Family offers support through rough waters of kidney cancer

Posted: Saturday, October 31, 2009

My name is Leona Marie Santiago, and my Tlingit name is Kaaxkwei. I am from the Eagle Nation of the Wolf clan known as Kaagwaantaan from the Gooch Hit. I've tried to be healthy about what I would eat and would try herbs and vitamins and protein drinks. I'd take certain remedies to help keep me healthy. I've even tried some Tlingit remedies such as devil's club.

Courtesy Photo
Courtesy Photo

So when I got a call from SEARHC on July 3, 2007, saying they found something in my abdomen area after an ultrasound was done and would need to further investigate, I was surprised.

I was sent to Sitka a few weeks later to have my abdomen checked out, with what I believe was an MRI. Then I was sent to Alaskan Native Medical Center in Anchorage quickly because of my MRI finding.

I arrived at the hospital and was told to go to the urology clinic. There I saw Dr. Thomas Perkins, who told me I had kidney cancer. There were spots on my left kidney.

I was by myself when I was told this. My husband had to take a later flight from Juneau. Then I was joined by my niece, Shannon Hawkins, who lives in Anchorage. I thought cancer was something that happens to someone else.

I went through a phase where they said I may not have cancer. I had a lot of tests done on me: a CAT scan done and blood draws. Then I was told they were 99 percent sure I had cancer.

Finally, a biopsy was done after my second trip to Anchorage. It showed positive for kidney cancer. Then I wondered what the rest of my life would hold.

I had to tell my son, Kamal Lindoff, and his wife, Danielle, that I had cancer. I remember calling my friend, Karen Hinchman, and she told her brother, John Hinchman Jr., and he called me right away.

The calls from my son, daughter-in-law and dear friends and family helped keep me afloat. I was by myself when I was told I was positive. Time stood still, and I pretty much shut down.

My niece came riding up with her family and they held me and told me everything was going to be OK. I kept getting calls that prayers were being said for me. I was put in prayer circles everywhere, even Indian country.

I very much appreciated the prayers. I know I am thankful to the creator for being here because of prayer.

Because my cancer was slow-growing, I was scheduled for surgery on Sept. 22, 2007, to remove my left kidney at the Alaskan Native Medical Center.

I kept hearing from different people, who told me, "Don't go to SEARHC. Don't got to the Alaska Native Medical Center."

"I'm putting my trust in to these clinics and hospitals," I said. "I am going to see them for my cancer."

My cousin, Mary Peterson, who is a breast cancer survivor, told me to do whatever my doctor told me to do. I did everything I was told. Mary's husband, Audie, also a cancer survivor, also gave me words of encouragement.

My SEARHC doctor, Dr. Taylor Dunn, saw me through the whole journey and has taken good care of me in this whole process. Perkins saw me through a lot as well. I am thankful for the physician's assistant from SEARHC, who suggested I get an ultrasound in the first place. I even called her up to thank her.

After the ordeal, I then worked for Alaska Legal Services Corp. as an office manager. They donated leave for me to use until I recovered from my surgery. I am very appreciative of them for that.

The Re-evaluation Counseling Community kept a daily contact with me. They were my first call in the morning, and sometimes I couldn't answer. My friend, Helen Watkins, gave me devil's club powder, which I took every day. I believe that is what helped me recover quickly.

My thoughts were always of my son, his family and my granddaughter, who was only 1 year old. I desperately kept them in my mind. This kept me a float when I was in a storm of rough waters. I would get a call from someone and it would really help me, like when my niece, Hannah, put a sign on my condo saying, "Welcome Home Leona!" That made my day.

When I came home from one of my trips, I thank my sister, Dottie Lindoff, for seeing me through this rough road. I am thankful for my son, Kamal, and his family for being so strong. I love them and Anthony and Hannah for being cheerful.

I really love my family and friends who tossed that life preserver to me when I was in the storm. This made me a human being. I have no time for hatred, and I am thankful to my husband, Jose Santiago. We are separated but we are friends. He'll always be my friend.

I remember talking to my traditional counselor in Anchorage after my surgery. I told her I just climbed a mountain. She said "No, Leona, you just moved a mountain!"

• Leona Marie Santiago, 59, was born in Juneau. She has survived kidney cancer for two years.

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