WAUSEON — Peg Pollzzie sat patiently as fluids pumped into a port attached to her chest — a prelude to her second round of chemotherapy at Mercy St. Anne Hospital.
Just a few feet away, her 20-year-old daughter, Erin, removed the pink crocheted cap that covered her baldness, closed her eyes, and let a massage therapist begin working on her as she too underwent chemotherapy.
Although mother and daughter always have been close — Ms. Pollzzie homeschooled her only child for 10 years and the pair love to go shopping together — cancer is a shared experience they hadn't counted on.
Just last month, Ms. Pollzzie, 57, learned that the Stage IV colon cancer she’d undergone chemotherapy for in 2010 and 2011 was back. Her daughter was given a diagnosis in June of Stage II Hodgkins lymphoma, a disease her doctors assure her is highly curable. The diagnosis came more than a year after she developed symptoms that included itching, oozing sores on her legs and, later, inflamed lymph nodes.
“I was relieved when they finally figured out what was wrong and said it’s curable. If they would have said I had a 50/50 chance, I probably would have had more of a problem with it,” Erin said during an interview at the Wauseon home she shares with her mother. “My doctor said, ‘You’re so young. You’ll do fine. It will go away.’ He was very positive.”
Her mother’s prognosis is not so rosy. Stage IV colon cancer is incurable, though treatment may keep it at bay.
“As long as they can keep mine under control, we’re good,” Ms. Pollzzie said. “I know it scares Erin a lot. I try to do my best.”
Mother and daughter say they don’t spend time crying together, but they hug each other a lot.
“I tell her it’s just a little bump in the road,” Ms. Pollzzie said. “Take advantage of this down time. Get yourself healthy. Think about your future. When you’re ready to go, it will present itself.”
Erin, who has not been well enough to go to school or work since June, admits she’s not nearly as positive-thinking as her mother.
Just before her sixth round of chemotherapy at St. Anne’s last week — it was her mother’s second treatment — Erin said it can be hard to look at the bright side.
“She’s all positive about the treatment and I don’t like it,” Erin said with a laugh. “She’ll say, ‘They give you lunch.’ I don’t like it. She says, ‘You get a heated blanket.’ It gets cold. She says, ‘You can watch TV.’ You can watch TV at home.”
Still, Ms. Pollzzie recalled one time when Erin was the one who delivered the pep talk to her. After she learned her cancer was back, Ms. Pollzzie was feeling down about the prospect of another course of chemotherapy. She couldn’t shake the dark cloud overhead.
“Erin said, ‘You did good the first time, and you’ll do good again,’” Ms. Pollzzie recalled. “Having someone tell me that, especially her, really helped me out. We support each other and we hug each other a lot. We go out for lunch. We have a mother-daughter, close relationship.”
Dr. Adnan Alkhalili, a hematology oncologist with Mercy Cancer Centers who has worked with Ms. Pollzzie since her first diagnosis in 2010, said she had "an excellent response" to chemotherapy the first time, and he is hoping for more of the same. Her age and otherwise good health work in her favor, he said.
"Stage IV is the most advanced stage of any cancer, which means the cancer has left its point of origin and is evidenced in new locations," he said. "It is not curable but hopefully controllable."
Dr. Alkhalili said the timing is unfortunate for the Pollzzies. Family members want to be healthy and strong when a loved one is fighting cancer. They want to be able to support them, and that’s difficult when both are sick.
Penny McCloskey, program director at the Victory Center, which provides services to local cancer patients, said much the same.
“It’s kind of a double-edged sword in a way,” she said. “There’s that closeness with a family member or a close friend that when you’re going through this together, you understand and can share the experience, but you can’t be the healthy one for that person going through treatment. You can’t drop other things you’re doing and take care of them because you may be too tired yourself.”
Frank Pollzzie of Swanton recently organized a benefit in Delta to help Erin with her medical expenses. He takes his daughter and ex-wife to treatments, spending the day at St. Anne’s in West Toledo while they see their doctors and undergo chemotherapy.
“What are the odds of that happening?” Mr. Pollzzie said of their simultaneous bouts with cancer. “This is a bad situation, but I heard worse stories putting that benefit together.”
For more than a year, while dealing with her own health concerns, Ms. Pollzzie took Erin to doctors trying to find out was wrong with her daughter, who had run cross country, swum, played soccer, and been active in band and choir. She took her to dermatologists, allergists, a homeopath, a pulmonary specialist, and finally an oncologist.
Erin, a 2010 Delta High School graduate, said her diagnosis was bittersweet.
“He goes, ‘Sorry to tell you this, but this is most likely a type of cancer.’ That still bothers me,” Erin said, shaking her head. “We were dealing with it for so long, and it ends up being cancer. They thought it was just an infection. They kept telling me that.”
The hardest part? Not being able to do the things 20-year-olds do: go to college, go to work, go out with friends, Erin said.
Her doctor has urged her to go back to her job at Subway in Delta, but she tires so easily she doesn’t think she’s ready. She’s looking forward to the end of her chemotherapy in January. She hopes to go to college, perhaps to become a dental hygienist, although she’s not sure.
For her mother, the tough part is the fear of the unknown.
“I don’t have that all the time but once in a while it sneaks up on me,” Ms. Pollzzie said. “Everyone can say, ‘Oh you can go out and get hit by a car.’ It’s different. It’s not quite the same.”
Neither Erin nor her mother said she was angry to learn she had cancer.
“My faith was strong, and I don’t blame God or ask why did this happen to me,” Ms. Pollzzie said. “I just blame it on Satan. Satan was trying to get to us big time. He was trying his hardest to break us down. I kept saying, ‘My faith is strong and you’re not going to get to me.’ I still to this day don’t have anger about it. It’s for a reason but I don’t know exactly why. Maybe I am to help others deal with it in the future or help Erin deal with it.”
She’s had numerous encounters with strangers who have prayed for her or inspired her. She hopes to do the same for others.
For now, Ms. Pollzzie’s doctor has told her the latest round of chemotherapy will not cure the disease but should keep it under control.
“Only by a miracle will it ever go away,” she said. “Well, I believe in miracles.”
Contact Jennifer Feehan at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6129.