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Saliva Gland Cancer | The Balanced Mom Magazine

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by Jennifer Griner

Selfless courage describes Angela Schaefers, an amazing mom of three. With a diagnosis of a terminal illness, she has realized her purpose on this earth and has touched so many people around the world. Angela is the epitome of living life to the fullest and serves as a compassionate light for others to share their stories, heal from them and use them to make a difference in the lives of others.

Angela candidly shares her journey from diagnosis, family experiences and blessings to being a speaker and author who makes a big impact in the world.

Tell us a little bit about yourself.

I am a mom of three kids. I have 2 adult daughters in their twenties and a teenage son. I also have a beautiful granddaughter. Ten years ago, I was diagnosed with Stage IV Saliva Gland Cancer. This was when I wrote my first book, Grief to Grace. It is a book that I wrote for my kids and wanted to just share with them but I ended up sharing it publicly.

I also produce a radio show called, Your Story Matters, which evolved from writing my first book. When I found out that other people were inspired and encouraged by my story, I realized there was something to that. Not only do I share my story but I share other people’s stories as well. We all have stories that matter. When I write and speak, I encourage people to share their stories and learn from them. On my radio show, I interview people so that they can share what they’ve gone through, how they overcame it and what they’ve learned.

My most recent book, Your Story Matters, You Matter – A guide to healing, learning from and sharing your story is a platform for people to start looking at their story. Open-ended questions are placed throughout the book for readers to write about their story, the importance of it and finding the message in it. I encourage them to share their story publicly or just within their family. Many times we’re not sharing with our own neighbors or colleagues and if they knew more about us, they might have a better understanding of us, which can build compassion, connection and open communication with each other. That is the goal of the book. I am also doing workshops, book signings and discussions with the book for people to understand how they can use the book and how it can really benefit them. My mission is to change the world one story at a time.

Share your journey in regards to having Stage IV Cancer.

To put it in layman’s terms, Stage IV is pretty much the end of the road. It’s where the cancer has evolved into something almost unmanageable and uncontrollable. In my case, it was diagnosed terminal and that was 10 years ago. I was told that I wouldn’t live long and that I needed to get my things in order. I had the option to do chemo and radiation, since it was Saliva Gland Cancer, I would’ve had to remove a tooth, my throat would be raw and I would be put on a liquid diet among many other things. I asked the doctors what it was going to do for me if I wasn’t going to live much longer. They didn’t have any solid evidence that it would give me a great deal of more time. So I declined it. I just continue to work on being healthy. I have an extreme amount of faith. I pray everyday. And I just keep a really positive attitude.

If this is my last day, I accept that. I’m at peace with that. But, in the meantime, if this isn’t my last day, I want to make the most of my time, which is what I do.

I still have cancer. I have two other slow growing tumors that have evolved which is pretty normal with the type of cancer I have. I never know how things will change and what will evolve. So, my focus is living for today. How can I be healthy? How can I feel good? Right now, there are so many things that people with cancer can do that help, such as alternative therapies. I have met people who are in Stage IV Cancer and have been for years. They’re still alive and trying alternative methods to help them feel better in their situation versus chemo, radiation or even some surgery.

How did you find out?

I was just sick. I thought I had a cold. When I went to the doctors, they found that my glands were swollen and I was prescribed an antibiotic. When I wasn’t getting better, I kept going back to the doctor. I went through about 3 rounds of antibiotics including the highest intensity kind. Nothing worked.

So, they did a needle biopsy in my neck where the lump was located. They said it was a benign tumor and that it was no big deal. They were just going to make a little, tiny incision on the left side of my neck, take it out and everything would be just fine. So, I went in and had the procedure. And when I woke up there were a couple of doctors and nurses there, and they looked like they were going to die. I asked myself, “What’s wrong with everybody?”

They explained that when they went in and saw the bump, it was really leading into a whole tumor that was all up and down the left side of my neck. They took out as much as they could, but they knew in the operating room that it was cancer.

Two weeks later I had to go back to get my saliva glands taken out. I ended up getting double surgery instead of the tiny incision I initially went in for. My scar ended up being really large on my neck. It doesn’t look as bad now, but my neck looked really sunken in. I felt horrified and it was shocking and challenging all at once. It was something that I wasn’t prepared for, because there was no prepping and discussion that I was going to look so different after the surgery.

