Beating cancer was never going to be a solo endeavor.
Martha Rasche knew that she’d have to rely on other people to overcome the disease. She was diagnosed in March with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and would have to endure months of chemotherapy — the aches and pains, the nausea and the fatigue that came with it.
Those lowest days, when she physically hurt and felt emotionally unraveled, were when she counted on her friends and family.
“I might not have had the mindset to beat this initially, but my family sure did. And their friends all worked through them,” Rasche said. “I have no idea how people who are single and don’t come from a large family, even husband and wives, do this.”
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Without the support of her family, Rasche doesn’t know if she would have survived the treatment and emerged cancer-free. Her brother, Pat Rasche, and his family opened their Center Grove-area home to her, so that she didn’t have to drive nearly 120 miles each way to and from Jasper.
Her older brothers and sisters took turns driving her from her home in Jasper to treatment in Greenwood. Others cared for her when she could barely move from the couch, feeding her two cats, buying groceries and cooking meals.
“She’s family, and we care about her,” said her sister-in-law, Tonya Rasche. “The girls are the ones that brought her spirits up just in daily life. They would tell their stories and had a big part in that.”
‘I can’t live like this’
Martha Rasche’s battle with cancer started with a pain that radiated out from her back into her left arm.She woke up one morning in late January with what felt like a pinch in her shoulder. She thought she had slept on it wrong, until it continued getting worse for more than a week.“My body was saying, ‘I can’t live like this,’” she said. “It initially seemed like it was across the whole back. Eventually, it all gravitated to the left side. Then it became more constant, and the pain started shooting down my arm into my hand.”
Neither her family doctor nor an orthopedic specialist could determine the cause of her agony. She started wearing a sling, trying to stabilize the arm to ease some of the pain.
“There were weeks when I didn’t get out of my pajamas. I wore slip-on shoes. I had a cape I was wearing, so that that I wouldn’t have to be bothered to use my left arm. Whatever I could do to not move,” she said.
Twice the intensity forced her to the emergency room, where Rasche was prescribed painkillers. But none of the drugs could stop it.
Even before it was diagnosed as cancer, her family members stepped in to care for her. The drugs she was prescribed prevented her from doing even the most simple household tasks, so brothers and sisters moved in with her. They cleaned out the litter boxes of her two cats, cooked her meals and helped her open the caps on her medication.
“It just helped having them there, since there wasn’t a lot they could do about the pain,” Rasche said.
The tumor first showed up in an MRI, ordered after her second emergency room visit for pain in March. The scan showed that a mass — 1 inch by 2 inches large — was growing on her spine, crushing a nerve.
Though more tests needed to be taken, her orthopedist told her to assume that it was cancerous and malignant until they learned otherwise.
Rasche had always been vigilant about her health, doing regular breast exams and getting a yearly mammogram. Being diagnosed with cancer this way was jarring.
“I was expecting him to say it was a pinched nerve,” Rasche said. “It was overwhelming to hear that it was cancer. It was one of those things that you don’t expect it to happen to you. If I was going to have cancer, I wouldn’t have expected this to be the way it happened.”
A biopsy three days after her MRI revealed that she had non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The blood cancer caused her white blood cells to grow uncontrollably, affecting the lymph nodes.A friend who is a nurse recommended that Rasche see Dr. Mary Lou Mayer, an oncologist with Community Regional Cancer Center. She scheduled an appointment before even learning what type of cancer she had. Within a week she started an aggressive round of chemotherapy.The drugs would be given every three weeks for six sessions, Mayer said.
The first round of the drugs would wipe out Rasche’s immune system, leaving her vulnerable to infections. Mayer suggested she not stray too far from the hospital, in case she developed a fever and needed to be admitted quickly.
She had to be constantly aware of her health. If her temperature reached higher than 100 degrees, she needed to call the doctor. If she experienced more than two bloody noses in a day, call the doctor.
Soon, Rasche learned the ebb and flow of the toll chemotherapy took on her body. She received treatment every Wednesday, and for the first five or six days, she felt fine.
But then the nausea and fatigue slammed into her.
“Basically, the week after the chemo, I couldn’t make any commitments or plans that I couldn’t get out of,” she said.
That was when her family came through the greatest.
In Rasche’s family, reaching 50 is a milestone birthday. They choose a fun trip or activity for the siblings and their children and try to make a lasting memory.
For Rasche’s 50th on Dec. 7, 2013, she wanted to do a holiday-themed day capped by a sleepover with her nieces and nephews, as well as whoever else wanted to stay over.
