Holli Griffith is a fighter. She’s also a believer.
That combination has helped the Sarnia woman successfully battle a rare and aggressive type of brain and spinal cancer that nearly killed her.
Friends and family say it’s a miracle she beat it and is slowly enjoying life again.
This Christmas, time spent with family is particularly special for Griffith, now that doctors say she’s in remission and has regained her independence.
“I’ve started doing the things I love,” she said. “My hair is back, I feel very good, very blessed.”
“I like to win and we won,” added Griffith’s boyfriend Bob Williamson, a director and former GM of the Sarnia Legionnaires Jr. B hockey team.
“I really didn’t know if she’d make it. There was a time when everything that could go wrong, did go wrong,” he said.
The first sign of trouble came when Griffith and Williamson were on a Caribbean cruise in January of 2018. She awoke one morning with a headache and double vision.
The ship’s doctor brushed it off as migraines, but the pain persisted. Months of medical speculation followed as she was poked, prodded and tested for everything from a virus to Bell’s palsy.
All the while, the symptoms grew worse. Griffith lost feeling in some fingers and toes and half her face went numb.
Test after test left the experts perplexed. Finally in May, a series of spinal taps confirmed a rare cancer called Burkitt lymphoma. Doctors in London ordered immediate and aggressive chemotherapy.
“I brought cupcakes to celebrate Holli’s 58th birthday in the hospital that June, but she can’t remember,” said Williamson.
In fact she can’t remember anything between April and July that year.
“We tried really hard to keep positive. We tried to find humour in things,” he said. “We all get depressed, but life is short and you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do to stay happy.”
Through two rounds of radiation and seven rounds of chemo, Griffith lost her hair, dropped six dress sizes and could no longer walk.
The worst was being in isolation and not allowed visitors, she said.
Then, one morning in July, she woke up and her sight had improved.
“All I could think about was that I wanted to go home,” she said. “It was a horrible time but I just kept thinking, if I could only go home for Christmas.”
Amazingly, Griffith was discharged from hospital shortly before Christmas last year. Doctors said the chemo was successful and her cancer in remission.
It’s been a tough year of recovery. She couldn’t be alone until recently and relied on Bob and nursing care at his house.
Yet Griffith made startling progress.
“I lost the walker, then the cane,” she said. Recently, she began living on her own and resumed driving.
Griffith had to retire after 30 years of working as a project officer with Lambton County. But she has started going to church again and – always a diehard fan – is back at the arena watching Legionnaire games.
She has all her Christmas presents made and wrapped and is looking forward to sharing the day with Bob’s family and her mom.
Griffith said she made it with the help of Bob’s visits, her faith, the unwavering support of friends, and small gifts from people. Zac Russell, 5, her honourary grandson, gave her a picture he drew of her with four strands of hair, a rainbow and himself. She treasures it.
“Somebody visiting with a joke or a smile, people who sent me messages; it was the little things that made a big difference,” Griffith said.
“You have to believe you can do it. You have to be positive, and you have to have the mindset that you will come out of it alive.
“Just wait until next year. I’ll be around still.
“Just watch me.”