The Van Dams decided to undergo six months of chemotherapy. It was not an easy decision, as Sonya had some very real fears of the side-effects.
“I wasn’t looking forward to being sick all the time,” she confided.
“I was terrified of chemo because I’ve seen the people on campus walking around with the mask on, they don’t have any hair, they look really weak, and I was terrified — terrified — to go through that. They say it’s six months, every other week you have to come in for a treatment, and I just didn’t want to do it. I wanted to live my life, I wanted to go on. I didn’t want to wrap my head around it. That to me was the hardest part with the chemo. The surgery was cake compared to the chemo. I’d broken my leg back in ’99.
“Sabu hit me with a jet ski, and I broke my femur and fibula. It snapped by femur in half so now there’s a rod through my femur; there’s a plate and six screws holding my knee together because I had what they called a ‘floating knee.’ All the bones were broken around the knee, so that it didn’t attach to anything. That is major surgery, so with the colon thing, I’m waiting for this to get major. I was up walking around the day after surgery. They want you moving around as soon as you feel comfortable enough; it actually helps you heal faster rather than laying there and being in one position. Your body doesn’t really respond to that. That was something I learned from my leg surgery, being up as soon as possible.
“Back to the chemo, and Dr. Paz, he’s such a great doctor and he knows how big it is. He knows how overwhelmed you feel when they tell you that. So he being the great doctor he is like, ‘We’re going to get through this. You’re going to be fine. We see this all the time. We are a cancer hospital. You’re going to be fine,’ because he knew I didn’t want to do the chemo. I don’t want to be that person. I’m terrified of doing the chemo.”
So in June 2008, the Van Dams took a trip to the Canary Islands for two weeks for some rest and relaxation.
“That was when Rob wrestled for the NWA. That was nice. That would have put us about one year to when Rob left WWE,” she continued. “So we go to the Canary Islands, we come back, and I have to have another surgery. Because they put this thing in my chest called a porta-capacitor and tie it in to my central vein system. It’s basically a place where they put the needles and they put the chemo in there. They hook me in with the needle and they have to pierce the skin every time to get to it.
“It’s just fun, let me tell you,” she deadpanned.
“It’s got its own scar tissue, because they had to cut me to put it in. So they have to pierce the scar tissue, which is even more fun. That’s where the chemo goes and what they would do is I would get hooked into an Intravenous (IV). Now, this is every two weeks and it was always on a Monday. Every other Monday, I’d go in, get my blood drawn, and you see the doctor, because he has to look at your white cell counts and make sure that your body is strong enough to take this next round of chemo. I’d get hooked into the IV and I’m there for three-and-a-half hours getting these major toxic drugs pumped into my veins. Then they would hook me into this little ‘To go’ pack, and I would be hooked into that for two days and then I’d go back and they would unhook me. That was my routine for six months. From July 10th through December 17th, that was my last one.”
Then there were the side effects, and for the record it was made clear that, “The side effects suck!”
“Nausea and vomiting, the number one complaint when you’re on the chemo. You’re so tired. When you’re on the chemo, you can take a nap because you’re just exhausted, and you wake up from that nap, and you’re equally as exhausted. You just don’t get the regenerative sleep that you get when you’re not on it. There’s something in it, it just makes you so tired.
“I was just listless on the couch for two days because you don’t have the energy, you just don’t. The worst side effect also is what they call an ‘after-effect’ and they don’t tell you about the after-effects until after you’ve done the chemo. It’s really just too much for the brain to process, honestly.
“And they layer it on you, and sometimes that just gets overwhelming because it’s like an onion. I’m going to steal it from Shrek; it’s like an onion, and you peel back all these layers, and you think you’re going to get to the middle and you’re going to be done finally with this and then there’s another layer. You think, ‘Okay, the light at the end of the tunnel, I’ve made it through chemo, I’m done. The side effects are going to go away,’ and then the after effects come.
“I can’t even tell you how frustrating it is.
“The worst thing I’m dealing with right now is called Neuropathy. It’s a numbness and tingling of the hands and feet. My feet feel like bricks. The chemo is really high in metal; it’s a really heavy metal. So that takes it toll on your nerve endings. Basically in laymen’s terms, the stuff that protects your nerve endings has kind of gone away, so my nerve endings are just out there and they feel everything. It’s so over sensitive that it’s painful. Things that aren’t sharp, feel sharp, temperatures hot and cold, like I cannot put my hand in the freezer; it feels like electricity. It’s like cold burns on my hands. I was cooking something the other day and I touched the lid of the pan on the handle. Well, I know from experience it should not be that hot. When I touched it, the nerves in my hand reacted like my fingers were going to blister because it was so hot. But my skin knew the temperature wasn’t and it didn’t blister even though that’s how it felt to my nerves.
