How a Trip from Alaska to Goodyear May Have Saved a Woman's Life
Like many people who learn that they have breast cancer, Pako Whannell thought there must be some kind of mistake.
“When I first was diagnosed, I think I was in shock. (I thought), No, they’ve got it wrong. They were looking at someone else’s records or tests,” said Whannell, a patient at Cancer Treatment Centers of America in Goodyear. “So, I kind of went through stages of grief almost, where you’re in shock or disbelief. You’re angry. You’re sad.”
But when Whannell worked through those feelings, she said enough is enough. A natural optimist, she refused to let negativity rule her life.
“I said, ‘Hey, that’s not helping me. I need to be positive and focus on how am I going to get through this and how am I going to survive this,’” she said.
It’s that positive attitude, along with the treatment at CTCA, that has helped Whannell get to where she is today.
On April 6, 2018 – her birthday, of all days – Whannell got the bad news from her doctor: She was diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer. To make matters worse, she wasn’t receiving the highest-quality care at her treatment facility in Alaska, where she and her husband lived.
“I saw CTCA commercials come on the TV several times, and I thought, ‘This is a sign. God is telling me to call,’” she said. “My husband actually made the initial call, and he said, ‘Honey, you need to call. You need to talk to the CTCA reps. They can get you in next week.’”
It’s a long flight from Alaska to Arizona, but it was likely a life-saving one for Whannell.
“When I got down here, the diagnosis was a little more aggressive. I did have cancer, but it was Stage 4. It was in my lymph nodes and my sternum bone,” she said. “If I did not come down here, they would have just treated me for the lump in my left breast. So, my husband and I are so grateful that we made that call and we came down here.”
Whannell soon began to undergo treatment, including chemotherapy, at CTCA. But going back and forth between Arizona and Alaska began to take its toll, and she suffered from infections due to her sheer amount of travel. So, the Whannells decided to move to Goodyear permanently earlier this year.
“We found a house (in Goodyear), and miraculously, in the wintertime we sold our house in Alaska,” she said. “It was meant to be. We moved here officially in February, and we love it down here.”
'A FACILITY OF FAMILY AND FRIENDS'
Along with top-notch treatment, Whannell was blown away by the positivity and emotional support she received at CTCA.
“Just the environment here in general at CTCA is so positive,” she said. "Everybody remembers your name. Everyone remembers your face. You’re in the cafeteria, they say hi, they give you a hug, they ask how your treatment’s going. That just almost makes you feel like you’re in a facility of family and friends.”
Whannell’s oncologist, Dr. Cynthia Lynch, helped put Whannell’s mind at ease when she was told her cancer was more aggressive than she was originally told it was.
“I think a lot of times, the shock of when they first get that diagnosis, they just feel like they’ve gotten this very bad news and not really knowing where they go from there,” Lynch said. “So, sometimes even just once they meet with the physicians here and they hear about what their diagnosis is and what the treatment options are … it’s something that is treatable and, in many cases, curable.”
Whannell and Lynch have become good friends during her treatment at CTCA.
“She’s like a sister. She treats you like family. Every time I see her for an appointment, she gives me a hug and asks how I’m doing,” Whannell said. “But she’s very to the point, does not beat around the bush, and gives me the information that I need.”
Dr. Lynch said the resiliency of Whannell, along with the other women she has treated at CTCA, inspires her daily.
“I think it’s an absolute honor for me to be a part of women’s lives as they’re going through this journey every day,” she said. “Even the women who have a disease that’s more advanced and not curable but treatable, even those women are just so amazing, the way they carry themselves. You look at all the treatments and things that individuals go through, and yet, they’re still mothers, they’re sisters, they’re wives still taking care of all those people around them, too, and taking care of themselves, as well," she said.
'YOU JUST KEEP GOING'
Whannell is a natural optimist, but staying positive was especially difficult during her first round of cancer treatments.
“The most difficult was just the aftereffects of chemo. You’re tired, you’re irritable,” she said. “The first two treatments were the hardest because it’s the unknown – what do I expect? And I didn’t know what to expect. I couldn’t eat for a while. Tired. Shaking. Bone aches. It almost felt like the bones were pulling apart.”
But Whannell, a longtime personal trainer and PE coach, remembered that her philosophy of optimism and perseverance applies to her just as much as it does to her students and clients.
“I preach to them never to give up during a hard workout, and so I had to practice what I preached, and say, ‘I cannot give up. There’s no way,’” she said.
“You just keep going. You stay positive. That’s the biggest thing, was to stay positive. As Dr. Lynch told me: It’s not going to be easy, but we will help you. That just made me feel, OK, I just need to get through it, show up for my appointments and treatments, and stay positive and just get through it.”
Whannell’s best piece of advice for those suffering from breast cancer, or any kind of cancer, is simple: Do something every day that makes you happy.
“The positivity every day, whether it’s self-affirmations, reading a scripture in the Bible, a walk with your dog – do something positive so you stay positive, because that really is the biggest battle there,” she said.
'CANCER DOES NOT DISCRIMINATE'
Whannell’s unwavering optimism, combined with CTCA’s top-notch treatment, have proven to be a one-two punch too big for cancer to counter: Whannell has shown no evidence of disease for nearly three months.
But through her fight, Whannell has one lingering regret.
“Because I was so healthy, I did not go in for my annual mammograms,” she said. “I thought, ‘I’m invincible, I’m the healthy one, I don’t need a mammogram.’ Totally wrong. Cancer does not discriminate, and you need to go in.”
Breast cancer mortality rates have slowly but steadily declined every year since 2006. Dr. Lynch said early detection has a lot to do with that – and screenings are typically fully covered by insurance.
“Like any screening test, it’s not a perfect test, but we absolutely know that the earlier someone’s diagnosed, the higher the chances of curing that cancer,” she said.
But there’s also good news for those who have already been diagnosed, as CTCA is leading the way in clinical trials.
“That’s a good option for women to consider, especially anyone who’s been diagnosed with breast cancer, to ask that question: What are the standard treatments available to me, but also, maybe treatments through clinical trials beyond just standard of care?” Lynch said.
Whannell’s treatment is ongoing. She has checkups every three months, as well as CT and bone scans twice a year. She is taking prescribed organic supplements and is undergoing chiropractic care.
Physically, Whannell isn’t quite back to where she wants to be, but she’s getting there. She stays active, working out and swimming when she can. And she spends the rest of her free time motivating those suffering from the same disease.
“I have been actually getting some phone calls from friends whose mothers or sisters have breast cancer,” she said. “I always refer them to CTCA, and say, ‘This is the best place to be,’ and kind of give them my experience so that they feel comfortable and at ease.”
It’s rare to not see Whannell wearing pink these days, as she’s dedicated her life to providing support for women going through the same battle she has. She continues to preach the importance of positivity and optimism. One of her favorite sayings: Believe you can, and you’re halfway there.
“Now that I am a survivor, I want everyone else to know that there’s help out there, there’s support out there, to stay positive,” she said. “I want to help others that are going through the same thing I did, because I’ve been there, done that, and I want them to know that there’s hope, and that they can survive as well.”