Seldom are we able to meet someone whose name exemplifies who they are. Joy Cooper is one of those people. Her manner of optimism is a medicine as powerful as any drug, her story inspiring. She trusts in thoughts, beliefs and even in the unknown as nothing less than all-positive.
Wherever Joy Cooper turned she was told hysterectomy was not only her best choice, but the only choice, in a world and a time when ovarian cancer was almost always a death sentence. But Joy didn’t see it that way. She had a lot of living to do and she wanted to do it watching her son Evan grow up with a little brother or a sister.
For a young active mother of a two year old longing for another child, to be plunged into a future counted in months, instead of years was unfathomable. To be told even if she survived the disease, and the terrifying treatment, she would never have another baby, would have wrung the tenacity out of just about anyone. But not Joy Cooper, she refused to bow to fear, treatment became a vehicle, and survival, a mode.
Experiencing severe back pain and a fifteen pound weight gain in twelve weeks Joy knew something was wrong. The emergency room doctor told her she was either six months pregnant or had a large mass. She was a twenty-nine year old mother of a little boy and she and her husband Donald desperately wanted another child. Even though pregnancy tests had come back negative, that night she thought only of another baby, not of a mass. The dream of that second baby was dashed the next day when her gynecologist told her she had a rare form of ovarian cancer and recommended a complete hysterectomy. She sought a second opinion.
The second doctor advised immediate surgery but held out hope that Joy’s tumor was isolated to one ovary and only it would have to be removed. After many tests, and just before surgery, Joy signed papers allowing a complete hysterectomy if the doctors deemed it necessary. Awaking after the operation and learning the fifteen pound mass, and only her right ovary was removed, left Joy feeling elated.
“I was thrilled,” she said, “never thinking the mass would be malignant.”
But it was. The doctor advised starting chemotherapy immediately because the tumor had leakage.
What began for Joy was a yearlong endurance race through therapeutic hell. Like being a passenger on a burning train traveling through a tunnel; she couldn’t get off until she reached her destination, and there were no guarantees she’d even survive the trip.
When faced with a diagnosis so dire that even if we survive, which is unlikely, our future is irrevocably altered, how many times can we ask ‘why’ before the question becomes the answer, ‘why not’?
Over the next year Joy was hospitalized eight times because of high fevers. When she lost her hair the first time she was worried her son would not recognize her. At that time her father-in-law was a beautician.
“Evan,” she said to her two year old, “want to see something funny?” She took the scarf off her bald head.
“Mommy,” Evan said, “Grandpa cut your hair!”
“That was a turning point,” Joy said. “I knew I had to fight this disease to see my son grow up. And I was thankful for every minute I had with my husband, son and family.”
At first the treatments were not that bad but soon life became a regiment of five day chemo treatments, endless retching and a twenty pound weight loss. Sometimes Evan would bring his mother a bucket because she was so weak she could barely lift her head from her pillow. Three weeks off treatment the weight would come back on and the cycle would start all over again. At one point Joy was unable to walk because of one of the medications. It was discontinued and she was able to attempt a small bit of normality at home.
“I loved taking care of my two year old,” she said. “My husband Donald was always there when I needed him, taking me to every treatment. I felt lucky.”
The second time Joy lost her hair her baldness communicated just how ill she really was.
“Looking in a mirror was difficult,” she said, “because looking in the mirror, I saw a sick person but I didn’t see myself as sick. I just wanted to live.”
After a year of treatments doctors performed a ’second-look’ surgery and a series of biopsies, fifty-two in all. Following that operation Joy contracted bacterial pneumonia. She was extremely sick, hospitalized for ten days and on a respirator. While still in ICU she was told by her doctor she was ‘cured’ of cancer.
Joy believes that the doctors and the entire team of medical people guiding her that year enabled her to best face ovarian cancer with an unqualified belief that she would not only survive but give birth to a second child. They all helped bolster Joy’s innate sense of the positive as she rode the burning train through that tunnel of unimaginable adversity.
Dr. Peter Schwartz, the man who told Joy she had cancer, was the same man who, when asked by Joy if she was going to die, immediately answered no. From chemo nurse Trudy who taught Joy how to live one day at a time, to Joanne, a nurse who visited Joy at home after her surgery and explained that she had two choices, “you can either lock yourself in this house”, she said, “or you can choose to live”. Joy chose life. And Willie May, a hospital cleaning lady, a wonderful woman who went to Joy’s room and prayed with her every time she was hospitalized, helped her realize as Joy says, “the guy in the sky was watching over me”.
The doctors were astounded by Joy’s yearlong positive attitude which never wavered regardless of how sick she became.
“Not one minute did I believe I was going to die,” she said. “Life is so short, I just wanted to live.”
Three years after Joy was first diagnosed she became the second woman in the United States to give birth after being cured of her rare form of ovarian cancer. Adam Cooper was born on Valentine’s Day. She calls him her ‘miracle baby,’ in fact her whole family has called him that his entire life.
That miracle baby is twenty-nine now, a graduate student in Boston and speaks of his mother as a living testament to the blessings within each precious day.
“I remember feeling different when I was younger, “he said, “…like there was some larger purpose. I don’t view the miracle of my birth as my doing and I look at myself more as a vehicle to help share my mother’s tremendous desire and will to help others cope in the face of obstacles I cannot fully imagine.”
When Adam was eleven Joy quit her job to care for a friend who was dying of brain cancer. She took on the burden of end of life care not only to provide a compassionate passage for her friend but to experience the path as a privilege, gently and with grace. Toward the end the woman was ravaged by tumors and had lost most of her faculties, speech being one. On an outing for ice cream Adam remembers going into the ice cream parlor and getting her a cone and feeding it to her. The memory of that woman, so compromised and helpless, staring into his eyes as a way to express thanks for a simple taste of vanilla/chocolate swirl, emblazoned in his mind, “…to live each day as an opportunity”.
Thirty two years later, Joy, a grandmother now, cherishes her family and lives each day under the mantle of ‘living it to the fullest’; a cliché for sure and a familiar reminder to live the moments given, with tenacity and faith. For Joy, back then, it was her ability to see beyond the moment and reach forward into the future, using positive-purpose as a vehicle.
It is no surprise that she works in the medical field now. Often as one of the first people patients speak with before consulting with their doctor, Joy is the one who listens astutely and acts with compassion. When asked by the doctor, she shares with patients her amazing story of a time when a nightmare cure became a bridge to a future and gave life to a miracle.