Maria and her husband Peter photographed on June 9, 2012
by Chaz Salembier and Allison W. Gryphon
As a young woman, life for Maria Rimkus was all about fashion, working for hot designers like Pepe Jeans in Madrid and Tommy Hilfiger in New York. Just when her career was taking off Maria got the call that changed her world. In 1990, at the age of twenty-four, her battle with cancer had begun.
Maria was far from home, living and working in Spain, when she found a lump on her collarbone. It was Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Maria returned to the states and went through three months of intensive treatment and radiation. She became a familiar face at Boston’s Dana Farber Cancer Institute, first as a fighter and later as a survivor going in for checkups.
Moving on with life, Maria fell in love with Peter McLaughlin. They were married, settled down in Florida and shortly thereafter brought a pair of beautiful twin boys into the world. Cancer-free and happy, Maria was living life to the fullest.
And then, this past April, something changed. Maria wasn’t feeling like herself.
Peter took her to the emergency room. Maria’s doctors in Boston were called. The next day Maria and Peter were on the first flight out of Florida. Soon thereafter Maria was diagnosed with cholangiocarcinoma, a rare cancer of the bile ducts and liver. She was given six months to a year.
In May, through her dear friend Kelly Schandel, Maria and Allison W. Gryphon were introduced. The hope was for Maria to participate in Allison’s documentary What The F@#- Is Cancer and Why Does Everybody Have It?. Logistics and treatments for both women prevented an interview for the movie so we found another way to share the strength and determination of this amazing woman.
Meet Maria. This is her own story in her own words as told on June 10, 2012.
WHAT KIND OF CANCER ARE YOU FIGHTING?
I was at the Dana Farber clinic last November for testing and everything was normal.
In April, I was diagnosed with cholangiocarcinoma, a rare cancer of the bile ducts and liver. They think it may have a small metastasis to some lymph nodes. This will be confirmed after my next PET and unfortunately means I am not a candidate for a liver transplant. My prognosis is not good. The doctors said if I live a year that would be considered a ‘homerun’.
IS THERE A HISTORY OF CANCER IN YOUR FAMILY?
There is a little history. My sister had thyroid cancer in 1991, the year after I had Hodgkin’s.
DO YOU KNOW WHERE YOUR CANCER CAME FROM?
Yes. When I had Hodgkin’s, the doctors marked me with small tattoos where the radiation went in for precise location. My main tumors are directly over where the radiation was done; therefore what saved me twenty-four years ago is what is killing me now.
DID YOU THINK YOU WERE AT RISK?
Yes, due to my past history, I have always felt susceptible to another cancer.
WHAT TYPE OF TREATMENT HAVE YOU BEEN THROUGH AND WHAT ARE YOU FACING?
I have already done one round of six cycles of chemotherapy. I will probably do this to extend my life expectancy for as long as possible. If I get lucky and they let me have a liver and bile duct transplant, I may have a better chance, but that would mean that the cancer had not metastasis as far as they now think. I am also on many medications, and two shots a day for blood thinners, as they have found blood clots in my leg.
HAVE YOU EXPERIENCED ANY SIDE EFFECTS FROM TREATMENTS OR SURGERY?
My hair has thinned, but ironically even though I am on one of the harshest chemo treatments, most people do not lose their hair on this chemo.
HOW IMPORTANT ARE YOU FINDING DIET AND EXERCISE IN GETTING THROUGH THIS?
I have always been athletic and worked out, but once I started feeling tired I was only doing yoga. Since I was diagnosed I have not worked out at all, but am hoping that after a few more sessions of chemo I will find the energy to start doing light exercises.
As for diet, I have read so much. I love the book AntiCancer. I’ve met with a macrobiotic specialist and nutritionist. The macrobiotic diet, although it might be beneficial for a healthy person and good in the long run, is not working for me at the moment. I need to gain weight and put on as many calories as possible, which just is not happening on a macrobiotic diet. I think you should eat a plant-based diet, but some organic meat is also fine.
HOW ARE YOU FIGHTING CANCER EMOTIONALLY?
I am mentally strong and positive, which I really believe is half the battle. I have such a strong support system of family and friends, and have been very open and honest about my fight with cancer. We are an open book, with my husband writing in a blog to keep everyone updated.
I feel at peace, thinking that I have been given an extra twenty-four years of life, in which time I met my wonderful husband and had my beautiful twin boys. That does not mean I am not going to fight my hardest to beat this and watch my boys grow up.
WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR OTHER CANCER FIGHTERS?
Keep a positive attitude, go one day at a time so as not to be overwhelmed, and find something good in everyday!
WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR THE MEDICAL PROFESSION?
Be compassionate, and try to put yourself in the position of the patient.
WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR FRIENDS, FAMILY AND CO-WORKERS OF CANCER FIGHTERS?
Be supportive and let the cancer fighter know you are there for them, but also give them their space. A lot of times we don’t want visitors, and feel like we have to entertain when people come to visit. We need our rest.
HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT THE FUTURE? WHAT ARE YOUR HOPES AND DREAMS?
I am positive! I hope to have a great future and want to watch my boys grow up. I am hoping I will feel strong enough to go to my thirty year high school reunion on the west coast this summer. My husband and I also want to take the boys to Costa Rica for New Years and celebrate our tenth wedding anniversary there, which is where we got married.
FOR YOU IN ONE WORD WHAT IS CANCER?
As of today Maria is fighting the fight and feeling good with the help of acupuncture and her amazing support system which you can learn more about at Caring Bridge.