“That’s neuropathy and it sucks! Now I’m going to try acupuncture and all the alternative medicines to try and deal with that because there is nothing they can do it for it. And they don’t want to even tell you how long it lasts. This is their ‘Get out of jail’ answer: ‘Every patient is different, we’re not exactly sure.’ I’m like, ‘What’s the average?’ ‘Months.’ That’s what they said, months. I had done some research and I knew we were talking years. ‘Somewhere between 12 and 24 months.’
“And you couldn’t have told me this before? ‘No, it would have been too much for you.’ So frustrating, because I can’t feel things, I drop things. A pen, it’s hard for me to write, because I can’t feel my fingertips, so the pressure in my fingertips is all off. If I hand that pen to Rob, as soon as it’s out of my line-of-sight, I drop it because I can’t feel it in my fingertips. I drop forks when I’m trying to eat. I say, ‘My fingers aren’t working,’ and it’s frustrating to try to do things but you can’t do it because you can’t feel your fingers to do it. Like fastening my bra, because it’s a back closure. I can’t feel the little hooks to hook it.
“Like my signature. It’s my signature but it looks forced, almost. When my grandmother got Alzheimer’s, her signature changed liked that as soon I saw it, I was like, ‘Oh my God, that looks like grandma’s signature. It kind of freaked me out.”
Sonya was also candid about her observations while undergoing chemotherapy.
“Funny thing about colon cancer; you don’t lose your hair,” she reflected. “It thinned out a little bit, but I didn’t lose it. I still got to keep it, which was nice. I was prepared to lose my hair. Thank God I asked my doctor before I shaved my head, like, ‘Let’s go shave it and be done with it and not worry about it.’ I was prepared. Thank God I asked my doctor before I went ahead and shaved my head,” she said half-jokingly.
“Which, I must say, is very unfair to the breast cancer patients, that they have found the men, the old men, a chemotherapy protocol where they end up keeping their hair. That was the protocol I was on. I kept my hair because the chemo attacks the fast-growing cells; your hair, your mouth all that kind of stuff. That’s the main thing that gets affected and that’s why people lose their hair is because the chemo attacks those cells. Somehow, with the colon cancer chemo protocol, you just don’t lose your hair; it just doesn’t attack the hair cells to the same extent. But if they can do it for colon cancer, come on guys; is it such a big deal for a woman to not lose their hair? Help the breast cancer patients out, you know?”
“And I do want to say this about City of Hope. They are one of the few hospitals that are actively looking for a cure; they’re not just looking for the next breakthrough drug or treatment. They are actively looking for a cure. Which most places like UCLA or USC, they have research centres, but they’re looking for more drugs because that’s where the money is. It’s in the pharmaceuticals. The pharmaceuticals companies will pay you; they’re not going to pay you to find a cure that they can’t make money on.
“They’re actively looking for the cure to unlock the keys to cancer. They’re of the thought that we are very close and if we can unlock one cancer — don’t care which one it is — if they can figure it out and unlock it, they can do that with the rest of them. That’s why genetic testing is so important to them.”
It looks like the hard work and the decision to undergo chemotherapy has paid off.
“Right now, I am in remission,” she confirmed in late January 2009. “Right now the protocol is I go every three months for a checkup. And I’ve had one of those and all my cancer markers are fine, so far I’m still in remission.”
“I feel like I go to City of Hope more now than I did before. I go every three months for to see the doctor. I was just there for the genetics results. I have to go every single month to get my porta-capacitor flushed until they take it out. They have to put a blood thinner and they have to put through the capacitor so that no blood clots form. So I have to do that every single month and they don’t want to take that out just yet, they kind of want to leave that in and make sure that things stay in a way that they don’t need to access it anymore with chemo or anything like that.
“I’m just starting to work out again; Rob got me a Wii-fit for Christmas  and I love it. That to me is the biggest change. I was a very fit person, I worked out. But now, the chemo has kind of robbed my muscles of their strength. I have to start over again. It’s frustrating but then after you look back and go ‘Oh my God, I just survived this? Okay, we’ll start at square one.'”
