When someone in your family is suffering with cancer, the whole family shares that suffering. My family learned this over the past few years when my sister, Annette Goldstein, was fighting her battle with oral cancer.
Annette was a terrific person – really fun and engaging. She wrote down other people’s words for years during her long career as a court reporter in Philadelphia. Annette loved her job, but she truly had a gift for her own words as well, both written and verbal, that she shared with everyone. We always told her that she could tell a story like no one else. She was hilarious. What a sense of humor! This, plus her unique outlook on life, many times made her the life of the party. She was opinionated and outspoken, and we loved it. She was the one brave and funny enough to say the things that everyone else was thinking but wouldn’t dare say.
Our family was lucky that Annette was also a sensitive person with a huge heart. We were close, and she also had a group of girlfriends who were fiercely loyal and loving to her. So as you can imagine, a great number of people were there to share the sorrow, then rally around Annette when she was diagnosed with cancer in August 2010. It happened at such a happy time, just two days after my wife and I announced that we were expecting our first child – our son Jack, who Aunt Annette loved with all her heart.
The diagnosis: stage 4 base-of-the-tongue and oral tongue cancer. Annette began treatment right away. She received chemo and radiation from September 2010 through December 2010. During her treatment she continued to work as a court reporter, despite the fact that it was extremely difficult for her to eat solid foods due to the radiation she received to her tongue and oral cavity. She relied on soups, mashed potatoes, and baby food. Otherwise her body seemed to respond well to the treatment.Things were good for a few months, but in March 2011 she was having some pain again, and a lesion appeared on her tongue. Annette’s surgeon and oncologist told her the unfortunate news. The cancer was back and was very aggressive. They explained she needed to have major surgery to remove more than half of her tongue, take a flap of skin and blood vessel from her leg, and make a skin graft to help rebuild her tongue. They would also need to place a feeding tube, because during recovery she would be completely unable to eat. The doctors said there was a chance the graft might not work and she could lose her entire tongue. They were also clear that if she didn’t have the surgery, she would only have up to 12 months to live. Always determined to keep on living, Annette decided to undergo the surgery. Doing nothing simply wasn’t an option for her.
Annette’s surgery occurred on April 17, 2011, and lasted more than ten hours. At 11:30 pm, the surgeon came out to speak with me. He explained that the surgery had gone fairly well, but that her case was even more intense and complicated than the doctors had originally thought. Annette was in the ICU for several days and once again our family learned to experience great joy and great sorrow simultaneously. Just days after Annette’s surgery, on April 21, 2011, my first son Jack was born. It was one of the happiest days of my life. My first child! But it was among the saddest days, too. We were worried and frightened, knowing that Annette was in the ICU in a medically induced coma as her body struggled to recover from the surgery.Jack and my wonderful wife Ashley were discharged from the hospital in days, but it was another several weeks before Annette came home. Like our new son, Annette was on a liquid diet, with a nice comfy bed to rest in. We showered them both with our love and support. Things went along ok for several months, and we were hopeful. But just as Jack was smiling those first smiles and looking around to see his little world, cancer came to Annette once more like déjà vu. It was August 2011, and in an all-too-familiar pattern, Annette started to have tongue pain. Unfortunately, the news that her doctors delivered this time was beyond bad. The cancer had spread to the other side of her tongue. Annette could go on palliative chemotherapy, but there was nothing else the physicians could do for her.
Our family was devastated, but Annette was a fighter and opted to do the palliative chemo. Our dad brought her to chemo every Thursday for the next six months, during which time Annette’s quality of life truly started to diminish. My sister’s energetic, warm ways were gone, and she became withdrawn and distant. She was constantly in a terrible amount of pain, and our hearts were breaking for her.
The first half of 2012 passed in a blur as the cancer continued to work its way around the chemo and grow rapidly. One day, in late June, I went to see Annette and found her lying in bed barely able to breathe. I rushed her to the ER at Cooper Hospital, where she had some testing done. The doctor explained that her tumors had grown so much that they were cutting off her air supply. She was rushed into surgery, where the doctor performed a tracheotomy so she could breathe. This procedure gave Annette a short window of relief as she was transferred to a nursing home so she could receive around-the-clock care.
My family and I visited Annette every day, trying to comfort her and assist with anything she needed. Her wonderful girlfriends Brenda, Stephanie, and Lori went to see her all the time too, making Annette smile and letting her know how very loved she was. I know that my son Jack was also able to bring a little sunshine to his aunt on those dark days, and I’m thankful for that. Annette was unable to speak at this point, but was able to write things down, and she repeatedly asked Ashley if we were having another baby. Every time, Ashley answered that she was not ready yet.
On the morning of Saturday, August 11, 2012, Annette passed away peacefully, and we were grateful for the fact that her pain was gone. We knew how much we would all miss her, but took comfort in knowing that she wasn’t suffering anymore and that she was now in heaven with our loving mother, Dolores. The day after Annette passed away, moved by Annette’s relentless questioning, my wife decided to take a pregnancy test. Much to our surprise, Ashley was indeed pregnant with our second child! Ashley, my wonderful wife without whom I would not have been able to weather the storm, gave birth to our son Joey on April 19, 2013. We like to think Annette had something to do with this, as she knew we needed something positive in our lives after going through this long, difficult ordeal.Have you endured cancer, or been through the journey with a loved one? If you have, you know the havoc that cancer can wreak upon an otherwise normal and organized life. Annette did not have health insurance. When she became unable to work, what money she had was quickly expended on not only her medical bills, but her regular bills as well – utilities and the like. Annette’s friends swung into action. Like a gift from above, they organized a fundraiser, and the feeling stays with me to this day. The money was a godsend to Annette. More than a year later, I am still awed by how generously people gave. My friends, coworkers, and complete strangers just gave, making donations to support my sister in her time of need. I will never forget that. It was incredible, and I was inspired.
Compelled to give back, support cancer research and awareness, and help other people who are battling this dreaded disease, Ashley and I established the Annette Goldstein Cancer Trust. Cancer needs an adversary, and that adversary needs resources and funding. We held a fundraising event in October 2014, with proceeds to benefit Cooper Medical School of Rowan University, as well as the Oral Cancer Foundation. Nearly 200 people came to dance the night away, having fun for a good cause and really celebrating Annette's memory. We hope that by partnering with these organizations, we will together ease the struggle of people who are touched by cancer. Thank you to those who attended or made a contribution to the cause. There's still time to join us as cancer’s adversaries! We welcome and appreciate any contribution made to CMSRU in Annette's memory.
I like to say that if we can help just one person, it will all be worth the effort. But I know that it’s Annette’s story, really. Annette, who could tell a story like no one else, has given the world a story to be inspired and motivated by. Like I said, she always was the brave one.