Beach Boys music, hot dogs, sheet cake and feather boas aren’t the tools oncologists usually use to attack cancer. But along with powerful drugs and targeted radiation treatments, they’ve all played a big role in helping Debbie Hemmes, a 52-year-old Abramson Cancer Center patient from Westampton, NJ, fight lung cancer. After she was diagnosed early this summer, Debbie and her family – her husband, Tom, and two adult daughters, Kelly and Karen – learned she would need to undergo seven and a half weeks of radiation treatment, plus two six-day sessions of chemotherapy during that same period of time.
Debbie’s daughter, Kelly McCollister, quickly added her own prescription to the list: a special party during each chemo session to help her mom count down the days until she finished her treatment. “I’d heard of people doing parties for the last day of chemo, but I thought, ‘We should do a party every day!’” Kelly said. A trip to a party superstore got her creative juices flowing, and she and her sister, Karen, worked out a slate of themed parties that would see Debbie through her entire treatment.
The family – dubbed “Team Debbie” in matching black and white t-shirts – kicked off the festivities with a “Comfy Chemo Circus,” complete with red clown noses and swirly rainbow lollipops, on the day of her first infusion. They threw a Hawaiian luau with grass skirts and smoothies served in coconuts, and held a Mardi Gras-themed day with glittery, feathery masks. There was a tie dye-festooned Disco Party, a tea party with fancy hats and a visit from a group of stuffed teddy bears, and Monte Carlo night with card games and a red feather boa.
The festivities all included themed music and snacks that they shared with other patients and families receiving infusions nearby, and often, special activities that made Debbie’s time in the infusion chair fly by – from board games during a Family Game Night to ring toss on the day of a beach barbeque. Her grandchildren – including five-month-old baby Poppy, in her own tiny “Team Debbie” onesie – popped in for several surprise visits, too.
Each day, laughter and upbeat music spilled out of the infusion suite where Debbie was receiving treatment. Her radiation oncologist, Charles Simone, MD, who treats her along with her medical oncologist Charu Aggarwal, said she is fortunate to have such a committed and creative support system in place. “The chemotherapy parties that her family is having for her are helping her get through a difficult time both physically and emotionally, and they are contributing to her incredibly positive attitude and outlook on her condition,” he said, noting that studies have shown that positive attitudes and decreased emotional stress about a cancer diagnosis can contribute to better quality of life. Some studies indicate those qualities are even associated with better outcomes.
On Debbie’s last day of chemotherapy earlier this month, the family celebrated with a black tie event – she and her daughters arrived decked out in black cocktail dresses, and her husband and son-in-law came in tuxedos. That day, in her little black dress and black and white turban standing in for the hair she lost while receiving chemo, Debbie walked the red carpet to ring the bell signaling the completion of her treatment.
CBS3’s Stephanie Stahl recently covered the Hemmes family’s innovative efforts, which they’re hoping will inspire other families to find a way to let the good times roll even in the midst of hard times: