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Mary Sansone learned that sometimes, to the patient, facing cancer is not their only or biggest challenge. With humor and humility, Mary takes us through what her experience was like to face Acute Myeloid Leukemia while just off the heels of reaching sobriety from addiction for the second time. The physical and emotional worries she carried into her cancer treatment were eased by the way Moffit team members showed up for her; seeing her as a whole person, worthy of dignity, respect, and compassionate care.

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Podcast Transcript

LOREEN: Welcome to Pep Talks, a Patient Experience podcast where we share stories of promise, our culture of connection and care. Today you hear from Mary Sans Soni and learned that sometimes too, the patient facing cancer is not their only or biggest challenge. With humor and humility, Mary takes us through what her experience was like to face acute myeloid leukemia while just off the heels of reaching sobriety from addiction for the second time, the physical and emotional worries she carried into her cancer treatment were eased. By the way, Moffitt team members showed up for her, seeing her as a whole person worthy of dignity, respect and compassionate care.

MARY:My name is Mary Sansone. I am blessed to be a survivor from acute myeloid leukemia and addiction and depression all multiple times.

Believe it or not, cancer was not the hardest thing that I had to overcome.

All of a sudden, I had this headache that started in my shoulders, went up to my forehead and just was powerfully painful in my eyes. And it lasted like 6 hours. And this one on every day my lower back started to throb. And then in my throat, like the lymph node area below your jaw, it felt like they were ballooning and they started to talk funny. Well, I went to the emergency room in Highland Park Hospital, Illinois. Previously, I had been there with the .59 to blood alcohol level, the highest on record. But in any case, I was here now sober in the E.R. Our doctor came bedside and said, Your white blood cell count is off the charts, so we just want to do a bone marrow biopsy to rule out cancer. So I have four siblings and my parents and everybody thought, Oh, it's not cancer. She just has a terrible bug. Well, the next day, Dr. Gideon, my hematologist, who is a godsend, came in and told me that I did indeed have acute myeloid leukemia.

When I came down to Tampa, Dr. Gordon Northwestern Hospital had highly recommended Moffitt as my place to go and get routine checkups.

So I came on my first day and I went to the Red Valet. I walked in and I was breathing in this space, which is so nice. And then I was lost. So I went to the receptionist and this Booey gentleman just got up, greeted me and was like, I'm going to walk you down to the Gold Valet and show you where to go. And I'm like, Oh my God, this place is awesome.

So my walk for Moffitt started with that reception guy, and then I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Sallman  fabulous, fabulous doctor for me. And he knew my history. And he would tell me every time I come in one of my quarterly checkups. Your blood looks great. You're doing fabulous.

So we'll see you in another three months. And then it turned to six months. Well, in between there is when I went into this depression, I was really sad when my plane landed safely, when I came back from a trip, business trip. And I will never forget that I was so devastated. I'm like, Oh, God, I can't do it. Can't you just do it for me, God?

And instead of like I did try some things, but my first thing to cure this depression was to take a nice big swig of vanilla extract, which was in my house high on alcohol content. And that soon became that like clam seltzer water with alcohol in it, which soon became beer, which soon became wine and beer and vanilla extract. In seven months I was a wreck. I couldn't eat. I couldn't do anything. I hadn't showered in about an hour or two weeks. I was wearing the same dress. The addiction came back full force.

Well, my brother's and his lovely wife and saved my life. They got me into treatment again. This time I knew what sobriety was like and I wanted it back. I was getting better at this treatment center, so I made new friends.

I joined the AA Fellowship and I started to flourish again. However, I will mention that during detox I wondered if there wasn't something else going on with me. Because I've detox before. I watched many of my friends detox and I had the worst experience. I would be in insane panic mode. I did not sleep maybe for ten days I couldn't eat. They put me on Pedialyte. I was throwing up constantly, even after two weeks, and I thought something is really wrong. My recovery team also encouraged me to get my appointments that I missed while I was using.

And so I went and got a mammogram. I went to my gynecologist, I did all these things, and then I came to Dr. Sallman and did my checkup.

