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Rita Trocheck: Strong and determined

For patients diagnosed with cancer, hope and healing are essential, and can come from many sources. For Rita Trocheck, 52, of Presto, hope and healing came in the form of a beautiful baby boy named Giulian. Giulian, her first grandchild, arrived just a few weeks before her cancer diagnosis. Throughout every step of her long and arduous cancer journey, he has been a bright light, a blessing and an inspiration. He was, she says, “my best medicine,” and a powerful reason to get well. Today, two years after diagnosis, Rita is cancer-free and enjoying every precious moment with Giulian, her husband Vince, her son Vincent, his wife Hillary and son Leonardo, and daughters Desiree (Giulian’s mother) and Nina.

When Rita turned 50 in 2017, she scheduled a screening colonoscopy, in keeping with the then standard recommendation. Life was good; her son Vincent was playing pro hockey in the NHL for the Florida Panthers and the family attended as many games as possible. Her daughter Desiree had just given birth to a healthy boy, and Rita was overjoyed. She was only worried that she might have diverticulitis. But when she woke up after her colonoscopy, she was shocked to learn from gastroenterologist Lisa A. Oliva, D.O., that she had Stage 3 colorectal cancer. After telling her husband and her son, Rita called her lifelong friend, St. Clair Hospital Breast Care Center Director Raye J. Budway, M.D., who referred her immediately to St. Clair colorectal surgeon Scott A. Holekamp, M.D.

Dr. Holekamp, she says, calmed her fear, telling her, “You’re going to get through this.” Insured through Aetna, Rita says her care team also included Vincent E. Reyes, Jr., M.D., Chief of Hematology & Medical Oncology, and Robert S. Werner, M.D., Chief of Radiation Oncology. While continuing to work as an underwriter for a bank, she had five weeks of both radiation and chemotherapy prior to two surgeries — a colon resection with ileostomy and a hysterectomy. Next came another four weeks of chemotherapy, which left her with weakness in her legs due to neuropathy. In April 2018, her ileostomy was reversed, and a PET (positron emission tomography) scan in October provided welcome news: she was clear of cancer. Another PET scan in January 2019 was also clear, and she will have a colonoscopy annually to monitor her status.

Rita feels great today. She has made radical changes to her lifestyle: her diet is a healthy one with no red meat, dairy, sugar and alcohol. She even gave up her favorite, red licorice. She eats lots of fruits and vegetables and occasional organic turkey, and although she acknowledges that it’s a strict regimen, she has a strong will and is determined to be as healthy as she can be.

With the cancer behind her, Rita reflects on the experience with gratitude and wonder. She claims that a person with cancer needs three essential things: great doctors, a strong support system and a positive attitude. “I can’t say enough about my doctors. They were perfectionists and I appreciated that. Dr. Holekamp is upbeat and full of life, and I was lucky to have my friend Raye Budway (M.D.) involved. She assisted in my surgery and that was reassuring.”

Cancer is very much a mind game, Rita states. “You have to stay positive: tell yourself you are going to make yourself feel and look good. I stayed calm and confident for my kids; I never let them see me sick or scared, and I told them I would be there for them always.” Rita’s support system was anchored by her husband Vince. “Vince was so encouraging; if I was feeling down, he pulled me right up. He helped me at every step.” Cancer has turned Rita into an advocate for colonoscopy screening: “It’s so important. Women don’t realize that colon cancer is common for us. Get screened as early as possible and pay attention to what you eat. Unhealthy eating can make you very sick.”

There were moments in her cancer journey when things seemed to happen with amazing synchrony. “My daughter having the baby just weeks before my diagnosis felt like a gift from God. I believe Giulian came to help me. He’s a happy, pleasant baby, and every day when I saw his face, I felt better and I did better. He is pure joy, and now we have another beautiful baby, my grandson Leo, who is eight months old.” Rita’s mother was diagnosed with colon cancer, too, at age 80, just months after Rita; she underwent surgery and is doing well today. The coincidence of mother and daughter going through colorectal cancer together brought the whole family, including Rita’s brothers, closer, she says.

Rita had a touching experience when she accompanied her mother to a radiation treatment session at St. Clair. “I wasn’t happy to be there; it was cold outside, I was tired and I was feeling kind of sorry for myself while I sat in the waiting room. I was thinking, ‘Why do I have to be here?’ A young couple came in and we started talking. They were just 26 and he had colon cancer — exactly the same kind I had had. I told him my story, and he cried to hear it. He said that talking to me helped him. And then I knew why I was there — there was a purpose in it.”

Rita’s neuropathy is improving and is expected to resolve completely. Meanwhile, she is enjoying her family and going regularly to Florida Panthers games. The family attends all games within a three-hour drive, and travels to Florida once a month during hockey season to support Vincent and to see her grandson Leo.

Cancer has changed her, she says. “I’ve changed the way I talk to my kids; I’m more sensitive and I try harder to see the good in people. When people are behaving badly, there’s a reason and I try not to judge. I know that we can’t count on tomorrow. Do what you need to do today, and make your loved ones happy.”

 

SCOTT A. HOLEKAMP, M.D.

Dr. Holekamp specializes in colon and rectal surgery. He earned his medical degree at University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, and completed a residency in general surgery at Beth Israel Medical Center, New York City. He then completed a fellowship in colon and rectal surgery at the University of Miami /Jackson Memorial Hospital. He is board-certified by the American Board of Colon and Rectal Surgery and the American Board of Surgery. Dr. Holekamp practices with St. Clair Medical Services.

To contact Dr. Holekamp, please call 412.572.6192.