With a hand on her hip and the other over a patients’ shoulder, Dr. Svetislava Vukelja, 62, reminds each cancer fighter or survivor that the battle is not a curse but a blessing.
“Cancer is not forcing them to die; it’s forcing them to live,” Dr. Vukelja said. “We can look at it and ask the right questions, ‘What does this really mean? What can I learn from it?’ Then it becomes a tool and not a burden.”
Dr. Vukelja has worked for more than 30 years with cancer patients as a medical oncology and hematology specialist.
Her motto: “Live life, not just exist.”
Born during 1951, Dr. Vukelja, in the communist capital of the Socialist Republic of Slovenia, Ljubljana, then part of Communist Yugoslavia, learned quickly about the battles of survival in the darkest of times. She escaped the country in 1972.
Now a leader in the East Texas medical community and an oncologist at Texas Oncology-Tyler, Dr. Vukelja is a motivational speaker, author, wife, mother of two and a fighter for her patients’ life.
“She will spend 2 minutes or two hours with you. She won’t leave you questioning,” said Rhonda Littlefield, a cancer survivor. “To me it makes me feel like she really cares who you are and how you’re doing. You’re not just a number. You’re not just a patient.”
After receiving the shocking news of having Stage 2 invasive ductal carcinoma cancer in January 2011, Ms. Littlefield was showered with support from family, friends and Dr. Vukelja.
Ms. Littlefield said there were times during chemotherapy when she felt should could not go on, but Dr. Vukelja coached her through the journey.
“I was scared to death. I was petrified because I didn’t know. I knew it was curable because I was told I was Stage 2, but I also knew I was going to have radiation, possibly chemo,” Ms. Littlefield said. “She calms you, ‘We are going to get through this,’ not ‘You are,’ but ‘We are going to get through this.’ It was her, too, not leaving you out there by yourself.”
Almost three years have passed since the diagnosis, and Ms. Littlefield now only takes a chemo pill and has medical checkups every three months. In her triumph over cancer, she felt compelled to help others, just as Dr. Vukelja helped her.
Ms. Littlefield now visits with current patients during their battle and offers them comfort through emotional support.
“Now I can say, ‘Hey I have been there. I know what you have been through and you can make it,’” she said.
Like Ms. Littlefield, there are countless former patients with similar victory stories that circle back to Dr. Vukelja and her medical care. Having gone through radiation herself, Dr. Vukelja can communicate with her patience’s at a unique level.
“There’s this mutual kind of respect and caring that is ongoing,” Dr. Vukelja said. “We are part of the same big world.
“It is this circle of friendship and caring for each other … they are an inspiration to me. It makes me happy to see them succeed.”
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