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The premium was steep, about $1,000 a month by the early 1990s for Jim and Yvonne alone. But they believed they needed the security, including the $1 million in benefits Central Reserve promised in case of catastrophic illness. (The company increased the ceiling to $2 million in 1993.)
"We completely bought into their pitch--'Unlimited lifetime benefits,'" Jim Camenos says. "It sounded right. Apparently, we were naive."
In early 1991, Yvonne Camenos developed sharp pains and swelling in her abdomen. Her doctor performed an ultrasound and a pelvic exam, which revealed--in medical parlance--"suspicious areas."
That led to the discovery of ovarian cancer and Yvonne's dim prognosis.
The news traumatized her family.
"I went off by myself and I screamed, 'Why her? Why?'" says daughter Pauline. "But I had to stop asking why real fast. I knew if I wasn't strong, I would be of no use to her."
Making Yvonne as comfortable as possible in what seemed to be her final days was a viable option. But Jim Camenos wouldn't let her slip away.
He called the Mayo Clinic and demanded to consult with a cancer specialist.
"Yvonne was in pretty bad shape when I first met her," says Mayo oncologist Dr. John Camoriano. "But she must have a stamp in her brain that says, 'No whining allowed.' Lots of people start whining immediately about their disease. When things get really bad, there's no fight left. Yvonne had a ton of fight left in her, so I suggested the most modern and aggressive approach I've ever given a patient."
Camoriano knew there are no easy victories in oncology. He impressed that cruel fact upon his new patient.
"When you have to face that you're going to die, it's like getting hit," Yvonne said. "Without making any promises, Dr. C told me he wouldn't give up if I didn't. He was wearing a halo. I started telling myself that if God gave me a little more time, I might be able to do some good."
Yvonne began an intense outpatient chemotherapy program through Mayo. There is no cure for ovarian cancer, but chemo can shrink or retard malignant tumors and extend a patient's life--sometimes for years.
Chemotherapy is a wretched mode of survival. Descriptions of fever, nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite and hair loss barely do it justice.
"It's strange," Yvonne said, "to have to rely on a form of poison to keep you one step ahead of death. It's funny to hate something that can help you, but you do."
Yvonne's daughters, who were living in Southern California, decided one of them needed to be with their mother full-time. Middle daughter Pauline was the most footloose, and she moved back to Scottsdale.
"Mom would be in bed after chemo because everything hurt," she says. "I'd crawl into bed with her, hold her hand and not move or say much for hours. She'd groan and then I'd groan. She was sick, but I'd be the one who would have to vomit. Some nurse, huh? One time I told her I'd shave my head so I'd look just like her. She said, 'Don't do it, hon. You won't look half as good as me bald.'"
Yvonne regained strength between chemo treatments. At times she felt well enough to cook in her beloved kitchen. Whenever possible, she personally delivered homemade pastries to Mayo Clinic staffers and inpatients, walking from room to room to offer encouragement.
She also resumed bookkeeping for the family business.
A February 1992 exam revealed no new tumors inside Yvonne. There was hope.
To an ovarian-cancer patient, nothing is more significant than a CA-125 blood-serum test. A low score is heavenly, because it may signify remission; a marked increase often means the worst.
Yvonne Camenos' CA-125 tests remained stable until early 1993, when her count shot up dangerously. That led to surgery that March, which revealed new malignant tumors. Surgeons removed the malignancies, which apparently hadn't spread to Yvonne's vital organs.
Dr. Camoriano suggested a new form of chemotherapy called Taxol, which is made from the bark of a tree. The thought of more chemo chilled Yvonne. But she knew her only other choice was death.
The Taxol worked wonders, at least temporarily. Though the drug made Yvonne violently ill, her CA-125 count returned to the safe zone for several months. But Camoriano feared it was a matter of time before the cancer struck again.
"At some point, either the disease is going to be cured or it isn't," he says. "That's why I recommended that Yvonne give the City of Hope and a bone marrow transplant a shot."
The City of Hope Medical Center was founded in 1928 as a charitable hospital for tuberculosis patients. The Duarte, California, center now specializes in marrow transplants. In May 1993, Camoriano contacted the City of Hope on Yvonne Camenos' behalf.
Bone marrow transplantation begins when doctors remove and store some of a patient's bone marrow. They do so because the toxic doses of chemotherapy that follow would kill the marrow, which houses infection-fighting blood cells.
Once marrow has been extracted and stored, a patient undergoes about a week of relentless, maximum-dosage chemo. Doctors then transplant the bone marrow, which refuels the autoimmune and clotting systems.