Cancer survivor thankful to have family together for Thanksgiving
Nov. 24, 2013 @ 05:19 PM

Stella Waugh’s Thanksgiving will include a spread of pies and sweet potato casserole, a house filled with about 20 people, long walks with the dogs and a football game.

“I’m thankful that she’s still here,” said Knox Tate, her husband. In their living room Saturday, they recalled Stella’s journey battling and overcoming endometrial cancer, which affects the tissue lining of the uterus.

Three years ago, Waugh, a 64-year-old UNC-Chapel Hill art history alum turned psychiatric social worker, visited her gynecologist, thinking something wasn’t right. When she was referred to UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, she was diagnosed. A question immediately ran through her mind: Would she live to see her grandchildren grow up? Doctors said they’d do the best they could.

One of her best friends was diagnosed with ovarian cancer a few weeks before her, and ended up not making it.

“It was like getting on a train that is rushing through the station,” Waugh said. “You hop on and you’re on.”

She spent Thanksgiving 2010 on the couch in front of the fire, just having come home from the hospital. She had just undergone a hysterectomy, a surgery that removed her uterus. Her friends brought over covered dishes for the entire family. She jokes now that it was nice having the spread without having to cook it.

Her stepson, Eli Tate, started medical school at UNC around the same time Waugh was diagnosed. He’d stop by her infusion room, where she was receiving treatment, still wearing his book bag. He provided reassurance at a time “when so little was reassuring,” she said.

Eli Tate is now about to apply for a radiology residency. He said now that he’s started a family of his own -- He and his wife have a 2-year-old and a 2-month-old -- the holidays are more meaningful in that they bring everyone together. He was in the Air Force from 1997 to 2007, spending four tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. One of his holidays was spent in Iraq, when his care packages arrived late and he and his airmen set up the Christmas tree in February.

He said having someone in his family diagnosed with cancer while going through medical school was a scary time for him.

“It’s just a huge waiting game,” Eli Tate said. “Anyone who’s had a friend or family member with cancer or had cancer, you’ve got to wait on a diagnosis, what is it, then you’re waiting on scans or blood tests and then you’re waiting on a prognosis, what does it all mean, and then you’re waiting on treatment, then you’re waiting on did the treatment do anything. You’re just filling in that time. It’s really challenging.”

To help, Eli Tate, his wife and friends started a “Below the Belt” group that runs in the Tar Heel 10 Miler, to help raise money for gynecologic cancer research. In their first three years alone, they’ve raised $67,000, Tate said.

In 2011, Waugh received the “sandwich” treatment, when she switched from chemotherapy, to radiation, then back to chemo, for six months.

“I remember staying in the moment, but both thinking, ‘This could be the last day of the rest of my life, what do I want it to be like? How do I want to be mindful of the moment while also thinking about how I want my life to be moving forward?’ It’s so easy to get life taken up with going to the dry-cleaners, and I don’t think that’s what I’d remember,” Waugh said.

She finished her treatment and beat her cancer in July of 2011. She hiked in the Scottish Highlands to celebrate.

Now Waugh goes back to UNC every six months for check-ups, to make sure her cancer hasn’t returned.

She said their big family on Thanksgiving day, which brings together nine grandchildren, ex-spouses who are now friends, and all of their children, is real. It’s the American family.

“It just feels really wonderful to have everybody in one place and wanting to be part of it,” Waugh said. “You just feel grateful for each day.”