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‘I don’t have time for cancer’

Mary Charlo got a checkup to collect $75. Instead, doctors found some much different and potentially life-threatening.
By Lailani Upham
Char-Koosta News

Mary Charlo, center, thought of her love for her kids, Hailee, left, and Josh, right, as she faced the removal of a potentially life-threatening mass growing in her abdomen. (Courtesy photo) Mary Charlo, center, thought of her love for her kids, Hailee, left, and Josh, right, as she faced the removal of a potentially life-threatening mass growing in her abdomen. (Courtesy photo)

POLSON — Mary Charlo went in for a routine checkup, which came with a $75 wellness incentive through her health insurance. Shortly following the appointment she received an unanticipated call.
“I got a call from my primary care provider, who in all of the 15 years he has been my doctor, never called me himself,” Charlo said. “I knew that wasn't a good sign.”

Her exam was in November. By December she was ushered into surgery to remove a 10-pound tumor from her left ovary.

She had no symptoms and was feeling fine; in fact she had put off the appointment more than once prior.

“I saw Dr. Jones on November 20, and she could feel a growth in my abdomen, but didn't say much about it, just ordered an ultrasound and said we'd talk when we got the results of that back,” Charlo said. The first available ultrasound was booked – which was a Wednesday - and the results came back abnormal. Further tests were needed. The following day a CT scan was done. Waiting on the results was not easy for Charlo.
 “It felt like the longest day of my life,” she said.

It was Friday when Charlo found out she had a tumor the size of newborn baby. A flood of questions bombarded her mind as the news poured from the nurse’s mouth.

“I was reeling, who the hell has a tumor that size in their abdomen and doesn't notice? How long had it been there? Was it cancer? What if it was cancer? What was I going to do?”
Charlo said it was one of the longest weekends of her life.
 “I had more questions than (nurse) Kim had been able to answer, and needed to talk to Dr. Jones.”

She immediately called her doctor’s office on Monday and was told she wasn't in for the day, but her doctor came in at 5 p.m. to specifically talk to Charlo and explain what was going on.

After the talk and surgery was scheduled Charlo said her reality clicked and she decided she was going to stay positive no matter what was overrunning her mind.

Her medical records were quickly sent to OB/GYM Oncologist in Kalispell. At this point there was no way to tell if the grapefruit size growth was cancerous. “Dr. Jones was encouraging, she said that she had seen growths that size that had turned out to be nothing,” Charlo said.

“I decided that I was not going to have cancer, that things were going to be okay no matter what. That I was going to have faith that I was going to recover from whatever this was growing inside me. I decided that I refused to have cancer, I don't have time to have cancer, I have fifteen-year old twins that need me, I could never leave them,” she told herself.

Although she had a healthy pregnancy, Charlo’s twins were born premature at 26 weeks. Prior to the birth she was put on bed rest and three days later labor broke through and her twins came into the world at one pound and 12 ounces. “It was touch and go in the beginning of their lives,” she said.

The doctors sat their parents down three times and told them that it was up to God whether or not they would make it. The story is the twins made it through the odds — and are thriving, bright, outgoing, 15 year olds.

Charlo’s faith stemmed from being here for her kids. “I knew that there was no way that God would have put us through what I went through keeping them alive when they were born, only to take me from them fifteen years later,” she said.

Charlo heard over and over throughout this medical journey that having a positive outlook could affect a physical outcome. “I truly believe that my attitude, and refusing to have cancer, or be sick long term helped me have a good outcome,” she said.

On December 11, Charlo met her surgeon and surgery was set for Dec. 21 a few days before Christmas. She said if she had been able to schedule it sooner she would have not because Christmas was near and she’d want to be home with family — she wanted to know if it was cancerous or not.

“Dr. Sheldon didn't even discuss doing a biopsy on the growth he had just removed, end of story,” she said. The tumor was growing and started to put pressure on her other organs, pushing them out of place. The tumor began to cause Charlo stomach aches and severe side cramps. “I could only eat small amounts and I would be too full to eat any more.”

Regardless of the symptoms she was able to keep a positive attitude. “I was not going to have cancer, I was not going to die, I was not going to leave my kids without a mom,” she told herself over and over. “I only broke down and cried one time during the whole experience,” Charlo said. It was the moment she told her childhood friend. “But I only allowed myself five minutes to cry and feel sorry for myself,” she said. Charlo was in her car when she broke down. After that crying session she said she had to pull it together before going inside to face her kids again. 

Charlo said it was the strength and love of her kids that carried her through. “My kids were an incredible help,” she said. She bragged on the housework her daughter did while she was sick and the motivational attitude of both her kids. Charlo said her son Josh stayed by her side in the hospital and her daughter, who doesn’t like hospitals, stayed with her aunt Clair and supported her recovery from home.

“The day before surgery, I woke up before my alarm in an absolute panic,” she said. The reality of having surgery the next day was overwhelming. “I was going to voluntarily let the medical staff put me to sleep and make incisions in my body. I freaked out in my head for about ten minutes, and then an overwhelming calm came over me, and I knew it was going to be alright,” she said. She repeated her mantra to herself. “No matter what the outcome, I was going to live, and I was going to be okay.”

Charlo and her mom and twins stayed overnight in a hotel in Kalispell the night before surgery due to an early admittance.  Despite her positive repetition and attitude she was terrified when she checked in, but armed and ready for whatever she was going to find out.

“There were two options, one was that I would have a four inch incision and they would take the tumor out and biopsy it while I was still on the table. If it was cancerous, they were going to do a complete hysterectomy. It if was not, they would be able to close me up and I would be able to recover,” Charlo explained. She said goodbye to her family and was wheeled back into the surgical unit. Soon as the epidural began, a method to numb her for surgery and control the pain, a mask was placed on her face and that's the last thing she remembers.

When she woke up she said it was like Christmas, her birthday, and the day of the birth of her twins all rolled into one. She found out the 10 pound tumor was not cancerous. Her incision turned out to be bigger than four inches due to the size of the tumor. “It turned out to have liquid in it, and they didn't want to risk rupturing it,” she said.

“The first thing I asked for when I was coherent enough to ask for something was a breve from the coffee shop,” That wish did not come true though. Charlo was told she’d have to wait until she was on a regular diet to have one. 

Charlo said even with her positive outlook and the motivation of her children — her twins were terrified through the whole process. “Hailee was afraid I was going to have cancer, and Josh was afraid that I was going to die during surgery,” she said. Charlo never sugar coated anything through the whole cancer scare journey, but trying to make it not too scary was a delicate balancing act for a mom. “It was stressful for all of us as a family,” she said.

During her leave of absence from her job as a juvenile probation officer with Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, Charlo was donated sick leave from people throughout the organization that she didn’t even know. “People came out of the woodwork donating to me. People I wouldn’t have even thought.” Charlo said her courage also came from the love of community and CSKT employees to give what they could in leave donation and prayers.

Charlo said she was surprised at her own unswerving positive attitude and belief. She said she could easily become gloomy with such a reality but with the reassurance of her family and friends she was able to overcome fright.

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