Christine E. Sprecher faced a dilemma. She needed daily treatment at a hospital 3 hours from home to fight a serious infection, but couldn’t afford the cost of a hotel room for the estimated 6 weeks of treatment time. She’d lost several teeth and endured pain, infection, and bone loss in her jaw, which had been weakened by years of cancer treatment.
Sprecher’s nurse contacted the American Cancer Society Hope Lodge program and Sprecher was accepted into the Marshfield, Wisconsin Hope Lodge facility, just a few minutes’ drive from the hospital. The Hope Lodge program offers cancer patients and their caregivers a free place to stay when their best opportunity for treatment is far from home.
She’s receiving hyperbaric oxygen therapy, which involves breathing pure oxygen in a pressurized chamber, to help her body fight the infection. As she recovers, Sprecher says she is in less pain and beginning to be able to eat normally again.
It all started with a toothache last May. At first Sprecher tried to ignore the pain because she feared it would be difficult to find an oral surgeon who takes Medicaid. When the pain became so great she couldn’t bear it any longer, she called her case worker. By the time she got a doctor’s appointment, Sprecher had several infected teeth. She had them pulled, but the infection spread to her jaw, weakening it further and causing it to break.
But her story begins long before that, many years ago.
Sprecher married her high school sweetheart in the early 1970s, when she was just 17 years old, and soon had 3 children. It was not a happy marriage, and her problems were compounded by mental and physical health conditions, which kept her from being able to hold down a job.
About 10 years later, Sprecher began noticing very heavy bleeding, different from her usual menstrual periods. She was diagnosed with early stage cervical cancer and underwent a hysterectomy. She says the recovery was not difficult, and she was simply relieved that she’d already had children and was not concerned about preserving her fertility.
About 20 years later when she was around 47 years old, Sprecher noticed a painful lump on her left breast that extended down her arm. By this time, she and her husband were separated. She was diagnosed with a very aggressive type of breast cancer and had surgery the next day to remove the breast.
Sprecher had radiation treatments, and then began chemotherapy. She was still getting health insurance through her husband, but partway through her treatment, he changed providers and she learned she’d be without coverage for 4 months. “I couldn’t wait 4 months,” she said. Instead, she found an American Cancer Society patient navigator who helped her get care at the University of Wisconsin hospital in Madison. The navigator also helped get her a mastectomy bra and a wig.
About 6 months after her last chemo treatment, Sprecher was scheduled to have breast reconstruction surgery. But before she could have the operation, doctors found cancer in her right breast. This time it was a less aggressive, slow-growing type. Sprecher chose to have a mastectomy (removal of the breast) over breast-conserving surgery. She then went through another round of radiation and chemo treatments.
“When they told me I had another cancer, I don’t even remember being in the doctor’s office, so it’s a good thing my daughters were with me, because they filled me in,” Sprecher said. “It finally hit me when we got back to the apartment. I thought I was going to buckle to the ground, I was so scared. They held me and we all cried.”
You feel so isolated and alone when someone tells you have breast cancer.
As she was nearing the end of her chemo treatments, Sprecher developed pneumonia and was hospitalized. She says she’s grateful for the support of her children. “You feel so isolated and alone when someone tells you have breast cancer,” she said. That sense of isolation continued even after she returned home. Only her children were allowed to visit, and they had to wear masks and wash their hands often with antibacterial soap while they were around her.
After her recovery, Sprecher underwent breast reconstruction with saline implants. However, surgery could be completed on only one breast. The wound on her second breast would not heal, and she developed MRSA, a resistant type of staph infection.
She lived with 1 implant for 8 years until it ruptured and had to be removed. She decided not to replace it. By then she’d already had 14 surgeries on her chest and didn’t want to undergo more. “I’m just happy I beat the cancer,” she said. Follow-up tests since her last treatment have shown Sprecher is still cancer free.
All the while, Sprecher was attempting to finalize the divorce from her husband. She used a Legal Aid program that helped her get free legal service, but the process was time consuming. It took 10 years and she lost her house, but she’s grateful to be free. “It wasn’t the breast cancer that made me cry; it was my marriage. I’m glad I’m out of there,” she said.
At the Hope Lodge facility, Sprecher says she has everything she needs. Her private room is spacious and has a queen-size bed, a walk-in shower, and an office with a desk and chair. In the Hope Lodge kitchen, she has her own space in the refrigerator and pantry. But she rarely needs it because local restaurants and organizations provide meals most days. Snacks and drinks are always available and she has the opportunity to meet and talk with the staff and other guests.
“It’s wonderful,” said Sprecher. “It’s nicer than a very fancy hotel, decorated fantastically, the people are helpful, and there’s always a puzzle going in the library.”
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