Support system helps woman with cancer (video)
The walls that have formed around Janet Charbula as she moved through life collapsed in January when she learned she had breast cancer.
And they collapsed for others, too.
"Acquaintances became best friends," Charbula said. "The whole world changes if you allow it to."
Love poured into her life from sources she did not know existed.
"You can look back and see a purpose when bad things happen," she said. "There's good in the bad."
Charbula, 48, found a lump in her left breast around Thanksgiving last year. She decided to enjoy the holidays with her family before she scheduled a mammogram in January.
Annual wellness exams had been part of her health routine, but 20 years had passed since her only breast screening.
An ultrasound supported the presence of three cysts that a biopsy confirmed as cancerous.
But she didn't let the diagnosis derail her from her plans.
As director of a Catholic Adoration, Community, Theology and Service retreat, Charbula had met with 25 women once a week since August to plan their January retreat.
"I had my first support group ready to go," she said.
At the four-day event, Charbula knew she had cancer, but she awaited results that would show if it had spread.
Frazzled from directing activities, she stopped for a moment. Above the chapel, sunlight pierced the cloudy cover in the shape of a cross that stretched across the sky. Her friend took a picture of the image on a cellphone and gave it to Charbula. It sits in a frame atop a filing cabinet in Charbula's office. Others saw an angel, a face looking downward, a dove, a cherub and an embryo in the cloud formations.
"It was my sign that no matter what I went through, He would be with me," she said. "I was really cured before I got started."
Test results returned with news that the slow, non-aggressive cancer had spread to Charbula's lymph nodes. The doctor removed 30 nodes, of which three were obviously cancerous, and performed a double mastectomy. She did not want to take any chances because of the history of breast cancer in her family.
Her older sister is a survivor with five cancer-free years under her belt. Another sister died from brain cancer that Charbula said could have started in her breast.
"If I had a mammogram earlier, I might have avoided chemotherapy," she said.
Doctors believed they removed all the cancer cells surgically but ordered chemotherapy to "chase the ghosts" that might exist at a cellular level, she said.
Charbula began her first round of chemotherapy at M.D. Anderson Regional Care Center in Sugar Land in April.
She finished her second round, which was more intense, Sept. 4.
Charbula decided not to put her family through a miserable experience.
"When I felt bad, I made myself get going," she said.
She used her disease to show her children her faith.
"There aren't as many chances to witness faith in everyday life," she said.
Cancer has emptied Charbula emotionally and physically. It has stripped away her health, her confidence and her looks, she said.
"It leaves God and people, and both have come through for me," she said.
Steroids that accompanied the chemotherapy caused Charbula to gain 30 pounds. Losing her hair was more difficult than losing her breasts.
"I've never been a vain person," she said. "But it takes a lot to climb out of bed like that every day."
Six weeks of radiation treatment begin Oct. 14.
Multitudes of cancer survivors have emerged to support Charbula. One acquaintance has sent her an inspirational card every day since her battle began.
In the future, she wants to help those who find themselves in her shoes.
"I wouldn't trade this experience for anything," she said. "I have learned a lot about God and the people I work with."
Charbula is president of the Victoria Area Association of Realtors.
Realtors work together but are naturally competitive, she said.
Coldwell Banker co-workers have prepared dinner for Charbula and her family once a week alternately since her chemotherapy began.
"The people in my office are amazing - I didn't realize they were like family," she said. "I can say that of all the realtors in this town."
That family element is the reason Charbula's co-workers are so willing to pitch in, said Jimmy Zaplac, a Coldwell Banker realtor.
"When one of our family members is down, we want to jump in and do whatever we can to help," he said. "We're here for her until she gets past it."
Susan Orsak, another co-worker, described Charbula as a woman who has been brave throughout her battle. She never complains, Orsak said, and she's never down.
"She has a sense of humor, and her personality is contagious," Orsak explained. "It makes everybody feel good."
And, although they aren't sure what to expect down the line - radiation therapy comes next - Joy Schramek, another member of the Coldwell Banker team, said they'll still be there to back her up 100 percent.
Charbula's husband battled Hodgkin's disease for several years before a bone marrow transplant freed him of cancer.
"My husband's response to my cancer was, 'It's my turn to take care of you,'" Charbula said.
On a particularly rough day, Charbula sat on her patio praying. The clouds looked vaguely like those that hovered over the ACTS retreat, so she snapped a photo with her phone hoping to find inspiration. Nothing appeared meaningful, though.
Later the same day, she returned to the patio to read a book.
"Look for me, I am here," a passage read.
Charbula searched the sky to find that clouds had again formed a cross for her.
"Faith has been everything for me," she said. "It's a journey, and I'm sure I still have a long way to go."
Advocate reporter Allison Miles contributed to this story.