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River Stillwood: Heading Back to the City for Cancer Treatments

Today we bring you the second half of the story of a California woman who lived out her dream by building a cabin in the rural Ozarks. As KSMU's Jennifer Moore reports, she would have to apply the same determination and spirit after being diagnosed with cancer.

River Stillwood was admitted to the hospital in West Plains last fall for excessive uterine bleeding. She underwent a procedure to try to stop it.

The doctor said he wanted to keep her there another night. She still remembers the tie he was wearing the next day when he came in: it had a baseball and an American flag on it. Good Morning America was on the TV.

"And then he looked at me, and he said, ‘River, the reason I wanted you to stay is because when we went in to do the ablation, we found cancer.’ And he kept speaking. And my brain stopped. And all I could hear was the word ‘cancer,’" she recalls.

She says the next several days played out like she was in a dream. Until now, she had been the invincible woman who moved from San Diego to the woods south of Drury, Missouri, to build a cabin by hand. But now here she was, gripped with shock and fear.

"I was driving home and I had all of these competing thoughts in my head—the fear. How was I going to tell people? Oh my goodness, I’ve got cancer. And on the way home, instead of going straight to the homestead to make more calls and let more people know, I stopped at a friend’s house. And my car got stuck in the mud. And it was raining, and nobody was home, and I couldn’t get to a phone. And I was completely stuck out in the country in the mud. And I looked up at the heavens and I said, ‘My goodness! It was not enough to give me cancer? Now I’m stuck in the mud?'”

Her cancer had already penetrated the uterine walls, lower uterine, and cervix. Suddenly, she began to see things in terms of statistics, procedures, and days remaining.

"Well, I’ve always valued life. And I’ve always valued friendship. But I never valued time. Time, I always had plenty of," she said.

She learned she would need to undergo an aggressive regime of chemotherapy and radiation, and that before long, she would not have the strength to chop wood or carry a bucket of water from the stream.

With a broken heart, she sold her sheep and moved her horse. Neighbors came and took her chickens and geese, and her dogs went to stay with friends.

She locked up the homestead, and moved into an apartment near Mountain Grove.

After living without electricity and plumbing for so long, she marveled at how consistent the central heating was, and how simple it was to boil a cup of water in the microwave.In December, she received her first round of chemo at St. John’s in Springfield.

She says when it was time to administer the first chemicals, she hid in the ladies’ room and just sobbed. Then, she looked at herself in the mirror and considered the alternative: going back to the homestead and letting the cancer destroy her body one cell at a time.

“I realized that if I got the chemicals, then my chance of survival was so much greater, that it was, like, now I embrace them. And it’s a really funny thing to say that you embrace chemotherapy. But in fact, that’s what going to keep me alive and going to see a day when I’m not doing chemo. So, bring it on,” she says.

SOUND: Blood pressure being taken

That’s where I found her—at a joint chemo session with six other women, having her blood pressure taken.

She had brought along her laptop to show them her pride and joy: the cabin.

SOUND: "I built it myself...Would you like to see?"

The nurse comes to stick the needle in the chemo port. River winces in pain.

River knew her long, silky, brown hair was going to fall out. So, she got 25 inches of it cut off and donated it to Locks of Love, a non-profit organization that creates wigs for children who have lost their hair. And while she was waiting for the rest to fall out, she got an idea.

“I could either be horribly depressed about going bald, or I could turn it into this wonderful, fun thing. So I wrote everybody that I know in emails and in snail mail, and I said, “Okay, we’re having a poll. You’ve gotta pick the date and the time that my hair is comin’ out. Everybody pitches in a dollar, and whoever wins, gets the pot,” she said.

The old River Stillwood was definitely back. But not everyone thought the betting pool was funny.

“My twin brother wrote and he said, ‘You know, that’s not really my kind of thing. I don’t think I can bet on something like that.’ And my mother was like, ‘I’m in!’”

Her 90-year-old grandmother won the pool: six days before Christmas, as she washed her hair, it came out in fistfuls and clogged the shower drain. She began wearing a scarf on her head.

After each chemo treatment, she says she felt like she had been beaten with sticks. But she kept writing.

Her February column in the Douglas County Herald was titled “Extreme Makeover: Medical Edition.”

SOUND of River Reading Column: “All the touchstones have changed. My beautiful long hair is long gone, as are my eyebrows, most of my eyelashes, even my nose hairs. Other than a few straggling hangers on, I’m as bald as a stone. Two fresh purple scars and the hard bump of the chemo port now mar my once smooth, middle-aged trunk. I’m twenty-plus pounds lighter. My hard-earned muscles have turned soft and saggy. The energy and stamina I enjoyed last autumn have disappeared. Now I can barely walk from Walmart’s garden department to the produce section without having to stop to catch my breath."

River clung to life, and learned that the one thing no one could ever take away from her was hope.

"I want to see my nieces and grand-nephews grow up. I want to see my family again. I want to hear some really good symphonies. I’d love to hear the Berlin Symphony. There are thousands of things that I want to do, but more than anything, I just hope for life. I hope for time,” she said.

A few weeks ago, she had a PET scan to see how her body had responded to the chemo. At 7:52 in the evening, her doctor called with the news: the cancer was gone. Not a trace.

Today, she’ll be back in Springfield for radiation anyway. Then, another exhausting round of chemo.

The cancer might come back, she says, and if it does, she’ll deal with it with her chin up.

She says she’s come to realize her "magnum opus" is not her successful journalism career, or even her cabin: her greatest work is her life.

She’s learned that life is meant for living, no matter where you’re born, what you’re dealt, or how much time you have left.

River Stillwood hopes to move back into her homestead in rural Douglas County and be serving up grilled chicken over an open fire by June.

For KSMU News, I’m Jennifer Moore.

(Guitar music fades out)

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