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Updated 5:00 PM October 25, 2005




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Spotlight: Healing, then helping

Her voice resonates wise beyond her years. Life experience and knowledge have forged a spirit of strength and momentum, and a hint of joyfulness peaks through as cancer survivor Toni Spano-English, a clinical social worker at the Comprehensive Cancer Center (CCC), tells her story.
(Photo by Scott Galvin, U-M Photo Services)

"I wasn't the type of person that always saw the glass half-full," Spano-English says. "But now it's a lot easier to snap things in perspective when I need to."

She had just graduated high school and it seemed like the world was hers for the taking. She spent long summer nights chatting and hanging out with friends. One day while her best friend was over, she felt an unfamiliar lump on her neck in the shower.

Brushing it aside, she assumed that it was merely a symptom of mononucleosis. A visit to the doctor, a negative test result for mono and a biopsy later, her doctor diagnosed Spano-English with Hodgkin's disease, a cancer of the body's lymph nodes.

"I didn't even feel like anything was wrong with me," she says. Diagnosed in May1989, she immediately began treatment at the Cancer Center, and as the rest of the world moved on, Spano-English stayed behind—walled in her own world of chemotherapy treatments, weight gain, hair loss and isolation.

"Everybody just went on with their lives and I was in my own world," she says. "I isolated myself. I was really angry and sad. It [the cancer] took over my life; and I let it in a lot of ways. I was young, and upset, and jealous of my friends who could move forward with their futures."

At the cusp of the 1980s, and 90s, cancer, a disease that was socially stigmatized and misunderstood, caused Spano-English much embarrassment and pain. "It wasn't perceived the way that it is now," she says. "People know a lot more about it today, but back then, it was just a disease where you would lose your hair, and eventually die," she says.

Time moved on, most friends stopped coming to visit her in the hospital, she saw fewer people, and the days moved forward, seemingly, without her.

Becoming a regular attendee of the Young Adults With Cancer support group and a peer counselor volunteer, Spano-English not only saw the chance to share her experiences with those who really understood her pain, but also as an opportunity to give.

"It was my chance to be to people what I never had," she says. The opportunity gave her a chance to come out of the loneliness that characterized much of the time she was sick. Treated in the adult clinic with much older patients, it became difficult for Spano-English to relate to older patients who were dealing with other life issues at the time, she recalls.

Having spent over a year with cancer treatments from May 1989 to February 1990, Spano-English's cancer since has gone into remission. Her life remains a tale of transformation and growth. Since then, she has received a college education, forged a career in business, and finally earned a master of social work degree from U-M after being inspired by working as a peer counselor at the Cancer Center.

Allowing her experience to continually transform her perception has brought forth a new kind of joy.

"I realized now thinking back, right after I was sick, I had spent too much time trying to get my old life back instead of embracing the new. Working now with other patients has made me realize that," she says.

"I'm definitely more grounded now—my perspective is a lot clearer and I make more of the simple things like spending time with people," she said. "I finally feel like for the first time in my life, I am moving forward with my future. For years, even after the years I was sick, I felt like I was at a standstill."

Sixteen years later, Spano-English is married with everything ahead of her.

"I want to be successful in my new career and happy at home," she says. "Success to me is when I am continually learning, building on my knowledge and making a difference to people."

It is the continual exchange of Spano-English's pain and healing that not only helps her patients, but tends to her own healing process.

"I see it everyday in the work I do. I have moments that are extra difficult sometimes, taking me to a place that I don't want to be. I'll see a patient, and walk away to find myself in tears," she says. " But I want my experience with cancer to remain close to me."

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