She noted in particular Bret Hart and Paul Heyman, who phone and check up on her randomly all the time with some comforting words.
She also spoke to Viscera on the set of Rob’s new film Wrong Side of Town, which also stars Batista and is currently filming in Louisiana. The big man also had some kind words, as he has been touched by cancer through a family member’s experience.
In a sense, it was mind over matter, with a helpful dosage of support from the wrestling community in particular that helped keep colon cancer down for the three-count.
“One thing that is key for me is, I must say I did stay pretty positive throughout the whole thing. What helped me was sometime between April 5 and April 25, I sat down by myself and I collected in my brain, I visually collected all the ‘Why me,’ all the ‘How did this happen’, the self-pity, all that bull that comes along with getting a diagnosis like this. I visualized picking it up and putting it in a box. I set that box on fire in my brain and I refused to let myself to go there. Every time I would have one of those thoughts sneak their way in, because they’re sneaky little thoughts and they get in your brain. I have to banish. ‘Hey, hey! I banished you; get back in the box.’
“As silly as it sounds, it really helped to visualize it. And visualize burning and being done with it, because those thoughts have no place in recovery. They will rob you of your recovery just as hard and as fast as you fight for it. Mental attitude is key, because you can’t heal the body before you heal the mind.
“I was so in shock that it could happen to me that I felt I had to warn other people that it could happen to them. I do believe in the power of prayer and believe that it helped and that’s one thing I want to thank all the people, all of the fans who prayed for me.”
“She has been amazingly strong, which is important to get both of us through this,” said Rob Van Dam. “Because right off the bat I thought my position or role would be to be the strong one, so she could lean on and count me for support. And right off the bat, wow, I couldn’t even talk about it. It was something just thinking about it was like so stressful and made me so emotional. I got to feed off of her strength because I mean she’s going through this and anybody that had been around her over the last year or so, definitely ever since she started the treatments back in, I think, May, she’s been amazing. She made it through like a champion. People always ask, ‘Did she keep her hair?’ She kept her hair. She looks beautiful. She was able to keep in pretty good spirits. She didn’t feel good having the toxins pumped into her, which is what chemo is, so she’d have a few days where she’d pretty much just sleep, wake up to throw up, which is not a lot of fun.”
When asked if the experience had affected his decision to have children in the future, Rob said it was more of a mutual and personal decision than anything.
“I think it would be a factor if it that was something that we were contemplating, which we are not,” he said. “Sonya and I have been together 12 years now, and we’ve always pretty much been on the same page. People have asked us a lot of times why we don’t want children and it’s easier to answer why you do want something than why you don’t. Because not wanting kids isn’t because we hate kids; there’s a lack of desire for us to change our lives into what would be parents raising a house of kids. That’s the best way I can put it; we both very much on the same page, we enjoy our lives. If we were to have a kid unexpectedly, we would feel blessed but it’s something that we’ve never been interested in trying and I doubt that will change.”
Rob wanted to make it clear that medical cannabis — marijuana — was instrumental in Sonya enduring the daily grind of chemotherapy and wondered aloud why it was not acknowledged openly and offered to patients in a stigma-free manner. “The cannabis was a huge help, because she would consume cannabis which would help not only with alleviating pain and discomfort, but also nausea,” Rob Van Dam said.
Dr. Benjamin Paz offered his perspective on their journey. “She [Sonya] was in the hospital for two or three days. Using previous surgery techniques, she would have been in the hospital a week to ten days. Sonya was pretty much at home, with independent care the first week and probably driving a couple of weeks after, without sacrificing anything in her care.
“I think the most important thing that helps her, to be honest, is her husband [Rob] being at her side. He has always been at her side. I always tell my patients that being the husband/wife of a patient with cancer is very difficult, because you don’t know what to do. I always tell them the key is, the person looks at them to tell them that they are normal. It’s like looking at yourself in the mirror; you want somebody to tell you, ‘Yes, you are good; I’m at your side, and I still love you.’ Even when you lose your hair, when you don’t look as happy, we are fighting this thing together and we will face this together. Therapy is like a marathon and Sonya is the one running the marathon. But she needs a lot of people to help her with all these decisions but she needs also the emotional part and the security that in the process of doing all this treatment, she’s not going to lose what she has. He has been outstanding.
