Wendi Wolf is not your average 51- year- old.
It is a gray January morning and she is sitting on a pew inside Norval United Church, a small cozy sanctuary in the Norval valley about an hour west of Toronto.
Unlike many 51-year-olds, Wendi does not go to work in an office. Instead, she gets down and dirty working as a dog groomer out of her home. She wears vibrant blue eye shadow that makes her green eyes pop. And her favourite food? “I like beer,” she says with a laugh. Indeed, the youthfulness exemplified in Wendi’s fashion sense and lifestyle makes her deviate from what is common of most women her age. But more than her evident love of animals and ‘beer o’clock’, there is something else that separates Wendi from the average. Wendi has survived lung cancer!
Wendi has survived lung cancer!
Her journey began in September 2010 when she and her new husband Frank were about to embark on their 10-day romantic honeymoon in Tuscany. “Before we left for Tuscany, I was concerned because I was coughing a lot,” explains Wendi. “So I had some tests done at Georgetown Hospital in Georgetown where we used to live.” Her CT scan revealed either a blood clot, which meant traveling was out of the question, or there was the possibility that she had lung cancer. Wendi knew without question that she needed to head to the best cancer research institution in Canada – Princess Margaret Hospital in Toronto – for a second opinion. Cardiothoracic surgeon, Dr. Gail Darling, told Wendi that travel would be possible and that tests would commence upon Wendi and Frank’s return from Tuscany. So the honeymoon was a go!
Wendi had a gut feeling that traveling to Italy was not agood thing, but she couldn’t even imagine how bad it would be. Instead of a romantic honeymoon in Tuscany, the day after their arrival, Wendi was rushed to hospital and underwent emergency surgery for Diverticulitis – a ruptured bowel. She was in serious condition and on October 23rd, after a ten-day stay in hospital, Wendi and Frank were able to return home.
On November 18, 2010 at Princess Margaret Hospital, Wendi was diagnosed with Stage 3A lung cancer!
Dr. Gail Darling told Wendi that with conventional treatment, her chances of living until she was 56 years of age were slim. But, recalling the day she first learned she had cancer, in Wendi’s words, “Dr. Darling was so amazing. She just came in the room very upbeat, sat down, looked at both Frank and me and said, ‘Have I got a plan for you!’” So the battle began.
After extensive x-rays and a CT scans, Wendi was entered into a clinical trial to determine what combination of anti-drugs and possibly radiation worked best for her particular cancer without damaging her healthy cells. This process is ‘targeted cancer therapy’ or ‘personalized cancer therapy.’
“Clinical trials are basically very detailed tests whereby we take groups of patients who have a certain type of cancer and a certain stage of cancer and give them the option to be randomized or given treatments that are nonstandard,” said Wendi’s radiation oncologist, Dr. Andrew Hope. “So, experimental therapies or new therapies that we think may be better than the current therapy.”
Wendi was relieved, hopeful and thankful that she was given this opportunity to participate in a clinical trial and she noted, “While involved in this study, I met a gentleman 20 years my senior and he was receiving the same experimental drug as I was. At first, I really did not think he was going to make it when we visited them at Christmas this year, but when we visited him two-and-a-half months later, it was like he had never been ill! Amazing!”
While involved in this study, I met a gentleman 20 years my senior and he was receiving the same experimental drug as I was. At first, I really did not think he was going to make it when we visited them at Christmas this year, but when we visited him two-and-a-half months later, it was like he had never been ill! Amazing!
Wendi was no stranger to cancer, as her first husband, Al, had passed away from esophageal cancer in 2007. Now, three years later, Wendi was the one in the patient’s chair facing down her own mortality. Wendi says being on the opposite end of the cancer treatment was quite an experience. “I kind of had an idea of what I was up against going through it all with Al, but it sure is way different when you are actually the one on the receiving end of chemotherapy and radiation.”
For the next two-and-a-half months, each and every day, Wendi and Frank made the drive to downtown Toronto for her daily round of radiation.
Wendi says radiation was the hardest part, not because it hurt physically, but because it was psychologically challenging. “They shut that big steel door and then you feel really alone and then you hear that ‘zap zap.’”
Dr. Andrew Hope explains that radiation is more of a process than a one-time fix like surgery. Each time the treatment is administered, a little bit more toxicity is added to the patient’s body. What is more, Wendi was going through chemotherapy at the same time – a fierce combination that made fatigue and sickness a part of Wendi’s daily life.
This didn’t stop Wendi’s fight against cancer. She just kept going with Frank’s incredible support, her son Ryan’s support and the support of her amazing friends.
