No matter how many health issues she battles—breast cancer twice, and more recently a pancreatic mass—Loretta Staskey finds solace in a magical place.

It’s a place where time stands still, just as she wishes it could.

When you fear you might die, it’s a place to slow the harried pace of life, a place where your soul and spirit take rest.

“We like to go in the fall,” Staskey said of her journeys to Mackinac Island, Michigan, a small speck of an island town that has horses, bicycles and pedestrians roaming its streets instead of automobiles. “We sit on the porch and share a glass of wine and listen to the horses clomping.”

Staskey likely relates to the feel of horse hooves. Her breast cancer diagnosis felt like a kick in the gut.

First steps of the cancer journey

“It started in 1999 while I was still working as a full-time teacher,” said the now-retired Kent Intermediate School District Vocational Education teacher.

A routine mammogram proved to be anything but routine. It illuminated a small cancerous growth in her left breast, which required removal, 47 radiation treatments at the Spectrum Health Cancer Center and medication for the next five years.

“I more or less thought I had conquered that, that I was done with that,” said Staskey, now 74. “Five years later I didn’t feel right and thought there was something suspicious in my left breast.”

Like a bad re-run from which she could not escape, the suspicions led to another cancer diagnosis.

It was time to take drastic action and rid herself of the antagonist in this story line. After consulting with a breast surgeon she decided to undergo a radical mastectomy.

The genetic connection

Sadly, Staskey appeared to be the star in a family re-run. Her mom’s mom died of breast cancer at age 49, a year after Staskey was born.

Staskey’s mom was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 75. Five years later she developed uterine cancer. She died at age 91, cancer-free.

“After my second breast cancer and mastectomy, I was fine until June of 2010,” Staskey said. “I was having routine checks because of some nodules in my lungs—scar tissue.”

One of those routine checkups revealed something not so routine.

“They had been watching a small growth on my pancreas,” Staskey said. “They said the growth had tripled in size in about three years.”

After traveling out of state to pursue treatment, Staskey learned of a specialist right in her own hometown.

Staskey went to Mathew Chung, MD, a Spectrum Health Medical Group surgical oncologist, who suggested a Whipple procedure, which he performed two weeks later.

“Halfway through our interview he was like someone we knew forever,” Staskey said.

But the surgery is a complicated one. They knew recovery would take time. They considered moving from their Emerald Lake waterfront home in northeast Grand Rapids to a condominium that would require less care.

They feared cancer had returned.

“My husband would be up nights,” she said. “We were afraid of the whole surgery.”

Dr. Chung performed a successful Whipple procedure on July 21, 2010.

“It’s a complex surgery that involves removing the head of the pancreas, first portion of the small intestine, some of the stomach, bile duct and gall bladder,” Dr. Chung said. “Then we have to reconnect the bile duct, pancreas and stomach to the small intestine to establish GI continuity.”

‘Appreciate every little thing’

Usually, Whipple is done for cancer or suspected cancer.

“Based on her work up, it was very suspicious for cancer,” Dr. Chung said.

But Staskey was one of the lucky ones. The final pathology report after surgery came back negative. No cancer.

Staskey spent time in the intensive care unit, followed by another week at Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital.

“When I was in the ICU, I thought I was at a cottage,” Staskey said. “I kept telling them what a lovely cottage it was. Dr. Chung would bend down and whisper in my ear every morning, ‘Loretta, no cancer.’ Doctors are busy. Just to know he came in the early morning to do that is a sign of a very compassionate man.”

Staskey shares that compassion. She teaches religious education and sings in the choir at her church. While she’s visiting Mackinac Island, she picks up stones for her religious education students and writes inspirational messages on them.

After her medical journey, she can relate to those who are frightened, and in need of an encouraging word. She writes letters to sick people, and prays for them daily.

She has her life back, but it’s a different life. A deeper life. One with more meaning. And gratitude.

She gives back more, volunteering for the Spectrum Health Blodgett Hospital Guild, and uplifting spirits of those who have health journeys of their own.

She holds deeper appreciation for her husband. Her family. Her friends. Those she knows and those she has yet to meet.

“These experiences made me appreciate every little thing about life,” she said. “I appreciate life and whatever life is around me. Hopefully, I have become a better listener for other people. I see more beauty in all people than what I did before. Especially sick people. I like helping the sick, I like dropping a note or praying for the sick.”

She keeps a list of people in her Bible that may need a nudge of encouragement.

“Once a month I try to send out half a dozen or more notes,” Staskey said. “If someone has lost someone, I always send a little note.”