Hospice nurse used animals to symbolize the stages of her own treatment for cancer
Local nurse relied on prayer, laughter to overcome grim diagnosis
by Dan Aznoff
Lynnwood resident Ingrid Huff has seen far too many tears during her career as a nurse in the hospice wing at Providence Hospital in Seattle.
Faced with her own mortality, Huff was determined to find a doctor with a sense of humor to guide her through the grueling years of radiation and chemotherapy after being diagnosed with cancer more than 12 years ago. Part of her own sense of humor to deal with her disease was to refer to the stages of her disease as types of animals.
“As a nurse, I had a pretty good knowledge of how to read an x-ray,” Huff remembered. “When I saw the mass, it looked like a crab. And I knew right away the doctor would not have good news for me.”
The crab turned out to be a cancerous mass in her lymph node.
“Cancer in your lymph node means the disease has an open highway to every part of your body,” she said. “That’s when I told my husband that the horse was out of the barn.”
Huff asked her primary care physician to find a cancer specialist with a sense of humor. She knew the oncologist he recommended had an appreciation for a joke when he scheduled her first appointment two days before Christmas in 2006.
As a religious woman, Huff took the timing of her first meeting as a good sign. When she walked into the room to meet with Dr. Jeff Ward for the first time, the physician had yellow sheets of notepaper on his desk filled with timelines and treatment schedules that began in three weeks and stretched over the next five years.
She still has the worn pieces of yellow paper as a reminder of how far she has come.
“The first four months of radiation were the worst,” she recalled. “The pain was severe and I began losing my hair right away.”
With a nervous laugh, Huff remembers how coarse her hair was when it began to grow back. She used another animal term to describe the thick bristles that grew out of her bald scalp.
“It was frog hair,” she said. “But I guess it was better than nothing.”
Huff never tried to hide her diagnosis when she out in public with friends and family but reverted to wearing wigs to discourage people from greeting her on the street with long faces.
“The $200 wigs did not last very long,” she said with a confident laugh.
In a morbid way, Huff said the timing of her diagnosis could not have come at a better time. She said treatment options today make it possible to beat cancer and live a long life. Huff lives by the motto: “Every day is a good day.”
“Before the latest breakthroughs from doctors right here in Seattle, all doctors could offer a patient was an operation to cut away the cancerous cells,” she explained. “Everybody knows that’s only temporary. It is only a matter of time until the cancer cells return and the ordeal begins all over again.”
The nurse continued to work until her husband Albert suffered a stroke and needed her professional attention at home.
Huff and her husband are members of Trinity Lutheran Church in Lynnwood. She recalls members of the congregation joining her prayers by wearing Rosary beads to ask for her recovery.
The 76-year-old credits prayers and her grandkids for helping her be cancer-free for the moment. She said doctors can cut away tumors and irradiate cancerous cells, she said, but cancer is always lurking somewhere else in the body.
In addition to advances in modern medicine and prayers from the congregation at Trinity Lutheran, Huff had one more weapon in her long battle against cancer.
“Having two grandkids born while I was in treatment was the frosting on the cake,” she said proudly.
Huff is now the proud mother of two daughters and four grandchildren.