By Nancy Gay
With her golden tiara, star-speckled skirt and famous high-heel red boots, Wonder Woman has been a symbol of heroism for more than 75 years. Generations of women, including Rachel Mccarrell, have embodied the fictional female when they needed super strength.
Even as a little girl, Rachel loved Wonder Woman. There was always something about her natural confidence, intelligence and compassion that appealed to the emergency room nurse. Unbeknownst to her as a child, she would become a Wonder Woman to patients at Moffitt Cancer Center.
In 2013, at the age of 42, Rachel sought medical advice after feeling tired and weak for a lengthy period of time. Her physician determined that her hemoglobin was low and prescribed a blood transfusion and then iron. Despite iron infusions, her hemoglobin remained low and her doctor ordered a CT scan, which revealed a mass in her colon. A colonoscopy led to an unexpected finding that required immediate surgery to remove half of her colon. Plus, the cancer had spread to her lymph nodes, meaning she needed to undergo chemotherapy, which terrified her.
She underwent surgery to have a port put in, making it easier to access her veins. The operation left her in a lot of pain because, as it turns out, her lung collapsed during surgery. She spent three extra days in the hospital and began six months of chemotherapy shortly afterward. Despite being in treatment, she worked full time and says working helped her heal. Follow up appointments revealed she was responding well to treatment, so on New Year’s Eve she took her medical papers and colonoscopy results and lit them on fire. She said cancer had her for a year, but not anymore.
Shortly afterward she took a position in the Direct Referral Center (DRC) at Moffitt Cancer Center. She loved it, saying the patients were very different from those coming into an emergency room. She felt lucky because she knew exactly what they were going through and could offer advice on coping.
Four years later, Rachel’s life turned upside down again when doctors found a cyst on her ovary and recommended an emergency hysterectomy. It turns out the cyst was cancerous and she needed to go through chemotherapy again. This time she wore a chemotherapy pump and said the chemotherapy was worse than the first go around. She was very sick and always felt nauseous. Despite the side effects, she continued to work and never called out from work due to treatment.
She had to dig deep for inspiration to fight cancer a second time. During her first battle with cancer, she’d wear a Wonder Woman t-shirt and drape herself in a blanket bearing the image of the powerful princess during chemotherapy infusions. Once again, she turned to the comic book character for strength.
She sewed Wonder Woman patches onto her chemo pack and the team in the DRC would have Superhero Fridays, in which they would dress up as their favorite superhero to root for Rachel. Because the chemo pack was hidden under her clothes, it was not obvious that she was a cancer patient. When appropriate, she would tell her patients about her experience with cancer. She said sharing her story often put patients at ease. She’d tell them it is okay to cry, scream and even punch a wall if they needed to in order to get it out of their system. She’d talk about naming her own tumors Fuego and Fiona, so she could scold them, which sometimes helped cope with the cancer.
Today, Rachel is doing well. It’s been a year and a half since her last chemo treatment. She got a tattoo of a colon cancer ribbon that’s hidden by her hair, which now bears a blue streak in honor of colon cancer awareness. Her last chemo bag hangs in her home like a trophy to remind her how far she came during her cancer journey. She even "broke up" with her oncologist and married the love of her life to become Rachel Ratliff. She says she understands what cancer patients are going through because she’s experienced it firsthand. She gets the bitterness, the anger, the fear and the constant questioning of why. She says, "Cancer hijacked my body for a short time, but I didn’t have cancer. It only had me for a short time."