their patients through countless times: the ultrasound, the core biopsy, the wait for pathology, the MRI and finally, the call from a breast surgeon at the University of Michigan, who was consulting. (Early on, the two decided he would stay out of her care deliberately. "You need to be objective to make good decisions," he said. "I'm too emotionally tied.")
"It was a Saturday morning," David Decker recalls, "and we knew the diagnosis because the first thing she said to Veronica is 'Is Dave there with you?'
"That was not a good thing, I knew," Veronica says. "She said: 'The results of the biopsy are in and it does show you have cancer.'
"For as many times as I felt, working with patients, 'There but for the grace of God go I,' once you get the news, you do have to process it."
Decker had a lumpectomy for a 7 mm tumor. Her surgery was performed by Dr. Pamela Benitez of William Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak. Her margins were clear and there were no signs of cancer in the lymph nodes. She's been through four infusions of chemotherapy (once every three weeks) and is preparing for six weeks of radiation. She will be on hormone therapy for five to 10 years. But just because she wrote the book on coping with cancer doesn't mean she had any easier time of it.
All the dos and don'ts in the book -- managing feelings of helplessness through the "worry clock" exercise, compartmentalizing by not being a sickly patient 24 hours a day, understanding the five types of husbands, remembering that every family has highly functional and dysfunctional parts to it, is all the more poignant, if not stinging, when it's you.
"We knew what patients had said but experiencing chemo is so hard," she says. "That sick nauseating feeling is real. It's not like you can think it away. And I'm a mind person. I'm telling you: You can't think it away."
She had complications that landed her in the hospital for three days. She hated losing her hair and despises her wig. (Her husband shaved his head in support when her hair started falling out.) All the side effects -- the foggy brain, the constipation, fatigue lasting several days, the insult to injury of gaining weight with breast cancer -- are as plentiful as they are discouraging. "And he hears about all of them in great detail," she says.
Says David Decker: "I've always felt that I've understood what the woman went through and I'd normally go through their side effects with them. But you know, living through them with her, well, it's been quite different."
Through it all, Veronica Decker has discovered how to follow her own advice. In the book, she writes about being the master of your fate and making a road map for your illness. In her real-time blog, she writes: "For today, I am going to focus on the outcome I am hoping for, not the one I fear. I'm going to believe that chemotherapy is done for good, because that's all I can handle right now."
And while newcomers might not recognize that the woman reclining in the infusion room receiving her chemo is actually the psychiatric nurse whose office is just down the hall, her patients love the fact that they can say their cancer therapist has been there, done that. "They'll be describing what they are going through and I'm thinking, 'Boy, oh boy, you ain't kidding."
Her husband concurs. "For the last three months when patients ask me: 'Would you do this if it were your wife?' I can be straightforward and say: 'My wife is going through it right now.' "