Nancy Bunting-Casias

‘Shortcut to heaven’

Cancer patient glad to know death is near, grateful for extra time

Gratitude comes easily when you’re dying, at least for one Pueblo woman.

Nancy Bunting Casias counts many blessings these days, and prime among them is the fact that she is dying, and she knows it in every cell of her being. The businesswoman in her would like to have a specific date, but her doctors haven’t provided that.

The 52-year-old also is grateful, on many levels, that she’ll die young.

“I’ve never been too excited about getting old and wrinkled and sick and dependent,” she said with a laugh.

Although she’ll escape most of the ills of old age, she’s visibly aging by the day.

An experimental chemotherapy is to blame. She doesn’t like it, but figures it’s worth having a bit more time to finish tying up loose ends.

Buying time

The combination of two experimental drugs targets a rare form of melanoma she thought she’d beaten. First diagnosed in her left eye in 2005, radiation was the primary weapon then, and it worked.

Although it left her nearly blind in that eye, she remained cancer free until a PET scan in September showed the cancer was back and had spread to her lymph nodes, chest, liver and lungs.

Her doctors at the University of Colorado told her she’d live no longer than six months without treatment, and there is no treatment once this cancer has spread beyond the eye.

Even so, they invited her to join the study of the new drugs, which the manufacturer believes may prove effective in other types of melanoma, as well as other cancers.

Despite the rapid aging and the blisters in her mouth, and on her scalp, chest and back, she’s committed to continuing the new chemotherapy in hopes it will help someone else down the road.

‘I’m ready’ “Why not? I could help someone else, and it’ll probably give me a little more time,” she said, standing in the kitchen of the home she shares with the high school sweetheart who became her husband eight years ago.

The fall’s low-angled afternoon lights up the kitchen and softens the deep creases in her face that weren’t there weeks ago, and blurs the black circles beneath her eyes as she pauses before explaining how she can face each day with gratitude, and expecting joy.

“I’m not afraid to die — not at all, at all. I’m ready! Hey, it’s a shortcut to heaven, and I have no doubt that’s where I’m going,” Bunting Casias said with a matter of- fact shrug and a smile. “I have only cried twice since I found out I can’t be cured this time. Well, three times.

I cried for my daughter.

She’s been through so much already, and now her mom is dying. And I cried for my husband.

He didn’t know he was inheriting all of this — that he’d be a widow with a disabled teenager — when we got married eight years ago.”

George Casias was outside working on a wooden swing for the gazebo he’s building for his wife. That’s all she asked for when he asked what she’d most like to have before she dies. An accomplished carpenter and youth minister at Canon City’s Grapevine Church, he’s also building a wooden swing so Bunting Casias will have a place from which to watch their lavishly landscaped yard come to life next spring.

Acceptance is key

“He’s totally accepted that I’m going to die and he’s OK with it,” said Bunting Casias as she led a tour of her huge yard, introducing individual members of the animal menagerie that shares the space — horses, emus, chickens and a loyal dog who’s also under treatment for cancer.

She once figured she’d leave all she has to animals when she died, but that was before she adopted a daughter as a single woman 11 years ago, before Casias re-entered her life, and before she had to figure out who will care for her aged parents when she’s gone.

Those people are her reasons for agreeing to join the CU clinical trial.

“I’ll take the extra time — whatever I can get,” Bunting Casias said. “It’s more than I’d have otherwise, and I need time, more than anything, to get things in order here.

Otherwise I’d be ready to go right now.”

Although she plans a trip to Israel in January, after one last Christmas with her family, her main goal is to get her aged parents’ affairs in order and line up a full-time caretaker for them.

A gift

The girl has a nest of loving surrogates in the local chapter of the National Cancer Society, which Bunting Casias managed after returning from Denver’s banking world to Pueblo to be nearer her parents.

Many of them offered support to Bunting Casias throughout the adoption process, just as they had during treatment and the aftermath during her first bout with her rare medical foe, which was her third bout with cancer.

Bunting Casias jokes that she’s lucky she wasn’t among the monkeys that were the only patients in the first phase of the trial she’s joined.

The monkeys have all died, she said, “but not this chickie monkey,” referring to the nickname she uses with clinical staff members at CU.

Bunting Casias is one of 20 people who’ve agreed to test the drugs on a wide variety of endstage and tough-to-treat cancers.

It’s not the life — or end of life — any of them would have chosen, “but it’s what we have now, and I’m determined to enjoy it — when I’m not stuck in bed or throwing my guts up. Having this time, and knowing ahead of time, is a gift.

“I have my whole funeral service planned and I’ll be able to leave knowing everything is taken care of. That’s a gift. And how could I be sad about knowing I’m going to meet Jesus?”

Excerpts taken from the THE PUEBLO CHIEFTAIN, by Loretta Sword, Pueblo Co. 11/23/13