What I remember as the first sign…

It was September 1998 and I was on a trip to Amsterdam with my future bride, Iro.   Back home in Athens, Greece my sister Noni was seven months pregnant with her first child.  I was calling her every day to see how she was doing.  She was having a difficult pregnancy (with hindsight it’s easy to see why).  I was very nervous about the whole situation. 

Looking back, I recall Noni telling me that she had experienced strong pain in the left shoulder.  The doctor had told her that there wasn’t much that could be done at the time, due to the pregnancy.   The following day the pain was still there but not as intense.  My sister was a strong woman and although she had never yet faced any serious health problems, she wasn’t the type to complain and we each sensed that her shoulder pain must have been substantial.

During the final two months of her pregnancy Noni’s shoulder pain seemed to come and go.  On the18th of December 1998 she gave birth to her son Konstantinos-Ion (who turned three this past December).  The first child born to either side of the family, his birth brought tremendous joy to all of us as we delighted in the newest addition to the family.   Our pride and happiness was impossible to contain.

 First symptoms and observations…

During Christmas I couldn’t help but notice that Noni, who had given birth just eight days earlier, appeared much thinner than what I could remember.  She had always been thin but something seemed different.  I told Depy, my sister-in-law, to tell Noni that she needed to eat something because she was starting to look as thin as she had back in high school!   During Christmas dinner I couldn’t help notice that she was picking at her food like some small bird.   When I mentioned it she replied, “I’m not hungry at all!”   I had a feeling then that something wasn’t right.

After the holidays I called her at home to check on her and the baby.  It was around January 20, 1999, and Depy answered the phone.   Depy, along with my other sister and my mother, were Noni’s best friends.   Depy was growing concerned.  She said that Noni was sleeping too much and always seemed tired.   This was probably the last clue we noticed before learning just how serious things really were.

 The nightmare begins…

It was February 9th, our Dad’s birthday, when our lives started to unravel.  Noni’s doctor had conducted some tests a day earlier and the results were back.  Noni’s husband Takis answered the telephone and her physician ordered him to immediately take Noni to the hospital because the results were not good at all. 

Looking back, we thank God that Uncle George, my father’s brother and a physician himself (who at the time is battling colon cancer but seems to be doing pretty well, thank God), had seen Noni and didn’t like how she looked and wanted her seen.   The results were now back.   A tumor was blocking a central vein back to Noni’s heart and although blood was flowing to her brain it wasn’t able to freely return to the heart.   Her face was swelling up terribly!

We went to the hospital at Medical Center of Athens at Marousi and that night I overheard a conversation regarding my sister’s chest x-ray that I chose not to understand because, frankly, it scared me to hell.   The next day my dream hell became reality when a doctor for whom my family had absolutely no respect brought us more bad news.  He was one of those physicians who seemed to place more importance on his income than he did on the well being of his patients.  He told us that they had found two different tumors, one in her lung and one in her chest.  The lung tumor had metastasized into her chest where it was compressing the vein. 

A biopsy was performed and after several days we learned that Noni was suffering from Small Cell Lung Cancer, a disease that was directly attributable to her smoking.  We were told that her time was very limited. 

Unhappy with the doctors and care at the hospital, we took Noni home where she could be more comfortable and we made an appointment with Dr. Skarlos, who we’d later learn was one of the best oncologists in the world. We went to his office Saturday, February 13th and what he told us totally blew our minds.

 Dr. Skarlos said that Noni had no more than nine months to live and considering how the cancer had spread, we should look upon the possibility of a quick passing as being a blessing.  We felt so helpless but as a family we gathered our spirit and decided that we should stay by Noni’s side until that final breath came, regardless of when it arrived. 

The next day the news only grew worse as we were told that they had discovered tumors in Noni’s kidneys and brain.   It was Sunday and I cried in church for hours.   We made arrangements and slept over at her house the first days to help her immediate family cope with the news. My mother, my sister Elena, but most of all Depy, helped fill their hearts with calmness and comfort, as they took care of everything in the home, while I was away dealing with doctors and hospitals. Takis displayed tremendous courage in trying to carry on as if things were still normal.

March 13th was Noni’s 33rd birthday and she appeared to be in great spirits. Radiation therapy had helped shrink the tumors and she was looking healthier than ever!  Our family from Norway had come to visit and together with all of Noni’s friends we organized a birthday party that was very emotional, yet very helpful for all of us.   A video was made and we’ve placed a few clips here on the site. 

A few days later Noni started feeling worse and grew very weak.   Within another week she had lost more weight, developed difficulty breathing and her kidneys were failing.

For the next two months Noni had good days and bad.  She was hospitalized for a week or two during a time when she was sleeping far too much. Thank God they were able to control her pain as the cancer was spreading itself throughout her organs.   Exhausted from all the examinations and the blood cleaning that she was forced to endure, many times I asked her if she was in any pain and she always replied, “no.”

Approaching Paradise…

It was end of April when I finished a book called “God Said, Ha” which described the story of a journalist facing cancer. She had several metastases but died only after the brain tumors advanced deep into her brain. The symptoms described were similar to someone with psychological brain damage in that the person begins acting strangely and saying “crazy” things.

It began happening with Noni during the first days of June 1999 when she awoke one afternoon and she asked me something totally out of the blue. I called her doctor, Dr. Kyrgias, a great man and oncologist who has become a dear friend as well. He told me that we should take her to the hospital immediately and we should start preparing for her final days. His exact words were, “John you might consider the case that she will not return home alive, I am really sorry.”

I took a deep breath as we went to the hospital.  New examinations indicated that the tumors were resisting the chemo. The only way to keep Noni out of pain was with strong painkillers and morphine.  Noni slipped into a coma.  Dr. Skarlos stopped by on June 16th and told us that we should expect Noni to be with us for only another day or two.   Three days later Noni came out of her coma and said she was hungry!

She asked for her favorite food and drank some chocolate milk that she seemed to really enjoy.  She was like her old self again.   Noni kissed her husband many time like it was the last time they will meet.  Her thoughts and mind were crystal clear and even doctors commented that given her condition it was miracle.  We talked and Noni expressed some sorrow but she also shared her final wishes. That same night, after saying good-bye to all of us together and separately, Noni went into a deep coma.

Four days later my sister died quietly in her sleep from massive organ failure that ended with a heart attack.  But what really killed my sister was an addiction to nicotine that was fed by cigarettes containing over 4,000 toxic chemicals that are collectively referred to as tar.   My sister was murdered by a tobacco industry that hid the addictive power of nicotine while trying to make money by intentionally marketing cigarettes to a 13-year-old girl named Noni.   While we lost our Noni to smoking, we hope and pray that these pages might help other families avoid similar horrors. 



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