The following is a story of one of our most beloved graduates, Debbie Nazareth, written by her husband Bryan. Debbie attended our 13th retreat and was at many events after that, including staffing retreats. When she passed, her husband Bryan asked that donations be made to Healing Odyssey in Debbie’s honor. We found out quickly how many friends Debbie had as we raised over $6000 in her memory.
Debbie Nazareth, from San Diego, was 48 years old when she was first diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. She had a husband, Bryan, and two young children aged 13 and 19. Young and vibrant, she had everything to live for. Her diagnosis revealed that she had stage 3/stage 4 cancer. It was a devastating blow to her and to her family. But Debbie was a fighter. She would go on to live for another 20 years.
Debbie was a physical therapist; she was strong and easily capable of handling some of the tough physical challenges associated with her job. But, more to the point, she was an emotionally strong woman. Yes, her name was Debbie, but she was no Debbie Downer. She simply wouldn’t let the “C word” rule her life. Her positive attitude and indomitable spirit would help her face the adversity that is cancer. And, she was able to live a full life with two brief periods of remission.
If it takes a village to raise a child, it certainly takes a village to battle cancer. Despite her innate strength and resilient spirit, Debbie knew she couldn’t fight this on her own. Bryan stood at her side as she took every step in her fight. Her children, Allison and Matt gave her their love and support. Her family and circle of friends were all very supportive. With all of this going for her, it was still going to be an uphill battle. That’s when Debbie discovered Healing Odyssey (HO). The word “odyssey” comes to us from Greek mythology and refers to an epic journey. This is an apt name, because Debbie, like other cancer survivors, embarked on an epic journey – a journey that’s certainly not of their own making but an epic one nevertheless.
In 2000, she attended an HO retreat. Bryan still remembers that when she got home, she was a changed woman. It was incredible to see how charged she was. Bryan and she had always shared everything. She couldn’t wait to share her new friends and her experience at the camp with him. She was already a very positive person but her experience at the camp gave her a renewed sense of purpose and the confidence that she could deal with the seemingly impossible. Also, she made new friends on that retreat 18 years ago. But they were no mere friends; they became her sisters – her HO13 sisters. They formed a tight bond that many real siblings would envy. And these new sisters became a wellspring of support for her in the years to come.
One other thing that got her through the tough times and three bouts of cancer was this very special quality she had. There is no fancy name for it but people who knew Debbie would always sense it. She had a unique way of connecting with people. This quality is best understood by the many, many testimonials friends expressed both in her lifetime and in the months following her demise. These were statements such as: “She got me.” “She was beautiful inside and out” “I felt like we were always on the same page.” This quality- this connection – pumped her up as well as the people in her circles. This energy in turn helped her deal with the trials and tribulations of her epic journey.
Debbie would end up getting cancer twice more. The second time was in 2001. In May of that year she was admitted to the City of Hope. She was there for a whole month. She turned 50 while she was in the hospital. However, she felt it was more significant that on the day before she turned 50, she had a stem cell transplant. She said then and would oft repeat that, in a way, this was her real birthday. After she was discharged from the City of Hope, she and Bryan returned to their home in San Diego. Initially, Debbie was very weak and needed help with many of her daily activities. She literally could not walk half a block. But she felt confident that she would soon regain her strength. And that is exactly what she did.
By this time, HO had become an important part of her life. A few months after she came home, HO participated in a half marathon run/walk in Chico. This was also a significant fund raiser. Debbie decided she would do this walk. Bryan watched in amazement as she trained for the walk – starting initially with just walking a mile and then gradually building up to 10 miles. This was, after all, the same woman who could barely get out of bed by herself a few short months before. Amazed though they were, both she and Bryan knew that this was not merely a feat for her. It was also, equally, a tribute to HO and the significant role it played in her life.
Debbie got cancer three times. The last time was in 2011. Many people may say, “This is not a good story. She didn’t live happily ever after.” But Debbie wouldn’t have seen it that way. She lived 20 years past her initial diagnosis and she got to experience many wonderful events such as her kids graduating from college; her son graduating from law school; her son and daughter getting married; and the births of two granddaughters. With countless wonderful family vacations to add to the mix, the list just goes on. Debbie was always at her happiest when surrounded by family and friends. She was most radiant when she was flanked by the many people in her life. In the end, she departed in the same manner that she lived – surrounded by love, with her husband, Bryan, by her side. Bryan has this to say, “Her untimely departure has left a gaping hole in my heart. Of course, I’m sad. I miss her terribly and always will. But we had many wonderful years together – after that first time she got cancer. And she was a very happy, upbeat woman for all those years.”
For twenty years, Debbie fought the good fight. She would often proudly announce that she “kicked cancer’s ass three times.” Her journey – her odyssey – was a healing one and Healing Odyssey was there with her at every step of that journey. Debbie had a full and fulfilling life. In her lifetime she engaged in many roles: daughter, sister, mother, wife and soulmate, friend, and a voice of inspiration. In her darkest hours, she was mustered the courage and strength to be a source of support for her family and friends – always ready to help others who had cancer or other illnesses. She was a loving and much loved woman. Healing Odyssey is proud to call her one of their own.