Stacy Saravo, like anyone who’s been given a terrible diagnosis, has received her share of well-meaning but dumb advice. (“Eat lemons! They’ll cure cancer.”) But there’s one moment that takes the cake. She was undergoing chemotherapy, feeling uncomfortable, had no eyebrows, and her immune system was low … yet she decided to go to the grocery store.
“I wanted to live my life as normally as possible,” Stacy recalled, “so I got my big girl panties on and wore a mask.”
While at the store, a man “old enough to have had some experiences in his life” walked up to her and coughed in her face, making a joke about having the flu. Stacy was shocked (as is probably everyone reading this right now) and called to him as he walked away, “the chemotherapy I just had yesterday thanks you for that!”
Despite a few bizarre or troubling encounters, Stacy was lucky to have had the love and support of her husband Garry – “he was my rock” – as well as her best friend, also named Stacie. And since treatment, she’s found another companion to give her a physical and mental boost – her chocolate lab named Gus.
Stacy and Gus compete in AKC Scent Work. For those unfamiliar with this sport, the American Kennel Club describes it as mimicking the task of working detection dogs to locate a scent and communicate to the handler that the scent has been found.
“It’s almost a form of mindfulness for me,” Stacy explained. “When we’re practicing or competing, I have to be present and in the moment. It helps me put any other concerns or fears right out the window.”
Stacy is committed to staying active. She lives in northern Arizona, not far from Sedona, and every day she and her husband (and Gus) go hiking. She knows now how important it is to make time for the things that matter, and to make a conscious decision to actually do the things most people just talk about and put off for ‘someday’. (To that end, she and Garry celebrated 22 years of marriage by going on a cruise to Alaska and seeing the glaciers.) She also recognizes the importance of self-care, something she acknowledges many women push aside as they take care of others.
“I try to practice some form of mindfulness every day,” Stacy said. “I have my mantra – breathe in peace and breathe out fear. I talk to my immune system. It might sound silly, but I try to keep it happy.”
In addition to hiking, scent work, and working full time as an assistant business manager in the local school district, Stacy just recently became involved in OCRA’s Woman to Woman program and serves as an Inspire Ambassador.
“After I was diagnosed, I kept spiraling into Google hell, and no matter how much my husband kept telling me to stay off the Internet, I couldn’t,” Stacy recalled. “The Inspire website was really one of the first glimmers of real hope that I found.”
She connected to a story from a woman with the same rare form of ovarian cancer as herself. It turned things around for Stacy and she’s been an active member ever since. Stacy has also spoken to medical students, along with other survivors, through OCRA’s Survivors Teaching Students program. They discussed ways for doctors to speak with patients about their diagnosis, and how to think more broadly about symptoms since they are often so easily dismissed.
“That was such an amazingly rewarding experience,” Stacy said. “Just the feeling that maybe your story stuck with this medical student, and maybe at some point in their tenure as a doctor, someone will get diagnosed sooner because of it.”
Stacy has been pleasantly surprised by others (despite the one man at the grocery store), even people who she wouldn’t have necessarily thought were part of her circle. “It humbled me that there are so many people out there who come together to support you or cheer you on,” she said.
But she was even more surprised by herself. “While I knew I was strong,” Stacy said, “I never knew that I could be so weak.” She had to learn how to accept help; that people want to feel like they are contributing, and by not allowing them to help, she was actually taking something away not only from herself but from them.
The most meaningful thing she received was a bit of advice from her best friend.
“Take things one step, one battle, one victory at a time,” Stacy said. She tried not to worry about what was going to happen two treatments later, or six months down the road. “Just get through today; win today. When you take the good out of that day, then you won that one battle.”