Family House Diaries: On Sanctuary

A colon cancer diagnosis forces a retired career social worker and loving mother, wife and sibling to step back from taking care of others and take care of herself.

Media contact: Tom Hughes, (919) 966-6047, tahughes@unch.unc.edu

Bernidene Uzzell: From Caring for Others to Caring for Herself


Thursday, Jan. 19, 2012

Written by Elizabeth Swaringen for UNC Health Care


CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Bernidene Uzzell has spent her entire life taking care of others.  Stage IV colon cancer made Bernidene take care of herself.

“It’s never been easy for me to ask for help because I’ve always been focused on helping others,” said Bernidene, 64, a retired career social worker, a wife, a mother of three, and sibling to four from Kinston, N.C.  “But, right now, it’s about me.”

Bernidene was diagnosed in July 2008 following a colonoscopy, which she admits she was overdue in scheduling. Within a month, a surgical resection of her ascending colon removed the diseased portion of her large intestine.  Post-surgery, oral chemotherapy began.  

After a few years, Bernidene, tired of the common side effects of conventional therapy, voluntarily stopped the chemotherapy and began alternative therapy that included a lengthy list of herbs.  Not all family members were happy with the new direction, but they also knew better than to expend breath and energy trying to change Bernidene’s mind.  

“I had never felt sick, and I was feeling well,” Bernidene said.  “I’ve never eaten much meat, but mostly vegetables prepared with lots of herbs, garlic and onions.  I’ve had top-of-the-line fitness equipment in my home, and I walk a lot.   

“But this past summer, my body began telling me something wasn’t quite right,” Bernidene recalled matter-of-factly. “That’s when we discovered the pelvic mass, and I knew chemotherapy and maybe more was in my future.”

Under the care of Stephen A. Bernard, MD, and Joel E. Tepper, MD, members of UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, Bernidene resumed a lower dose of the original chemotherapy in combination with 20 days of radiation.

“We recommended that course of treatment because there is evidence to support pairing a lower-dose of the oral chemotherapy with radiation therapy to enhance the effects of radiation,” said Dr. Bernard, professor of medicine in the Department of Medicine and the Division of Hematology and Oncology.  “Fortunately, she has had slow-growing disease and did not complain of symptoms.  Colon cancer doesn’t always have the rapid downhill slide that some other cancers do.”

The treatment is palliative, not curative, and is designed to allow Bernidene to live more comfortably and feel better overall, said Dr. Tepper, Hector MacLean Distinguished Professor of Cancer Research in the Department of Radiation Oncology.  

“She’s not one to complain even though she was having some symptoms that would have given her every reason to,” Dr. Tepper said.  “Quite often palliative care is harder because it’s about striking the balance between the treatment side effects versus the symptoms of the disease.  It’s very individualized, with the patient taking an active role.  She has a very good attitude and her background as a social worker is helpful to herself.  She’s grateful for everything.”

Dr. Bernard concurs.  “She’s a very enthusiastic individual, clearly active in her own care and in living her life.  She’s tolerating the treatments well, and so far, so good.”
Neither Dr. Bernard nor Dr. Tepper passed judgment on Bernidene’s decision to pursue alternative therapies, but reiterated the importance of patients sharing their use of them in combination or in lieu of conventional therapy.

“Most of the medications we use as oncologists come from natural sources anyway and there can be interactions if alternative therapies are being used,” Dr. Bernard said.  “Too often patients don’t tell us the full story for fear that we won’t approve.  It’s in their own best interest of getting the best care possible to be forthcoming.”
While in Chapel Hill for the 20 days of radiation, Bernidene stayed at SECU Family House, the 40-bedroom hospital hospitality house minutes away from UNC Hospitals that provides comfortable, convenient and affordable housing for seriously ill adult patients and their family member caregivers.

“This is my sanctuary, my refuge, my place of healing,” Bernidene said, enjoying the warmth of winter afternoon sun while relaxing in the solarium.  “I knew I needed to disconnect from those who’ve always depended on me to be there for them if I was to do all I could for myself.  Family House has allowed me to do that. I feel my body mending.

“And I’ve never felt safer than in the hands of Dr. Bernard and Dr. Tepper,” she said about the multi-disciplinary care for which UNC Lineberger is known.  “You usually hear people say that about God, but He put them and a lot of other good people in my path. I’m blessed.”

Still, Bernidene hasn’t totally stopped reaching out to help others.  

“I went to a support group for colon cancer patients, and I now I tell everybody I see ‘get off your rear, put yourself in gear and get yourself in there for your colonoscopy’,” Bernidene said.  “Early detection makes a difference.”

Postscript:  Nationally, the incidence of colon cancer is dropping, due in large measure to the use of colonoscopies starting at age 50 or earlier if there is a family history of the disease. Colonoscopies can actually prevent cancer from forming by removing pre-cancerous growths. Follow Bernidene’s advice and schedule yours.

Each month will bring a new perspective on why Family House is the sanctuary for those in need.

Learn more about the SECU Family House at UNC Hospitals here. You can also view previous profiles of our patients at our Family House Diaries archive.

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