I don’t know if life works better when you have preparation or an indication of what’s going to happen and dealing with it as it comes. I’ve had both situations all my life and I haven’t figured that out yet.

When I was first diagnosed, I felt very suicidal and very desperate. I didn’t want to leave my kids. My kids were a lot younger then and I was just beside myself with the thought of leaving them behind. I was so overwhelmed with the stress and worry about what would happen to them when I’m gone.

After the first year, I literally woke up one day and thought, “I’m still here. There’s got to be a reason.” So, I decided that I wasn’t going to accept death and spend everyday feeling fear while waiting to die. I didn’t have a specific time indication of my life. So, I shifted my perspective and it has just grown and evolved into a lot of gratitude, peace, faith and hope. It’s not a cliché that life’s short. It’s the truth. I feel people need to be constantly reminded of that.

For me, that’s part of my purpose. I discovered my purpose when I was writing my first book, Grief to Grace and realizing that everything that I’ve been through was worth it, because it helps other people.

I can look at it as a victim and say that I’ve had a rough life or I can say that I went through all this and learned a lot of things. The more I share that with others the more I understand that my experiences are for other people just as much as they are for me and my family.

How do you communicat e with your kids, especially early on, about what ’s going on with you?

That was really, really hard. Of course, at that time my son was just a toddler and there was no discussion there. However, with my daughters, we tried to talk about it, but it was just too overwhelming for them. I was overwhelmed. I was certainly a different person than I am today. Back then, I really didn’t have the support I needed to sit down with them and nurture them. But later on, reading my first book was enough for them because I shared so much in it. And as they got older, we began to have open discussions about what the situation is and I’m honest with them now if I don’t feel good or if there are any new changes.

I think they’ve grown into their own appreciation for life and know very specifically that this situation with me is part of their journey as well. I could live until I’m 90 years old or the end could happen tomorrow. But when I pass, my hope for my children is that they take what they’ve learned from our journey as a family, go with that and share that with people. It’s not an area many people talk about – watching people die, death, suffering and how it affects the family. So, I encourage them to do something about their part of the story and inspire others with it. They’ve been a support already, because they’ve had friends who have lost their moms or have gone through cancer. They’ve shared some of their feelings and have been very supportive. Again, it’s another blessing in disguise that I can impact them in a positive way.

It’s not an easy place to be where you just don’t know. Some days I feel better and other days I feel really, really sick and think, “Is this it?” That’s a weird feeling for me. It’s hard for my kids to deal with and I understand that. So, I always roll it back to one day at a time.

I have hopes, dreams and goals. But I’m also in a place where today is enough. I’m not trying to do so much even though I have done a lot. I’ve left a legacy. I know that the book and the show will always be there. Hopefully, they continue to get into people’s hands and I’m at peace with that.

Many people, especially women, have so much power that is not being used. And that’s why I teach others to just do something! You don’t have to go public and write a book, but do something where you can say that you’ve contributed. Even if it is raising your kids, do it well. You’re leaving a legacy in your kids.

What top advice would you give a mom who was just diagnosed with a terminal illness?

The first 2 things I would say is stop where you are, allow support and start taking care of you. One of the things someone said to me early on in my diagnosis was that I ended up that sick with cancer at that point of no return because I was always taking care of everybody else.

That was a true statement for me and for most women. We tend to go out of our way to accommodate everybody, especially when we have kids, but we don’t take care of our own needs and our health.

I didn’t think about eating right and exercising, because I always felt exhausted from raising kids. I always thought about losing weight, but not feeding my body right.

So, take care of yourself. Find out what that is for you.

And the second thing is to find some support. I’ve always been extremely independent since my childhood. I had to decide to reach out to other people and allow them to help me. I didn’t even know what relying on someone else was like.

I was on the phone comforting other people as they cried over my diagnosis. I lived in Florida at the time and I was telling people who wanted to fly over and offer help to stay where they were, not to worry and that I was fine.

In the past, I felt that I never deserved support or felt that was an option. So this really has taught me a lot about self-healing and self-love. The support of people taking care of me, comforting me and helping me with the kids is the same as loving and taking care of myself.

How did your radio show start?

