By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Lying in her bed last April, frail and small, Yvonne Camenos knew she had only weeks to live. Yet she was not embittered. She seemed content in the knowledge that she had fought for as long as she could. So as her mind replayed her struggle against ovarian cancer, she chose to dwell not on the suffering, but on the rewards that can come from confronting one's mortality.
"Actually, I thought the cancer would get me sooner or later," she said matter-of-factly. "But I saw my situation as an opportunity to experience things through a different light, to see my kids through this."
She recalled awaking at a Scottsdale hospital after exploratory surgery on June 28, 1991.
"Am I dead?" she asked.
She had been assured that she still was among the living.
But the surgery had uncovered an advanced form of ovarian cancer, one of the most lethal of malignancies. The doctors expected Yvonne to die within three months.
She steeled herself for a fight that many anticipated would be torturous and short.
It wasn't short. It lasted four years.
Yvonne finally died at her home on June 9, 1995. She was 53.
This story describes how the Scottsdale mother of four lived those four years. She endured unspeakable pain. And she was compelled to do protracted battle with her health insurance company.
But there's much more. Through it all, Yvonne's character and spirit moved all with whom she came into contact. In dying, she was full of life.
"We all have to deal with death eventually," Yvonne said from her bed in April, days after deciding to let her cancer run its course. "For a while, I put my life in the hands of God and my doctor. Now I'm in God's hands."
Yvonne Camenos often joked that she and her husband, Jim, were joined at the hip. On the surface, however, they fairly could be called opposites.
Yvonne was outgoing, an instant confidante. She was the parent in whom her children confided--occasionally, once they were of age, over shots of tequila. Jim was more comfortable tinkering with his computers or talking national politics than in intimate human discourse.
Yvonne was a devout Catholic whose faith deepened after she became ill. Jim was an agnostic who didn't believe any god would subject his wife to such a demise.
She adored Billy Joel and James Taylor. He preferred classical music.
She loved to spend hours in her bright, bustling kitchen--the epicenter of her home. He cherished the solitude of his study, where he could chat by computer with his cyberpals.
But the couple shared a devotion to family, work and each other that dwarfed those differences during a 28-year marriage.
The Camenoses worked together for years at their small computer-oriented businesses, in Illinois, in California and, finally, in Scottsdale.
They also played together. Jim is a skilled photographer, and Yvonne--blessed with classical looks and a natural elegance--was his prized subject.
Together, they dreamed of visiting faraway places in their later years.
"Until the end," Jim says, "for whatever incompatibilities we had, we made each other happy. That's what it's all about."
Yvonne, the fourth of Jenny and Louie Contreras' five children, was an admitted hell-raiser as a teenager in Riverside, California. "If there was a party, I'd find it," she recalled.
But she worked as hard as she partied. She held a variety of jobs in Riverside after high school, finally settling in at a large brokerage firm.
The pair were in their late 20s. Jim was a bachelor. Yvonne was a single mother with a young daughter, Jennifer.
The two struck up a friendship over the phone, chatting several times before they agreed to exchange photos. Jim was captivated by Yvonne's Castilian features and winsome smile. Yvonne found Jim handsome, but what really won her over was his sincerity and intelligence.
They met in person and were convinced they were meant for each other. They were married in 1968. Within a decade, the Camenoses were a clan of six--Jim, Yvonne, Jennifer, Pauline, Kristina and James.
Jim's jobs took him from New York to California, then to Illinois. He was paid well, but longed to be his own boss. He took the leap in 1978, starting his own computer business.
After a few years, Yvonne took over the company's books, juggling job and motherhood. But being a mom was her first priority.
"There wasn't anything I couldn't tell her," says daughter Kristina, whose effervescence is reminiscent of Yvonne's. "We were always open with each other. I appreciated her every day."
Business in Illinois was adequate, but the lure of Arizona proved to be too much. In 1985, Jim and Yvonne moved to Scottsdale and opened a computer-based business, Postal Discounts and Marketing Services. It caters to companies that do direct-mail advertising.
The Camenoses shopped for group health insurance, using a Phoenix agency, Brokers America, as a middleman. Its general agent recommended Central Reserve Life Insurance, an Ohio-based firm that provides coverage to small businesses in 17 states.