A cancer diagnosis naturally triggers fears ranging from terminal illness to mortality, but two Pointe Coupee Parish residents demonstrate daily that it does not have to be that way.
Connie Guidroz and Ray Guidroz, who are cousins, defied odds when they beat cancer. Both overcame odds to return to the lives they love.
As Pointe Coupee Parish gears up for the “Relayin’ on the River,” the annual celebration for the American Cancer Society Relay for Life on Friday starting at 5:30 p.m., both survivors shared their stories of survival.
Connie now approaches five years cancer-free, which she considers a huge blessing after a prognosis she received four years ago at age 49.
She received the diagnosis of Stage 3 rectal cancer after she underwent a colonoscopy.
“It was very depressing,” she said.
It did not stop her from her job in the Planning Department at the state Department of Transportation and Development in Baton Rouge, where she continued her work until three days before the surgery.
The change of how life was based on routine led Connie into feelings of depression.
“Psychologically, it makes you realize how short life is and how quickly it changes,” she said. “Tomorrow is never a guarantee.”
It took the efforts of her surgeon, Dr. Louis Barfield, to help her through the battle.
“My surgeon always believed we could beat it,” Connie said.
Cancer itself was no stranger for her family. She did fundraisers for relatives when they were diagnosed with cancer, but now she needed outlets to get past her own diagnosis.
Aside from uncertainty with the illness, she remained active in a job – both out of a therapeutic need and a sense of necessity.
“I was uncertain how long I would be out,” she said. “I went through a really bad round of deression.”
She also had hardships with the ileostomy bags, which left her skin bloody and rough.
Coworkers sought creative ways to keep her spirits intact. They named the tumor “Hazel” and used the name “Stella” for the stoma (the bump formed by the ileostomy bag).
Connie spent nine days in the hospital, and returned to work in 3 ½ weeks, as opposed to the six-to-eight-week sabbatical doctors recommended. Her shorter time period away from work did not include the amount of telecom-muting she did from home.
“I realize I’m lucky and I’m blessed,” she said. “This all could’ve gone so wrong.”
She became active in Relay for Life after the death of her uncle, Noah “Snookie” Guidroz of Ventress.
“Until you go through something like this, you don’t realize all the avenues of support you have,” she said. “Everything from support groups to agencies that will pay you by the mile for your drive the doctor.”
Her doctor also demonstrated a strong feeling of faith and compassion that Connie has passed on to others.
“Before surgery, he tells patients and their family members not to lose faith,” she said. “He even gathers us around together to pray before surgery.”
She credits her boyfriend Kevin Graves for his support, along with her son Devin Powell and daughter Bailey Powell.
Connie also counsels other patients and discusses methods on how to win the battle against cancer.
“The first thing I tell them is not to lose faith, and to listen to everything the doctor says,” she said.
She also emphasizes another piece of advice.
“I tell people never to put off a colonoscopy” Connie said. “I tell them to put their rear in gear and get checked.”
The manager of Main Street Full-Service Gas Station in New Roads works six days a week pumping gas, changing oil and fixing tires, even in the hottest days of summer. It’s a far cry from the battle he faced 20 years ago.
Ray, who is now cancer free, was diagnosed with throat cancer when he was 47. The diagnosis came after he made repeated visits to doctors when he thought he had strep throat.
Doctors prescribed him the standard rounds of antibiotics, but the pain never subsided. The pain became so severe that he used a flashlight to see if he could find any other problems in his mouth.
“I found a big cavity in the back of my mouth,” said Ray, who lost his father to stomach cancer 30 years ago.
Ray went to an EMT, who detected throat cancer that spread to the tonsils, lymph glands, jaw and tongue. Doctors told him he would face a 17-hour surgery, which led him to seek a second opinion.
Ray underwent seven weeks of radiation and chemotherapy, which brought his weight from 235 lbs. to 167.
“I was in so much pain,” he said. “I just prayed and had people praying that I would somehow get out of this alive.”
Doctors at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston determined that smoking and 21 years of work in a chemical plant caused Ray’s illness.
He received medical disability when he quit his job, but the cancer resurfaced a year later and forced removal of his soft palate.
The surgery left him with lockjaw and an inability to salivate. It has also forced him to get all food and hydration nourishment from a feeding bag he uses every day.
He goes to Mary Bird Perkins Cancer Center in Baton Rouge every three months for checkups.
The hardships did not stop Ray from an active life. He leased the service station, works six days a week. He also cuts grass for several homeowners in the area.
“I’m blessed,” he said. “When I was in the hospital, I made a promise to the Good Lord that I would change my life if he got me beyond the four walls of home or a hospital.”
It also earned him the respect of coworker Alvin Bajoie.
“Ray is like a dad to me,” he said. “I may tell people I’ve been through a lot, but then I see what Ray has gone through and I realize how blessed I am.”
Ray recommends a second opinion after a cancer diagnosis. He also emphasizes the power of prayer.
“It goes a long way, and if you don’t believe it, just look at me … I’m still here,” he said. “My mom, my sisters and so many around me prayed around me, and that all helped a lot.
“If you think negative, you’ll never survive,” he said. “My mother, my friends and everyone around me had a part in helping me get past this, and I’ll never forget it.”