Teaching Hope and Happiness in the Face of Cancer
By Tom Marsilje
Gina Benedetti may be about the happiest and most hopeful person diagnosed with advanced colorectal cancer (CRC) that you have ever met – and her hope and happiness are infectious! This comes partially from her background as a first grade teacher, where a positive attitude rules the day. With cancer, this attitude has not changed, just the audience she can project upon.
Gina was 30 years old when she changed careers to become a teacher. “I became much more positive, optimistic, and happy when I decided to do that! That shifted everything in my life.”
Only a few years later, her cancer diagnosis gave her a new opportunity to further improve her life. “I’m a better mother and a better teacher, a better friend … a better person for going through this. My heart got bigger. I just want to help people even in the smallest things in life.”
She was pregnant and loving it when, unbeknownst to her, her cancer story started. Symptoms like stomach cramps, weight loss, and urges to go to the bathroom began showing up shortly after giving birth. These symptoms escalated, but she continued to think they were just complications from her recent pregnancy.
Due to a proactive medical team, she was diagnosed with CRC within only a few months, a lucky break she credits with potentially saving her life. She woke up from her colon resection surgery thinking, “Oh I don’t have stomach cramps! I feel great!”
It was tough on Gina not being able to hold her newborn son for the six weeks of surgery recovery. She now focuses on the positive, however: Because of her cancer, she has been able to be home with her young son for the past nine months, something that would not have been possible with her normal full-time teaching job.
Although she was diagnosed with advanced colorectal cancer (Stage 3C) in her mid-30s, Gina approached her diagnosis and treatment with a positivity that should be a beacon to others. That is something that hits you when you meet Gina. She seems to always be smiling – and it is hard not to smile yourself when you are near her!
Gina was excited to apply to be a Featured Survivor in the Colondar 2.0. In her mind it was a natural extension of her teaching background. “I always thought that the way I would leave my footprint or make the world better would be by teaching. And now I think that has totally changed and that this is how I’m going to change the world,” she says. “I am going to make a big difference doing this. I feel like this is what I was meant to do!”
She looks forward to spreading additional CRC advocacy to the west coast. She wants people to know it’s not an old man’s disease. Anyone with symptoms should listen to their body. Young people should be screened. And they should push their doctors if they have symptoms. “I was lucky with my doctors,” she says. “Many others were not. I was a sneeze away from Stage IV.”
Gina’s thoughts on her immediate future continue to be as positive as one can imagine. “This has been a blessing in disguise. I am confident that I won’t have a recurrence and that this was a hiccup in a very charmed life,” she says. “I am an extremely strong and positive person that is determined to make this experience a learning experience for others.”
With her constant smile, Gina and her positive approach to advanced cancer will do just that – multiplying and spreading the blessings of her diagnosis many times over. She is excited to embark on the ultimate teaching experience … now to a much larger group than her beloved first-grade classroom.
Side Bar: Turning the Tide
Chemotherapy for Stage 3 CRC is tough. Some patients are not able to complete all 12 rounds of FOLFOX, but everyone tries their best because this chemotherapy is potentially curative. The first two infusions were very rough on Gina. But then, with the help of a cancer support group, she started to think of chemo as a positive – something meant to kill cancer and save her life.
With that mental switch, she started to give herself treats on chemo days. Her husband helped by keeping an air of levity around infusions. Gina also hired a personal trainer to use exercise during chemo as therapy. Her trainer would tell her, “There are no excuses. This is your path. You can’t feel sorry for yourself!”
Gina credits these actions as turning the tide on her chemo side effects, making them much more tolerable.
What is the one thing she most wants to teach to fellow CRC survivors? “Find a light in in everything. Getting cancer sucks, it really does. Find little things that make your day brighter … Have a positive attitude and have hope.”