December 25, 2011
By ERIC STEINKOPFF - Bulletin Staff Writer
One year to the day after being diagnosed with a rare form of bone cancer, Jeannie Frisco received her bachelor’s degree in business administration.
She graduated summa cum laude or with the highest degree of honor and distinction from Averett University, something that Frisco remembers with pride and humility in the same breath.
“Averett is truly a university,” Frisco said. “You’re not just a number. They like you to succeed.”
Frisco, 37, of Stuart, is the former program manager for Activate, a local organization that emphasizes health and fitness in the community.
“My job was biking with kids and leading walking groups,” Frisco said from her Winston-Salem, N.C., hospital room recently.
She tried to lead by example, but nearly two years ago she felt a sharp, stabbing pain in her leg. Doctors and other specialists prescribed a variety of medications and treatments.
“It started back in January at the beginning of 2010,” Frisco said. “I thought it was my back, saw several different doctors, took steroid shots and saw a neurologist.”
That continued for nearly a year until she was working late one night on Dec. 9, 2010, when the condition became too desperate to ignore.
“I actually was walking to the post office on Church Street and my femur just broke,” Frisco said. “A nice lady came out and asked if I was all right. She called an ambulance and called my family so they could be with me at the hospital.”
“I had been prescribed so many different narcotics that when I finally broke my femur, my drug history came up as though I was pharmacy shopping,” Frisco said.
They stabilized her condition at Memorial Hospital in Martinsville and transferred her to Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem the next day.
On Dec. 10, 2010, she was diagnosed with a rare form of adult bone cancer called Ewing’s sarcoma, usually identified as a primary malignancy of bone affecting children and young adults, according to the National Institute of Health website.
“For adults, there are only 300 of us that have been diagnosed in the United States,” Frisco said.
“It had metastasized — they quit counting at 48 tumors,” she said. “It was in my leg and my lungs and a little bit in my pelvic region. I had surgery two weeks after arriving at Baptist” Medical Center.
Doctors removed her femur and replaced it with a metal rod that runs from her hip to her knee, and also removed a cantaloupe-size tumor from the head of her femur, she said.
Doctors scheduled 18 chemotherapy treatments and several high-dose radiation sessions directed at her legs and pelvis, giving her only a 20 percent chance of surviving the first year, she said.
Despite those odds and her treatment schedule, she was trying to complete her Averett degree through the New College Institute in Martinsville, but she didn’t know how she could do it.
Her school adviser, Dana Mehalko, was the first person Frisco contacted and there was never any doubt in Mehalko’s mind that Frisco could continue her studies.
“She said, ‘Jeannie, what do you mean?’” You need to “‘finish your degree,’” Frisco said. “I asked how and she said, ‘your study team will become your family.’ She went out of her way to make sure that I had everything I needed (and) made special provisions for me at graduation.”
Her classmates rose to the occasion and her study teams gathered strength from her courage to continue.
“I had a wonderful team of ladies who shared the workload,” Frisco said. “If I was in the hospital and needed additional support, they would help.”
A woman living in Patrick County drove Frisco to class every Wednesday and the college security guards put cones out to reserve a handicapped parking space close to the building because Frisco wasn’t very mobile with her walker and books.
“I was neutropenic and not supposed to be out in public,” said Frisco of her reduced immune system that was depleted after chemotherapy and susceptible to virus and infection.
“I had to wear a mask and it was embarrassing — losing my hair and giving presentations, but that all changed” with the support of classmates, Frisco said.
One classmate sent her a message, “‘You gave me the courage to get up in class. I know that if you could do it with a mask and hanging on the podium, so could I,’” Frisco said. “In some way, people gave me strength, but also felt courage from me. If I could do this, they could do this. From that point forward, I never looked back.”
There have been obstacles, Frisco said, but also some unexpected blessings.
She received second- and third-degree burns from heavy doses of radiation treatments and had to stay in the hospital most of this autumn due to infection — about three of four weeks in September and about the same time in August.
This month, Frisco is undergoing the 14th of the 18 scheduled chemotherapy treatments, but she always will remember her lucky 13th in November.
“Just two days before Thanksgiving ... during my 13th treatment, they ran scans on me and all of the tumors in my lungs are gone. There’s nothing there,” she said.
There are no tumors in her legs or pelvis, either, Frisco said. “They won’t say that I’m cured or in remission because I still have chemo to go. They say I’m cleared of cancer.”
“I actually consider myself one of the lucky ones. There was no way to describe the pain I was going through,” she said, adding that she hopes her four remaining chemotherapy treatments will be complete by early March.
She also needs to visit the oncologist every two months for scans and blood work to monitor her progress.
Frisco gives credit to the prayer groups asking for help, and now she wants to aid others.
“You have to have faith. Spiritually, the mind can truly control the body,” she said. “There is no doubt in my mind — my family and friends are truly a support network for me. That’s what has given me the courage and strength to continue the battle.
“My next goal,” she said, is “I want to help those who have been recently diagnosed with cancer. It’s a very scary journey and I want to share my experience. You don’t know what people go through until you go through it.”
Frisco lives in Stuart with her husband John Frisco, 41, a technician with Pioneer Hospital, also in Stuart.
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