And he said to me, I'd like to do a bone marrow biopsy after he looked at my CBC and I thought, You have got to be kidding me.

I had just overcome addiction. I overcame depression, I overcame cancer, I overcame addiction again. You're telling me I have cancer again? And I was in just in shock. I was really deflated because here my spirits were up and I thought, what is is this punishment? And is the punishment for all the wrongs I've did, I have done.

It was very confusing for me.

 Yet Dr. Sallman, in metaphorical terms, held my hand through his voice, and he got me through that. And we did the bone marrow biopsy. And indeed, I did have a recurrence of acute myeloid leukemia. And I opted for the most aggressive treatment, a bone marrow transplant.

Now, when I went to see Dr. Sallman after I was diagnosed or the biopsy confirmed the AML was back, he sat down for me and he said, Yeah, that was a bad day. And and he's referring to the day that the test results came back. And I remember just feeling this flood of love, if you like. I'm not quite sure what it was, but I thought, Oh, my God, we're in this together. Like he cares about. He had a bad day. Like that meant so much to me. It wasn't that he was sharing or telling me news for me to deal with. He was talking with me and sharing with me. And it meant so much that this is something I will never forget for the rest of my life, as small as it may be.

Before I went in for treatment, I was feeling very ashamed and disgusted with myself. I didn't think that I was worthy of getting better, and there was a sincere feeling inside of me that, okay, I'm okay to die. I deserve to die. And it will be my family will feel better. And what have I got anyway? I'm divorced. I don't have kids. I'm not worth anything to anybody. I'm an addict. I fall. I, you know, keep disappointing people and. Okay, I got better. But they're all, like, on the edge.

So I'm not in the most comfortable place in this world. And if it wouldn't have been for those nurses who somehow understood where I was coming from, even though they didn't, that may not prob most likely did not experience that themselves ever. And they lifted me up so that I started to feel like I want to get better. And I can't tell you how much that plays into your recovery, but I'm going to guess it plays a whole heck of a lot because my heart started to beat a little faster, you know, like just with a little more joy. nAnd it was fun to talk to the nurses. And when they came in for vitals, it was as though they were visiting me rather than coming in for a duty. And that's just a small thing. But there were many examples of their kindness and what seemed to be genuine respect for me and making me feel like your story is not gross and disgusting. It's interesting. Oh, I'm interesting. This is a little different. Take on things. I'll take it.

When I was introduced to Moffitt and I had made my introduction to Dr. Sallman, I had been honest about a smoking addiction as a crutch to prevent me from what I thought could be a drinking relapse somewhere in my life. So I thought, I'll take this crutch if it means I won't drink again. And so I held on to it and I needed some help.

There was some shame in me about that addiction. And I reached out to the market smoking cessation program and Lisa Sloan. Was my point of contact. And she was not demeaning to me at all, which is kind of what you expect when you're telling somebody of a smoking addiction like, oh, shame on you. Let's get started it. And she was not like, well, put it down and eat carrots. You know, it was it was okay. All right. So how much do you smoke a day? I hate to tell you, you know, you just don't want to do that. But when you tell her pack, she's like, okay. And you're like, oh, she didn't she didn't, you know, scold me. Okay, keep going. And, well, let's try to get that down. You mean I don't have to put down today? No. What we're going to do, you know, let me we'll work through this together. And Lisa was there for me. So again, cancer may not be the hardest challenge in a person's life as it was not for me.

I actually found it more difficult to recover from depression and the addiction multiple times than it was to recover from cancer. And that is primarily credited to the remarkable people at Moffitt Cancer Center who treated me like a whole person. They respected me for having gone through what I did in the past rather than judged me. They talked with me about things rather than to me.

I could sit and stew in my room alone, thinking about how ashamed and how unworthy I was. Because you are a lot of the time alone in your hospital room not feeling well, and this self-pity could just demoralize you. But with the staff coming in and scribbling on whiteboards and nurses greeting you, not in any annoying capacity, mind you, they'll give you time to rest and sleep. But with their gentle visits and their compassionate approach, I became sort of resurrected.

I don't know. I'm excited to live life. I am privileged to be aging.