My friend read my first book, Grief to Grace and said that I needed to share it with the world. Originally, I wrote the book only for my kids. I wasn’t planning on sharing it publicly. I didn’t think anyone would really care about my personal story, because I felt that it didn’t really matter.

When I was ready to get the book printed, my plan was to order just 50 copies so my kids and family members can have a few once I’m gone. In my mind, this was the ending part. However, my friend suggested that I order 500 copies, which I thought was a ridiculous idea. At the same time, I also believed that I needed to take heed of messages I received in my life. There had to be a reason why she said that. So, I went ahead and ordered 500 books and ended up selling every one of them by word of mouth. This is when I really realized the importance of sharing your story.

Along this journey, a lady approached me and suggested that I do a show about my story. I couldn’t just talk about myself. So, that’s when I started thinking that I could talk to other people about their stories and experiences.

I created Your Story Matters Radio Show. It has been an amazing experience of meeting and interacting with people who have inspiring and encouraging life stories and lessons. Everybody has a part of their story that they can share and make a difference in the lives of others.

I receive messages from all over the world about people being encouraged and inspired from my show. One lady from India contacted me and said that she finally realized what her husband was doing to her was called domestic violence. We discuss different topics on the show from addiction, suicide to cancer and other illnesses. It’s about ordinary people who went through extraordinary circumstances and found a way to get out of that to heal, learn from it and to move forward.

Share with us your journey that led you to write your 2nd book.

A lot of people started to approach me to help them write their story and help them figure out their message. So, I decided to write a book to answer the questions that I was frequently asked. The book is like a workbook. It has open-ended questions to get people thinking about their story.

It’s a guide to healing by sharing your own story, and why it matters. I share tips in the book on how to condense the story and get down to the message. Which I believe, is the whole point, when we go back and learn things from our stories, we’ll see the patterns and the message. You’ll see what characteristics and strengths you have developed personally from your own story that are unique to you.

What’s next for you?

I have another book coming out in the next couple of months called, Cancer Doesn’t Come Wrapped in a Pretty Ribbon. It’s about my story from the beginning of my diagnosis to now. I wrote it to be really authentic and true, not sugar coated at all. Some people may be offended by what I say or the feelings I felt throughout my experiences, but they are mine. The point of the book is to give people a voice and to help them know that it’s ok to feel whatever they feel, such as feeling anger and/ or feeling suicidal. These are all the feelings we are traditionally taught not to share or talk about.

What do you do to stay balanced?

I eat right and exercise regularly 5 to 6 days a week. I don’t skip that at all because I can feel the difference if I do. My intention is that when I do my best each day, I’ll continue to live and feel better. Since I’ve been on a journey of improving my health, I feel better physically and emotionally.

I definitely take time for myself. I do different activities that I find healing such as yoga, meditation and prayer. Whatever things I find that can feed my soul is what I do regularly.

I appreciate and love that I can inspire others, but I also found that I need space to take care of me. It’s still a constant learning journey to always be mindful of what I do, what I need and what am I f eeling. I check in and ask if I’m feeling overwhelmed by my schedule.

Especially as an entrepreneur, I don’t have scheduled breaks or a 9 to 5 day. Since I’m so passionate about what I do, I can work 7 days a week and/or 12 hours a day. However, that’s not a good lifestyle for me. So, I need to constantly find that balance.

What are the things in life you enjoy doing?

I love the outdoors and being active. I love to bike ride, kayak and I’m into running now. I just did a 5k, which shocked me. I love live music and tea time. And of course, I love a day at the spa. It’s about living my life to its fullest. I think people get confused by thinking they need to be rich, go shopping or go on big traveling trips to get away or have a good time. Although those things aren’t bad at all, it’s really about the everyday.

It’s about doing something that’s purposeful and meaningful to you. Take care of yourself physically, emotionally and spiritually. I love spending time with my kids. Sometimes we’ll just walk the pier or the park. We go on a lot of walks. Those are the things that fulfill my life and make it the best it can be.

Share something that would surprise people that know you.

My kids know this, but most people wouldn’t know that I’m definitely silly and kid-like to the point where my son tells me that I’m embarrassing to him. Before we go out in public, my son will sometimes tell me not to talk to other people’s kids and dogs.

I just love kids and dogs and for some reason, they’re attracted to me. So, we end up talking and I end up buying them ice cream or something.