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Hers is a story of courage, faith and hope in spite of the cards she was dealt by life.
Two years ago, Rhonda Sauls of Walterboro was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. But in spite of the challenges she has faced, she has kept a positive attitude and her faith in God.
She had problems with her cycle since she was 19. She was told she had a virus, that if she’d lose weight, her problems would get better. She asked about a hysterectomy over the years and was told it “wasn’t medically necessary and the insurance wouldn’t cover it. Nobody ever dug deeper to see what the problem was, what was causing it,” Sauls said. The only recommendations were to lose weight.
Then about two years ago, she started swelling. “I got to the point where it was like I was nine months pregnant. I couldn’t even wear my clothes,” she said. She went to the local emergency room, where they did a CT scan.
“I think they didn’t really want to tell me that I had cancer. They just said it could be my liver, endometriosis or it could be cancer. That I needed to follow up with a GYN.”
She tried to make an appointment here, but their next available appointment was in over a week. And her gut told her not to wait. So, she went to the ER at the Medical University of S.C.
“The doctor was very, very nice. I remember his name was Patrick. I told him what they told me in Colleton County, so he knew I knew there was a possibility of cancer. And he came in and got on his knees in front of me and told me ‘I’m so sorry. It came back that it is cancer.’ He said it’s ovarian cancer.”
“I think he was expecting me to fall apart, but I’d kind of braced myself for the worse. And I said, ‘OK. What do we need to do?’” Sauls said.
They admitted her, and the next day, removed 4.3 liters of fluid from her abdomen and scheduled her for a hysterectomy a couple of weeks later.
Then in January, the chemo started. “They thought it was working at first, but I was having a lot of side effects — I felt like I was going to pass out.” So they had to dilute the chemo and extend the time period over which she received each dose. There were days when the diluted treatment took a whole day to complete.
“It was just a lot. It was time consuming. It was a lot of travel back and forth, a lot of doctors appointments — and a lot of sickness along with it,” she said. Fluid in her abdomen, around her hearts and lungs, blood clots in her lungs, a bowel blockage that resulted in a colostomy.
And it didn’t work. Neither did the several different treatments she’s undergone the last two years. “The first treatment was to stop the cancer, to cure it. After that didn’t work, they basically told me the other treatments are to just to prolong my life. They’re not looking for a cure.
“Things just continue to get worse. Nothing really seems to be working at this point. But they are starting me in January on a new treatment. They say they’ve had good results with the clinical trials on it, so we’re hoping for the best with that,” Sauls said. The new treatment in clinical trials showed 10% of the patients came out cancer-free and 28% had significant improvement, which would make it worth the side effects. “So we’ll see. Hopefully, I’ll be one of those patients.”
Advice to other cancer patients
“I always tried to stay informed, but the fact that my diagnosis changed, and I wasn’t aware of it, kind of tells me I probably wasn’t asking questions early enough,” she said.
After seeing a new doctor at the Hollings Cancer Center, she found out what she thought was ovarian cancer had been changed to stage 4B uterine cancer, which mimics ovarian cancer but is more aggressive.
“So they changed my diagnosis, which I wasn’t aware of until I got this new doctor about a year ago. I guess if they know what they’re treating me for, that’s what counts, but it would have been nice to know,” Sauls said. “The fact that it had gone from stage 3 to stage 4 was a little bit of a shock to me. It put me back a little bit, because in my mind, I thought ‘Maybe I have less time than I thought.’”
She would also have done more research to see if different treatments might have been best.
Her husband, David, (who is disabled from injuries in a car wreck), helps with her daily care, traveling with her to appointments, etc.
But equally important are her brothers and sisters. Sauls is one of 11 children — six girls and five boys. One sister lives in Bamberg and is always there when needed. Another is in Georgetown. The others, however, range from New York to Virginia to Florida. In spite of the distances involved, all of her siblings have been there whenever needed and helped with expenses. And everyone stays in touch almost daily.
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“My insurance deductible is only $200 and the max out-of-pocket is $700, so almost everything over that they’ve covered,” she said. In spite of the changes in insurance rates this year, she plans to keep the same plan, even though the payment will double. “I just want to make sure I have the same coverage and the same policy so I know what to expect. Changing with pre-existing conditions can be a mess.”
Sauls has worked for The Press and Standard for 17 years. In spite of everything, she’s been working when able throughout the ordeal. “The job here has been wonderful. They set me up on salary so that even when I’m sick and can’t be here, I still get paid. The owner had several conversations with our publisher and her boss, and they talked about it and decided to take care of me, which has been wonderful.”
The Press also set up a fund where people can donate to help. Another employee, Tammy Hiott, made decals to give to donors. So far, the public has donated $700 “which is wonderful and so appreciated,” Sauls said. “People’s generosity has really overwhelmed me.”
“I deal with it on a day-to-day basis, and I try to keep a positive attitude and always hope for the best results for whatever treatment they want to try on me next,” she said.
“I am one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. I keep my faith in God, and I know that even if I don’t make it through this, He’s given us promises in the Bible for the future of the resurrection right back here on earth and I look to that. I love life where it is, but there’s always the promise of a brighter future, so I look to that.”
(Rhonda lost her battle with cancer on Saturday Jan. 18 at Medical University of S.C. in Charleston, surrounded by her family. She kept her faith and courage through the end.)