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A FRIEND IN THE DARK TIMES: CHEMO COACHES SHARE THEIR WISDOM

In Millard Fillmore Suburban Hospital, Nancy Feuerstein of Alden was recovering from the removal of cancerous tumors that weighed 40 pounds.

When a stranger popped in to see her, all Mrs. Feuerstein could silently think was, "Go away!"

"I was terribly, terribly depressed," recalled the survivor of ovarian cancer.

But the visitor did not go away.

"I could see fear in her eyes," said the "uninvited guest," Beverly Gryta.

Ms. Gryta, 69, who taught English at North Tonawanda High School, knows that fear.

It's the fear of chemotherapy.

It's the fear of pain.

It's the fear of death.

Ms. Gryta, who herself survived two bouts with cancer, a heart attack and chemotherapy, was to be Mrs. Feuerstein's chemo coach.

And coached she has, Knute Rockne-like, right through the final stages of Mrs. Feuerstein's treatment this year.

Chemo coaches like Beverly Gryta, through their own "proof of life," have given thousands of area cancer patients the encouragement, the one-on-one winning formula to break through their fears and focus on survival.

When it comes to cancer, chemo is often the real dreaded Big C. Though today's side effects from anti-cancer drugs "are not always as bad as expected, their reputation makes chemotherapy the most anxiety-provoking treatment," says former Roswell Park Cancer Institute chief Gerald P. Murphy in a new booklet, "Informed Decisions," put out by the American Cancer Society. The local office of the American Cancer Society sponsors the team of chemo coaches for which Ms. Gryta volunteers.

"Cancer is not what it used to be," agrees Ms. Gryta, who carried a journal into Nancy
Feuerstein's room to record her fears. "Eighty percent of our survival depends on our attitude toward this disease.

"Nancy was frightened to death of chemotherapy. It was just paralyzing her. I think it's the fear of the unknown.

"I kept pounding Nancy with my words: 'Things are going to get better. Your life will get back to normal. And you'll be fine.' And it does happen that way most of the time, believe it or not."

Mrs. Feuerstein, 64, who worked as a monitor for handicapped children, does feel better than she did in those dark days last winter, when she first met her chemo coach.

"I wasn't very receptive," she grins. "I was real sick. I didn't want to talk about it, I didn't want to talk about it. But Beverly kept coming, every time I went into chemo. She helped me a lot.

"My husband couldn't accept this. It was very hard for him," says Mrs. Feuerstein. "The first time the doctor explained exactly what I had, it was a weird feeling, like he wasn't talking to me, like an after-death experience. You have no idea what a terrible, shocking thing it is to find out you have something like that. It's really tough. You have to be a strong person to get through it. People like Beverly help.

"I was deathly, deathly afraid of chemo. But you have no choice -- either you have it or you die. Beverly started explaining it to me, that it wasn't as bad as people say. I thought you laid there and tasted gasoline! She's a very loving, helpful person. There she was -- living, breathing proof that everybody doesn't die. It gives you confidence. She was a really a big help."

When she has chemo, she goes into the hospital on Friday morning and goes home on Saturday afternoon. "I'm hooked up all that while. My chemo lasts 24 hours," Mrs. Feuerstein explains. "I watch the cooking channel on TV; I don't have it on my cable."

Her coach comes in and talks to her while she's "hooked up."

"I look forward to seeing her. She's a friendly, funny person, interesting to talk to. She writes what I tell her in her book. We laugh and joke around. And I'm doing good.

"Chemo itself isn't bad. You don't feel anything. It's the aftereffects. I don't have nausea anymore. I did when I first started the chemo, and they gave me pills. Now I can eat and I don't get sick. I lost my hair. I wear a scarf or a turban, rather than all that fake hair all the time. I'm weak. I still can't cook or do my own housework. I had to sit on the floor to sort my laundry. I'm looking forward to getting better."

As in Beverly Gryta's case.

Ms. Gryta underwent chemo for lung cancer in 1991. "I knew it was something I had to do if I was going to survive," says the former smoker.

For four months, she would "take my novels in, sit in a lounge chair for three hours, three mornings in a row, once a month -- and would read and have my infusion. And go home and go about my business." Medication eliminated her initial nausea.

"You get good books and you're in a different world. It took my mind off of it. I knew my hair was going to come out. As I saw it washing down the drain in the morning, I would say: 'So what? It's just hair.' I had to make myself feel strong. I had to have that attitude to be a survivor."

She adds with a laugh:

"My doctor was sweet. He told me: 'I really have some good news for you. Your hair is going to fall out, but it's going to grow back and it's going to be curly. That's the good news. The bad news is that it won't stay curly.'

"Sometimes friends can't even talk straight to people with cancer. They can't handle it at all. Family members and friends do care deeply, but knowing that someone cares outside that group makes people feel they're getting help."

In "Informed Decisions," oncologist Murphy and his collaborators, nurse Dianne Lange and journalist Lois B. Morris, stress the importance of a support network.

"Studies have long shown that men and women who have strong bonds with others endure crisis best," they write.

After her own trial by chemo was long over, Ms. Gryta decided to coach. "Laughter is good for the soul -- body and mind, too. I do a lot of clowning," she says.

Witty chemo coaches such as Beverly Gryta, believes patient Nancy Feuerstein, are just the prescription for survival.

If you have completed chemotherapy at least one year ago and are interested in being a coach, you can call the American Cancer Society at 689-6981.

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