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Fighting cancer with spirit, creativity and compassion

Darrell couldn’t bring actual flowers for his nurses because of COVID-19, so he decided to get creative.

Darrell McCully and his wife, Vivian, moved to Grafton, Wisconsin from Tennessee three years ago to spend their retirement with children and grandchildren. They were motivated to move because of family, but also found incredible medical care that will hopefully save Darrell’s life.

In August 2018, Darrell started having a hard time swallowing food. “It just felt like things were stuck and I couldn’t get it down. So, I went to the doctor and they did a scope of my throat that showed a growth in my esophagus,” Darrell explained.

It turned out to be cancer and his treatment was fairly aggressive. He had several rounds of chemotherapy and radiation and then an innovative surgery with Dr. William Tisol, a thoracic surgeon at Aurora Medical Center in Grafton.

Darrell shared, with his casual southern accent, “He basically stretched my stomach up to my throat. I have to sleep raised and I can’t lay flat anymore; I also eat smaller meals. But I got along with the surgery pretty well.”

After that initial treatment, Darrell thought he was cancer free. But during his 3-month check-up, he learned the cancer had metastasized to his liver and lymph nodes and was now stage four. He returned to Aurora Cancer Care in Grafton for more chemotherapy, which he still endures every three weeks.

“I feel fine on Monday during the treatment, Tuesday I start feeling bad. By Wednesday, I feel like I’m dead and that lasts a week,” Darrell said. “But then I have two pretty good weeks. I can live with that.”

Darrell’s sunny disposition, in the face of an obstacle like cancer, is quite remarkable. What helps him get through it are his caregivers at the Aurora Cancer Center – they truly feel like family. They would often have baking competitions; he actually has a Christmas bake-off trophy to prove his talents. But when the coronavirus pandemic hit, he wasn’t able to bring in homemade treats anymore. He asked about bringing in fresh flowers, but that wasn’t possible either. That’s when he got creative.

Darrell and his grandchildren

“I love my nurses and I wanted to bring them flowers one way or another. So, I walked in and said, ‘Here’s your flowers.’” Darrell’s southern charm prevailed when he opened his shirt to show them the temporary rose tattoos he placed all over his chest.

Another reason he enjoys going to his chemotherapy appointments are the free foot massages he receives as a cancer patient. As a leader in oncology integrative medicine offerings, Aurora Cancer Care aims to expand integrative therapies such as yoga, acupuncture, reiki, massage, and aromatherapy to provide patients with the most effective patient-centered treatments and therapies.

In a recent Aurora Cancer Care case study evaluating their benefits, patient symptoms decreased significantly when measured before and after integrative medicine therapies. Post massage therapy, patients’ stress and pain scores decreased by 52% and 42% respectively. Darrell can attest to that. “I love getting those foot massages, they really help you relax. I told them if anyone doesn’t want theirs, I’ll take it,” Darrell said.

Now, at the age of 76, Darrell feels like he still has a lot of life left in him. He continues treatment and enjoys quality time with his grandkids. He’s even started walking, so he can feel well enough to participate in Gill’s Walk-Off for Cancer, a fundraising event for Aurora Cancer Care patients and the integrative therapies that help patients just like himself.

“I used to feel sorry for people who had cancer, then I got it. Now I have compassion for them,” Darrell said. “Cancer may take my life, but it will never take my faith or my spirit.”

Learn more about ways you can support patients like Darrell at Aurora Medical Center in Grafton.