Attitude of gratitude
Westbrook credits positive outlook, support for new cancer-free diagnosis
hood county news
For four or five years now, Tim and Sandy Westbrook have attended the Country Spirit Jamboree – an annual event to raise money for Cancer Care Services.
The event is presented by Texas Oncology, and benefits residents of Hood County.
Supporting Cancer Care Services has been important to the Westbrooks. Tim lost both his parents to lung cancer. He and Sandy have other relatives, as well, who were stricken by the disease.
When the 8th Annual Country Spirit Jamboree was held in April at the Granbury Reunion Grounds, the Westbrooks were there, as usual. This time, though, they didn’t stay long.
Tim was again dealing with cancer, but this time it was his own.
In a turn of events he never anticipated, Tim found that he needed help from the very agency he had helped support.
“I used to think I’m invincible. I’m what they call a workaholic,” the 48-year-old power plant operator said, his voice distorted because of a tracheostomy – a hole in his trachea.
It all started last October, when Tim went to his family doctor because of a tickle in his throat that wasn’t going away.
After consulting with another physician, the family doctor feared that Tim might have cancer. Because of insurance rules, though, he had to first put Tim on an antibiotic before scheduling a biopsy.
The drug did nothing to cure the tickling sensation, so a biopsy was scheduled.
The answer to what was causing the tickling came in November. Tim was diagnosed with head and neck cancer.
For a brief time, he kept the news from Sandy, but she found out about the grim diagnosis when she overheard her husband talking on the phone.
“At first, I was afraid she wouldn’t take the news very well. But she is stronger than I thought,” Tim said.
Doctors told the couple that Tim’s cancer was from his contraction of HPV (Human Papillomavirus). Those with that type of cancer often have been heavy smokers or drinkers, though the Westbrooks say that wasn’t the case with Tim.
“He could have caught it up to 30 years ago,” Sandy said.
When Tim was diagnosed, the cancer was Stage 1. But by the time surgery was performed in December, it was Stage 4.
With whiplash speed, Mr. Invincible had become Mr. Vulnerable.
Before Tim needed Cancer Care Services, he needed his wife and family.
He and Sandy have been together about five years. Tim has two grown sons and Sandy has two grown daughters. Between them, they have several grandchildren.
The couple had originally met when they were 12, and Sandy was “the prettiest girl on the school bus” in Tim’s eyes.
Decades later, they reconnected through Facebook and were married by Precinct 2 Justice of the Peace Martin Castillo.
“I have a wonderful family and grandkids that are awesome,” said the ever-positive Tim. “It’s wonderful to have the support.”
Between diagnosis and surgery, there were 32 doctor appointments, according to Sandy. There were meetings with the family doctor, the oncologist, the radiologist, the surgeon, the heart doctor and others.
Some teeth had to be removed to prepare Tim for surgery. Then, during the surgery, two more teeth had to be extracted.
Tim later developed pneumonia, which is not unusual for cancer patients.
People who love Tim packed his hospital room, spilling out into the hallway. But it is his wife who has been right there beside him, day in and day out, constantly attending to his needs.
“I thought I was the backbone of the family. I’m not,” Tim said.
Sandy brushes off the sacrifices.
“He would have done the same thing for me,” she said.
Tim is on a feeding tube and has no idea when – or if – he will ever be able to eat solid food again. He is undergoing physical therapy in hopes of rebuilding his jaw muscles.
Tim’s feedings occur at night. The process takes hours. He also has to use a humidifier and suction machine while sleeping.
“It’s loud,” said Sandy. “It’s like two little generators.”
The previously healthy Tim had six months of sick time built at work, with six months of short-term disability – things to be thankful for. But recovering from cancer is a lengthy process.
Though he and Sandy were fortunate enough to have some savings, serious financial issues were hovering.
But so, too, was Cancer Care Services.
right here, right now
During those uncertain times when Tim didn’t know if he would still have a job, representatives of Cancer Care Services promised to assist the Westbrooks with COBRA costs.
COBRA stands for Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act. It is a health insurance created by the federal government to cover those laid off or terminated from their jobs.
Luckily, though, Tim not only was able to keep his job, he returned to work at North American Energy Services in Cleburne in May.
He has a lot of support there. Co-workers have taken over shifts that Tim normally would have had to work outdoors.
Being able to return to work meant everything for the self-proclaimed “workaholic.”
“When I went back to work, I felt like a functioning part of society,” Tim said. “I’m not one to take a hand-out. I want to earn what I get.”
Sandy said that Cancer Care Services was there, waiting in the wings, as Tim completed seven chemotherapy treatments and 33 radiation treatments.
The nonprofit, which is one of Hood County United Way’s 24 partner agencies, provides financial, emotional and spiritual support for those impacted by cancer.
Teresa McCoy, Hood County’s tax assessor-collector, has been on the Hood County steering committee for Cancer Care Services for about 10 years. She said the annual Jamboree fundraiser is “vital” for the community.
“It’s really important for me, having had relatives pass away from cancer, to keep it going and to help people in our community,” she said. “This is really close to my heart because it helps people right here, right now.”
Tim said there were “a lot of things” Cancer Care Services was going to do to help him and Sandy.
“They were going to help with my formula and my insurance. They set me up with the right people to talk to,” he said.
“I never thought I would be the type that needed help. But when I needed it, people were there.”
a life well lived
Throughout his ordeal, Tim has remained optimistic and focused on the positive. His outlook may be one of the reasons he is now cancer-free.
Said Tim: “Attitude, my doctor said, is 90 percent of it. I’m just thankful I have a life. I have a family. I have everything I’ve ever wanted.”
Of course, though, the reality is that not everyone survives cancer.
Tim said that once when he and others were receiving chemo at the Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders, a young woman in her mid-20s came in with her brother. The woman was crying and “having panic attacks left and right.” She had terminal cancer.
Because of his throat, Tim was unable to speak, but he wrote a message on a tablet and showed it to the distraught young woman.
“It’s going to get better,” he had written.
“No, it’s not. I’m dying,” the woman said.
Tim wrote in reply: “It’s up to you to decide if you’re going to enjoy the time that the Lord has given you.”
Tim lives according to that philosophy. He has kept the cast of his head and chest that he had to wear during radiation treatments – much to the surprise of one of his doctors.
The doctor asked Tim why he would want to keep a reminder of the “torture” he had endured.
Tim, though, views the cast differently. He explained to the doctor: “That was what saved my life.”
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