“Frank was my rock,” says Wendi. “I don’t know how I would have done it without him. And when I looked at people receiving their treatment at Princess Margaret Hospital without anyone there beside them to give them support, I thought, ‘Oh my God, how do you do this?’ I had Frank the whole way, so it was good. We made it a kind of adventure.”
Being in the hospital every day for more than two months, Wendi and Frank began to develop relationships with the doctors and nurses whom they saw on a daily basis. Dr. Hope is one example. It was bit of a funny start when Wendi and Frank, along with son Ryan, first met him. “He looks like a 6 foot 3 Doogie Howser hippie,” says Wendi of Dr. Hope’s big bowtie and long ringlets.
“He looked to be the age of my young adult son Ryan, and when I first met him, I was kind of like, ‘Oh my God, I could have given birth to you! Do you really know what you are doing?’”
As it turned out, Dr. Hope knew exactly what he was doing. He took the time to explain to Wendi and her family in plain English, very much like the other doctors on Wendi’s new drug development study team at Princess Margaret Hospital. He also took the time to actually get to know Wendi as a person rather than just a disease, as well as breaking down the doctor-patient hierarchy. “He was just like a friend coming in to the treatment room,” says Wendi. Dr. Hope says he and his colleagues make it a priority to focus on more than just the cancer affecting the people they are treating.
“Being able to focus on the whole person and try to make sure that they have all of their concerns met, either by being listened to or, ideally, looked after if possible, is a really important part of making sure people get through the cancer therapy and are able to move forward with their daily lives and do the things they want to do,” says Dr. Hope.
Wendi responded well in the study and on March 28th, 2011, Wendi rang the bell in the Chemo Centre indicating the end of her chemo treatment! It was an extremely emotional day for Wendi and for her new husband Frank. It was a celebration and a day to remember.
In July of 2011, a mere 3 months after ringing the bell at Princess Margaret Hospital signaling Wendi’s remission, Wendi and Frank hopped onto their 750 lb Harley Davidson motorcycles (Wendi is a petite 140 lbs) and headed to the East Coast of the U.S. where they traveled up to ten hours each day for two weeks!
If you speak to Wendi, she will tell you that it was the strong foundation of doctors and nurses at Princess Margaret Hospital and her family and friends that helped her get to the finish line.
Dr. Hope says that he has never learned more about the importance of family and friends than he has while working as an oncologist. According to him, it is witnessing someone like Wendi going through a hardship – much like a fight against cancer, and how they deal with it – which illustrates how he wishes to act in his own life. “I think Wendi is an exemplary example of how to do that,” he said of Wendi. “There are very few people who would have gone into the circumstances that she has gone into with the same attitude.”
But it goes further. Wendi is an extraordinary individual. Despite the cancer screaming from inside her telling her it was pointless to keep going, Wendi refused to listen… or to give up. Instead, she grounded herself in an unwavering faith that she would get better.
Despite the cancer screaming from inside her telling her it was pointless to keep going, Wendi refused to listen… or to give up. Instead, she grounded herself in an unwavering faith that she would get better.
“When it comes down to it, it is belief. It is here,” she says as she touches the pew beneath her. “I think my belief started here, at this church in Norval, which it did. I know that’s what has done it.”
Wendi goes back to Princess Margaret Hospital every three months for check-ups, but gradually, these visits will become less frequent. A person is in full remission after five years of being cancer-free and Wendi is not about to give up now!
Wendi and Frank’s next destination bike trip will be to the Finger Lakes in the U.S. in July of this year. And of course, the trip will be made on their Harleys!
There is a fire within Wendi Wolf. It is something that you cannot help but admire. It is beautiful and blazing. You can see it in those green eyes sparkling under her blue eye shadow. You can hear it in her laugh as it echoes throughout the empty sanctuary. You can feel it in her spirit; that powerful, magnetic energy that vibrates off of her as she speaks. It’s a fire that will continue to fuel adventure in Wendi’s life. It is a fire that cancer will never be able to extinguish!
Kimberly Ivany, 2012
Fourth year – Ryerson University
Update: Sunday morning, May 6th, 2012 Wendi and her team of Wolf Packs, participated in the Toronto Marathon, with Wendi and her team walking the 5k for The Robert & Maggie Bras and Family New Drug development Program. Wendi’s Team raised $3,650 and with other team monies raised, the grand total was $14,262. Wendi was in great shape and we celebrate her victory and thank her team for their generosity and support.