Snow postponed the celebration until last year. Rasche hosted everyone in Jasper, and they went to a gingerbread house-making contest in Jaspar, did Christmas caroling and visited Santa.
At the lowest point of her chemotherapy, Rasche focused on that special day.
“There were many days and moments when I went back to that day and hold on to how much fun it was,” she said.
‘Exactly where I belong’
Rasche has eight siblings, most of whom live around central and southern Indiana. After her diagnosis, they started sending group texts around the clock, discussing her treatment and plans to make the difficult coming months as bearable as they could.When Rasche was in the hospital, someone volunteered every day to visit her. Once she was at home, they made food and drove her on errands.Family members rallied friends and other relatives to send cards, prayers shawls and “chemo caps” to cover her head after she lost her hair. Someone sent her a prayer rock — a small stone to rub while she wordlessly asked for help. They’ve sent books and CDs of uplifting music.
Living with Pat and Tonya Rasche proved to more than just a convenience. The time they spent together created a level of closeness that had not existed before.
While the family saw each other a handful of time throughout the year, Rasche didn’t have the chance to see her nieces as much as she’d like because she lived two hours away.
Now, she was living with them every three weeks.
“It’s been odd, but they’ve always made it feel like this is exactly where I belong,” Rasche said.
Rasche, a writer and journalist, has worked with her nieces on projects throughout the summer. Grace Rasche, 14, was entering her freshman year at Center Grove High School.
As a summer reading assignment, she had to finish “Life of Pi” by Yann Martel.
“I’ve been in on this for the past nine weeks, asking how it’s going and checking up on it,” Martha Rasche said. “Now I know what’s going on with them a little more.”
‘Find the light spots’
One week after chemotherapy, Martha Rasche came up with a fun game to play. She came up with a goofy poem that she wrote about Tonya Rasche, a nurse, in honor of National Nurses Week.At the same time, she found out that 12-year-old Ella Rasche had written a poem in school. She persuaded her niece to read her creation with her in front of the family.After doing their dramatic readings, other members stood up to sing songs from “Frozen” and “High School Musical.”
“It snowballed from there and became a really fun evening,” Martha Rasche said.
For more than 20 years, Rasche has struggled with depression. She has taken extra precautions during her treatment to balance the difficulties of cancer treatment with niceties in life.
During her first week of treatment, hospital officials had to have the necessary but unpleasant discussion about end-of-life decisions. If the cancer was to progress and become terminal, how far would she want to carry out treatment?
She had to consider the potential for physical pain and emotional distress, at a time when all she wanted was to focus on getting better.
At her nadir, she posted on Facebook that she needed her cheering up. Her friends made up entry after entry of original jokes and silly poems. In response, Rasche made up a limerick for them about the journey she was in.
“I’ve tried to find the light spots, so it’s not all doom-and-gloom,” she said.
Rasche finished chemotherapy in late July and had a PET scan in September indicating the cancer was gone. Another scan is set for December.
Slowly, her body has recovered from the chemical shock of the drugs. Her sense of taste has returned, allowing her to enjoy the foods that she had missed out on for more than four months.
Helping others cope
Rasche also has been able to slowly start driving herself. In midsummer, she took a trip by herself to Evansville and relished her restored sense of freedom.“It’s little things — taste buds and being able to drive — that you take for granted,” she said.Part of her work as a writer involved helping senior citizens tell their stories. She meets with them, talks with them for hours and then helps write down their lives.
Many of her subjects have had cancer. Rasche will be able to relate with them, improving the dynamic between interviewer and interviewee.
Rasche also has endured by putting her thoughts in a journal, which she has shared online at her website.
“At first, that was the farthest thing from my mind. But as I got more used to cancer and thinking about it, writing has always been one of my coping mechanisms. It seemed to go hand-in-hand,” she said.
She looks back at the past five months with gratefulness but also uncertainty. She could not have predicted the outpouring of support that came from people around her, mostly her family.
At the same time, she struggles to focus on the bigger picture of the entire experience.
“I don’t know how I feel about it. I think there was a reason for it, and I think that reason will become clear,” she said.
Who: Martha Rasche
When diagnosed: March 20, 2015
Type of cancer: Stage 4 diffuse large B-cell non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma
Treatment: Six rounds of chemotherapy
How cancer changed me: I don’t know. I don’t know how I feel about it. I think there was a reason for it, and I think that reason will become clear.
What cancer taught me: You have to have the mindset to beat this.
What I would tell someone just diagnosed with cancer: Accept help, if there are those people offering it, whether it’s family or neighbors or church family. If it’s not offered and you need it, try to find a way to get it. A lot of people are willing to help, but they don’t know how.