When she taught fifth grade, Judy Bores, of Cherry Hill, was a mentor, an advisor and a leader by experience for her students. Now as a cancer survivor, she puts those same skills to use for cancer patients at Cooper Cancer Institute (CCI) to help guide them through their treatment and beyond.
Judy became a volunteer at CCI following treatment for peritoneal ovarian cancer, a rare cancer that develops in the thin, delicate sheet (peritoneum) that lines the inside wall of the abdomen, covers the uterus and expands over the bladder and rectum, and says it has brought her more rewarding experiences than she can count. Judy’s cancer was first discovered after a routine pap smear showed abnormal cells.
“Having a father who was also a physician taught me to do what I was supposed to do for my health,” she says.
Suspecting cervical cancer, her physician ordered a battery of tests, including a cervical conization (the surgical removal of a cone shaped wedge from the cervix), but nothing was found. The next step was exploratory surgery, which exposed several small tumors inside her abdominal cavity. The surgeon described it as if someone threw sand into her abdomen. A radical hysterectomy was performed.
Upon waking from surgery, Judy recalls her family standing bedside staring at her. “I remember thinking I was either dead and this is my viewing or I have cancer,” she laughs.
It was with this sense of humor, coupled with a determined spirit, that she resolved from the beginning to not let cancer define her. She took charge of the situation, reviewed all of her options and started chemotherapy at CCI. She says she felt perfectly at peace with her decision after her mother, who passed away nearly thirteen years ago, visited her in a dream and said “it’s okay.”
It was during one of several six-hour chemo sessions that Judy began to feel restless. Her husband was recovering from heart surgery, so most of the time in treatment she spent by herself, thinking. She asked a nurse if there were any volunteers who spent time with patients in the chemotherapy suite, and, if not, could she fill the void.
Who knows better than a cancer survivor what it’s like to be diagnosed with the disease and go through treatment? It’s one thing to talk to a medical caregiver, Judy thought, but some aspects can be better answered or addressed by someone who has been through the experience.
With this in mind, Judy began spending time with patients following her own treatment to give patients the opportunity to talk about fears and concerns, ask questions, and have a little fun with “Chemo-Bingo,” a game she coordinates with lottery tickets for prizes. She also hands out cards with her home phone number for patients to reach out anytime.
“My sisters thought I was crazy, but I actually began to look forward to chemotherapy,” she says. “When you face the ‘demons’ with other people, it helps to take the scary part out of it.”
Patients, family and staff have thoroughly embraced Judy’s efforts and look forward to her weekly visits and contribute money for prizes. “Helping other people has really helped me,” she says. “Everybody has an amazing story and their own journeys. The patients give back more to me than I could ever give to them.”
Now that Judy has completed her chemotherapy regimen and is considered to be in remission, she also continues to volunteer at CCI and has no plans to stop. She continues to enjoy life to the fullest, returning to Pilates, spending time with her husband and eleven grandchildren, all while taking care of her father who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
“Everything worked out,” she explains, “because I never let cancer slow me down or place limitations on what I could do.”
Knowing that life can change in an instant, Judy says cancer had made her a much more empathetic, patient and understanding individual. “I wake up every morning wondering about the new journeys many people will face that day and hope they understand that ‘it’s okay and there is a reason for this challenge.’“