Optimism, with Dash of Whimsy, Keeps Patient Smiling Through Tough Times

Posted in GUMC Stories

People dealing with a major illness, death or other personal loss are often told they might expect to experience the so-called five stages of grief, beginning with denial. According to this theory, known as the Kubler-Ross Model, people use denial as an initial defense mechanism before moving on to the other stages: anger, bargaining, depression and, finally, acceptance.

Mary Beth McCutcheon is not one of those people, as anyone who has met her since her diagnosis can attest.

“Those stages didn’t really apply to me. I skipped right to acceptance and that is what has kept me going,” she says.

McCutcheon, 67, was first diagnosed with stage 2 colon cancer in 2006, and since then has undergone major surgery. The cancer returned as stage 4 in 2008 and she has had several rounds of chemo and other treatment since then. She is now a patient of Ruth He, MD, an oncologist at Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center.

While not one to sugarcoat her experience, you won’t catch McCutcheon dwelling too long on the negatives, either. Her sunny and inviting disposition is a magnet for her physicians, nurses and other patients.

“There was life before I was diagnosed, and life after. I’m now in the ‘life after’ part. I have a much sharper perspective on all kinds of things, and now I don’t tend to waste time on what’s not important,” says McCutcheon, who is retired after a career mostly working for nonprofit organizations doing event planning and member services.

A Dash of Whimsy

But McCutcheon doesn’t take herself – or her cancer – too seriously.

Earlier this year, she decided to have some fun with He, her oncologist, and one of her favorite nurses, Julie Feurtado, RN, BSN, OCN.

Having shown them both her recently inked tattoo of Peter Rabbit on her thigh — a constant reminder to laugh a little every day — McCutcheon came in one day and showed them both her latest body art addition: a tattoo on her arm depicting two hearts with the words “Dr. He” and “Julie” wrapped around them.

She had them going for a minute before He and Feurtado realized it was merely a temporary tattoo that McCutcheon had bought online, and they all shared a good laugh.

“That’s what happens when you have $10, a good internet connection and too much time on your hands,” McCutcheon says.

Staying Sane

McCutcheon attributes her grounded perspective in part to her rural upbringing in Pennsylvania Dutch Country – where she “never had to buy vegetables at a grocery store” – as well as to her close-knit circle of friends and religious circle. But perhaps it is McCutcheon’s two pets, a Havanese dog named Roadie and a Brown-headed Senegal parrot named Seamus, that have kept her the most sane. She proudly shows off pictures to those who inquire.

She also finds joy in travelling – as well as in daydreaming of travel. It’s a hobby that allows her to be transported elsewhere, both literally and figuratively, and to focus more on the world around her and less on her disease.

McCutcheon’s last big trip was an African safari, and she still lovingly recalls the trip through photo after photo of exotic animals shown on her iPad. It’s a way to pass the long days spent in clinic, she says.

“I don’t see the point in spending all this time being angry, or bargaining with God, or being depressed,” she says. “I’d rather think about the fun stuff – laugh about the fake tattoos, and remember the giraffes on my trip.”

‘Combination of Selfishness and Selflessness’

McCutcheon was most recently enrolled on a clinical trial at Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center aimed at studying the effects of a new immunotherapy treatment known as MEDI-565 on gastrointestinal tumors as well as the patients who have them.

MEDI-565 is a genetically engineered antibody that has been shown to direct a patient’s own T cells to attack certain cancer-related cells.

Although McCutcheon had to come off this study in August due to some unexpected cancer cell activity in her lungs, she remains optimistic that something else will work for her.

Maybe another trial will come along, she says, and she would welcome the chance to participate.

What motivates her is a combination of what she describes as selfishness and selflessness.

“It’s a no-brainer for me. I might as well be selfish if it is going to help me. But I also think, ‘It may not help me, but it could work for someone else down the road.’” Besides, she quips, the more time she can spend with her oncologist and nurses, the more chances she has to play practical jokes on them.

By Lauren Wolkoff, Georgetown Lombardi Communications

(Published Dec. 19, 2012)