“You can never gauge a person; every person is a little different. He has been engaged, he has been supportive. Perhaps, that’s part of why I didn’t know he was a famous wrestler at first. For me, he was a true, true, human. His physical build, obviously I could tell he was an athlete. But how he gentle he was, with everybody, you would never imagine he was a wrestler.
“Let me tell you something. The greatness of an individual for me is when they face a situation like this and they find the inner strength to deal with it, that’s where the greatness is. It’s not in winning the fight; it’s not in winning the soccer game. The greatness is in the game of life, when you face problems, how do you react to problems? When you don’t run away. I am sure that his wrestling career has helped him to put things in context. But he is helping his wife to fight for her life. There is probably no bigger fight that he has been involved in, than this one. Clearly, you can tell. I treat a lot of young people, and it’s been great to work with them.
“All I can say is the real story behind it is not that you’re famous and you developed cancer, but the fact that you’re human and you developed cancer, that all these famous people are human. We all are at risk and no matter how high you might rise, life is far more important than our careers. The people around us, the society we live in, our friends are the ones that are there for us when we face a problem like this. Frankly, every individual that faces these problems are heroes. That’s why I don’t really pay as much attention to that information because I see them everyday. I see at least ten new cancer patients everyday. You have to realize about 1-in-2 men and 1-in-3 women will develop cancer in their lives in the United States. This doesn’t mean they will die from it. But the fact is that most of us will have to face dealing with diagnosis and with treatment, it is the reality and we have to be sober about it.”
Finally, Dr. Paz confirmed Sonya’s medical status. “She is free of disease right now. There’s no evidence of diseases,” he said. “She’s doing well; she’s following her treatment well. Hopefully, she’ll stay like this; she’ll complete her treatment in a few months. She’ll go on with her life, and we’ll follow her closely to make sure there are no complications and we’ll also investigate that we can prevent future tumors.
Sonya and Rob spent three weeks in France in March, which was a childhood dream for Sonya, who went through a CAT scan in early April, which came back clean. She is scheduled for a colonoscopy in late May.”
“As soon as my colonoscopy comes back clean, they are going to take the porta-capacitor out of my chest and that’s scheduled for June 12, because we know it’s going to be clean.”
Sonya then proudly declared the start of her “Sonya kicks Cancer’s Ass World Tour.”
Mrs. Monday Night is an avid traveler and visited Grenoble, the birthplace of Andre the Giant when she visited France in March. France will again kick off her slate of scheduled countries for the tour year; Ireland, Romania, Germany and Holland for this year.
Some inspiration has come from others facing cancer, like actress Christina Applegate, who she didn’t know, but drew additional courage from.
“She had breast cancer and she tested positive for the gene,” she noted. “By the way, she’s my hero for how she’s handled herself through this whole thing. She tested positive for the gene. Basically when you test positive for that, the cancer is in your genes. You are always going to be fighting breast cancer, so she’s watched her Mom go through breast cancer twice. She made the conscious educated decision after testing positive to remove both of her breasts. So proactive. To do that for a woman is huge. And for her to be that proactive about her own health and more importantly, to be public about it and help all the women out there that are going through that or are about to go through that. They can look at her and be like: ‘You know what? She did it and she’s not any less of a woman by removing her breast. She saved her own life.’
“I just read Christina Applegate’s interview in People magazine and it’s very inspiring. I’m completely 100% with her in that you feel that you got a second chance in life. I think only another survivor can truly understand how special each day is now.”
Still, there is some humour to be found along the way. “I always ask Rob now, “Honey, do you think I’m sexy with half a colon?
“I’m not as full as s—.”
Since this story has been written, there have been several new developments. A 19-year veteran with the centre, Dr. Paz, has recently been promoted to Executive Medical Director of Community Cancer Centres, City of Hope Medical Group.
Sonya has also been asked by City of Hope to sit on their Patient Advisory Board, a group of former cancer patients, family members and staff that recommends improvements based on their personal experiences to the overall cancer-care experience.
“They don’t ask many people to do that but they have asked me to be a part of that, and I have accepted to do that. I’m very excited about my duties,” she said.
There are other projects coming down the pipeline, including a fundraising golf tournament featuring the chance to play golf with Booker T.
“It’s one those things in which I’m trying to give back in any way that I can.”
PART ONE and SIDEBARS
Kenai Andrews is Media Relations Director of SuperEyeSpex Optical and the Senior Writer for new Caribbean culture based Yush Magazine. Email him at [email protected]. You can also follow Kenai at http://twitter.com/KenaiAndrews.