Facing cancer once is a challenge, but Amelia Island resident, Caroline Tunkel, is a three-time cancer survivor who refuses to let the disease win.
“I was first diagnosed with tongue and neck cancer 23 years ago,” explains the retired elementary school principal, who was then living outside Savannah, Georgia.
The diagnosis came as a surprise to Mrs. Tunkel who didn’t smoke, exercised regularly, consumed a balanced diet, maintained a healthy weight and enjoyed only a single glass of wine in the evening. “The only real risk factor I had was a family history of cancer,” she says.
Following chemotherapy and radiation, she put the health crisis behind her until the week of her five-year anniversary when she learned the disease had returned – this time in the form of endometrial cancer.
In February 2017, Mrs. Tunkel received her third cancer diagnosis, triple negative breast cancer. “I started chemotherapy and Dr. Ackerman suggested proton therapy at the Mandarin office might be the best treatment in my case.”
Mrs. Tunkel and her husband elected to forego the 90-minute commute from their home in Amelia Island, instead opting for a “staycation” in Jacksonville. Every morning she reported for radiation and afterwards strolled around town visiting interesting places and enjoying the sites.
“I had fantastic doctors throughout my bouts with cancer, but nowhere has the staff treated me so royally as they did at Ackerman’s,” says Mrs. Tunkel. “They always greeted me and called me by name. I rarely waited for treatment, but when I did experience a short delay, I had access to plenty of coffee, cookies and apples.”
While Mrs. Tunkel acknowledges effective treatment has played a big role in her victory over cancer, she is also quick to praise her husband for his role in her journey. “I think a good caregiver is vital to the recovery of any cancer patient.”
She also has learned a few other things about living with cancer. When friends struggling with their own cancer diagnoses ask advice on making treatment decisions, Mrs. Tunkel tells them, “Pray on it, make the decision and do everything you can to get well. You can’t second guess. You just have to keep your eye on the prize.”
For Mrs. Tunkel, that prize is enjoying family and friends and seeing the world. She and her husband recently experienced France in the spring, followed by a cross-country road trip to Texas and are looking forward to an upcoming vacation to Norway, Scotland, Iceland and England.
As for her future, she is both optimistic and realistic, “Triple negative cancer has a high return rate, and I believe I will have cancer again, but I’m going to live until I die.”
Mrs. Tunkel is now an active member of the Ackerman Cancer Center BEAM Team, where she dedicates her time to providing mentorship, encouragement and guidance to patients who have been recently diagnosed. She recently spoke at the 4th Annual Hug a Survivor Festival about the importance of patient advocacy and the role of caregivers.
If you would like to speak with Mrs. Tunkel or another member of the BEAM Team, please contact an Ackerman Cancer Center social worker.