With Immense Gratitude by Nancy Novack

On April 29, 2004, I was diagnosed with stage IV ovarian cancer which had metastasized to my liver. That was 13 years ago. I had no idea what any of that meant, despite living on this planet in northern California for sixty years. I didn’t know anything about the treatment, the statistics, what was ahead of me. I remember asking my physician when told I had stage 4 cancer, “So, what is stage 5?” And I had no one to journey with me who had survived the same diagnosis.

I was placed in a lovely room at Stanford Cancer Center gazing onto the flower gardens, in an altered state of no-conscious-ness, as if I were watching someone else’s movie. As is true of any teaching hospital, Stanford is notorious for sending out the troops to inspect every square inch of the body of an “interesting” case. That’s what they do, and they come in droves, and they ask a million questions, and they probe away, and they don’t answer any questions.

The surgeons came, sharpening their scalpels, ready to go. My sweet cousin Leslie tried to listen in to the many terribly serious conversations amongst all the hovering physicians. She managed everything, and beautifully.

After several hours of the procession of professors, fellows, assistants, nurses, and the curious bystanders, a man walked into my room, looking a bit like Santa Claus. My recollection is that I said to him, “And who might you be?” and he announced he was my doctor. There was silence. The healing begins.

What healed me? My relationship with Dr. Branimir Sikic, his courage, caring, intelligence, and unwavering commitment to get me well from that very first night. He announced to the bevy of eager surgeons impatiently waiting in the corner, “Nancy has no time for surgery. We will start treatment and chemo immediately.”

He told me, “Yours is a very bleak diagnosis. It will be a rocky road. But hang in there. I think I can help you. I am with you.” With those words, Brandy showed his profound compassion. The kind of hope and the kind of caring that he offered me throughout my treatment define the essence of this man.

He looked around the room, crowded with my friends and loved ones, and said, “When everyone goes home tonight and you start to freak out about what has happened today, here is my home phone number. Feel free to call me.” And I did, at 2:30 in the morning. And Brandy was as gracious and generous on that phone call as he has always been, ever since.

Brandy Sikic held my hand and my heart. The deal we made was pretty simple: if ever something in my body felt different or wrong, my job was to contact him immediately. And he responded immediately from wherever he might be in the world. He never dismissed my calls or my fears and, rather, guided me through the next step – an emergency CT scan at midnight at Stanford, an emergency visit to Sloan-Kettering when my arm wouldn’t move during my vacation in New York. Even when Brandy was on sabbatical in his homeland Croatia, he was within earshot (email and phone call), and he made the critical decisions about my treatments. When the oncology team was considering a liver transplant, he weighed in daily with his directives. No surgery, said Brandy. We did not do the transplant. And all is well.

Few doctors have said to their patients what Brandy once said to me, but I wish they would. “This is very tough. I am giving you very aggressive treatments. If you are on antidepressants, double them. If you are not on them, get on them. And find yourself a solid psychologist, preferably someone who has been through cancer.”

With this and so many extraordinary acts of kindness and understanding over the past 13 years, Dr. Sikic laid the foundation for true trust: an opening of my heart to the amazing generosity of strangers, to the compassion and sensitivity of the chemo infusion teams, to other patients, and to the beauty of my friends and loved ones. When people ask, and they often do, What happened? How did you make it when others have not? I don’t have any answers to that mystery. I do know, for certain, that the opening of my heart, the receiving of the blessings and the love, the sense of abundance of good will coming my way changed my being during my cancer experience and forever more.

Those four words, I am with you, are my four favorite words in the world. They sustained me, gave me hope, and transformed my understanding of the healing process. These are powerful, simple, exquisite words. The name of the book I wrote with 42 authors who are living with cancer is I Am with You: Love Letters to Cancer Patients.

I am the luckiest lady in the world. I truly enjoy defying medical statistics and being the poster child for Stanford’s Cancer Center.

I am immensely grateful.


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