By John Fulton
When Rita Broekema started her medical journey, she believed she was going to find out why her left eyelid had started drooping.
Broekema has lived in the Kalamazoo area much of her life, moving back to Schoolcraft in 2001 with her husband Tom. They have three daughters in their 20s. Broekema has been the finance director for Schoolcraft Community Schools for 17 years.
Broekema’s Christian faith has sustained her throughout this winding path that began at a plastic surgeon’s office in January 2018. Upon seeing her eyelid, he recommended seeing a neurologist for a workup. Suddenly things were getting complicated and headed in an unanticipated direction.
The neurologist wanted an MRI. Four MRIs later, the results were inconclusive, except for an incidental finding, a small aneurysm. This was not the likely cause of the drooping eyelid.
Part of her annual physical revealed a second incidental finding while trying to discover the reason for the eyelid drooping. A polyp was found and was removed in May 2018.
That doctor called Broekema and wanted to see her in the office to discuss biopsy results. She wanted the results on the phone telling the doctor, “I am stronger than I look, I’m sitting down and I am not alone.” She consented, provided Rita agree not to search on Google for the results.
The third finding was called mantle cell lymphoma (MCL) from testing the polyp. MCL IS typically found in men over 65, often of European descent, and in the gastrointestinal tract. According to Wikipedia this is a type of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma currently found in only about 15,000 patients in the United States.
This was all transpiring while waiting months to see a neurologist at the University of Michigan for a second opinion on the drooping eyelid. Broekema said, “my whole world was on hold during this time.”
A bone marrow test was performed to check for cancer and revealed the cancer was also in the bone marrow. She was told the treatment could involve chemotherapy, stem cell replacement and radiation over a three-year period. MCL can be aggressive and parts can be dormant. Her local doctor recommended going to U of M’s medical center for evaluation for the MCL.
Broekema’s faith was being stretched and tested during this time. She and her husband Tom have a daughter who was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis at a young age. They had been told that she would not survive long. Their faith has sustained them with their now 29-year-old daughter in that battle. Broekema said, “The faith we used with our daughter has prepared us to get through this battle with peace that surpasses all understanding.”
A physician at U of M repeated the labs, explained the cancer, the typical paths and many other things Broekema had questions about. She was told that the new protocol for MCL when the patient does not exhibit symptoms is to delay the chemo as long as possible because once you start the chemo train you cannot get off it with MCL.
The Broekemas’ are still watching and waiting. They are trusting their faith and relying on God to sustain them on this journey. Broekema said, “This cancer is not where it is supposed to be. Even with huge medical advances we don’t know everything; We are not God.”
Early in this journey a doctor had told her to do her good work today. Broekema advises people, “Live your life, live it well. Life is a gift from God. Do your good work today.”
The Broekemas’ went to U of M expecting a life altering adjustment, but walked out feeling God had told them, “Not now, child.” God sealed the news with a huge rainbow over the whole U of M campus as they left.
With the incidental findings now diagnosed, Broekema returned to the original issue of the drooping eyelid. No cause was ever found for that. It was repaired in November 2018.
Broekema thought her MCL diagnosis was enough, but in May of 2019 she learned that she also has breast cancer. Her doctors do not feel the two cancers are related. She is working through the process of additional testing so that her doctor can provide a treatment plan. Once again it seems as if her world is on hold but she knows it’s not.
Her oldest daughter – the one with CF – is engaged and is planning a September 21 wedding. Her middle daughter and son-in-law are expecting Broekema’s first grandbaby mid-November.
Her heart is sad for the path she has to travel soon related to her breast cancer, but she is confident that God has great plans for her future. Plans that include hope: hope for complete healing, hope for her daughter’s marriage, hope for the gift of another son-in-law and hope for the amazing blessing of a grandbaby. Life continues in the midst of pain and difficulties. Trust with joy God’s plan for you even when the way seems uncertain. Do your good work today.
When asked what was the one thing Broekema wanted people to know, her reply was, “In Jeremiah 29:11 The Lord declares, “For I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” Broekema said, “Hold on to that promise, for it is life sustaining. We are not shielded from pain or evil. We won’t travel it alone, but God will be with us through it.”