A story of courage, determination, devotion, and love



The story of Rozana Papadopoulos and Panos Barlias is one of courage and determination. It's a story of devotion. But most of all, it's a love story.

On a sunny Saturday morning in July, about five years ago, Rozana took advantage of a cancellation to undergo an MRI at Toronto General Hospital. She had been experiencing severe headaches and dizziness for about 10 months and hoped the MRI would provide answers to what she thought were just “tension headaches.”
 
“You go out one day with plans to shop for groceries, and you come home diagnosed with a brain tumor,” says Rozana. As it turned out, hospital staff didn’t want Rozana to go home at all. They told her she was a walking time bomb. The MRI revealed a 5 cm x 6 cm tumor sitting under her cerebellum, on her brain stem.
 
Rozana and her husband, Panos, feared the worst. Her surgeon, Dr. Michael Tymianski at Toronto Western Hospital, advised that Rozana needed emergency surgery to remove the tumor, as soon as he could get an operating room.
 
When an exhausted Dr. Tymianski emerged at 2:45 a.m. on Tuesday morning, he told Panos that the six-hour surgery was a success, even though Rozana had experienced a minor stroke on the operating table. He was able to remove 99.9% of the tumor and a sample had been sent off to be tested for cancer.
 
Rozana came out of surgery, her swollen head swaddled in bandages, with a drain to remove excess liquid from her brain.
 
Unfortunately, she was almost completely paralyzed. “The only thing I could move at the beginning was my right big toe,” she recalls. “Three days after surgery, I lost my voice. I couldn’t swallow, either, so they put in a feeding tube.”
 
Nine months later, Rozana would walk out of a rehab hospital under her own steam.
 
Coming back from near total paralysis was a slow, painful, and frightening ordeal. Day after day of physiotherapy, speech therapy, occupational therapy and massage. And every day, Panos would help her do three extra sets of exercises.
 
 “Panos was my lifeline. He always believed that I would walk again, even when I didn’t. It motivates you to get better when you have that support,” she says.
 
Bit by bit, Rozana began to make progress, regaining the use of one foot, then the other, then her limbs.
 
Rozana finally left rehab on her own two feet, with the help of a walker. But not before she had to face one more hurdle – 33 radiation treatments at The Princess Margaret. Part of the tumor they had removed back in July had turned out to be cancerous.
 
“There was a 30% chance that the cancer might come back, so we decided to eliminate all the chances,” says Rozana. “The radiology technicians were just so wonderful. From the moment that I arrived, they were so caring, so polite, so patient. I remember lying on the table with tears rolling down my face, and this one staff member held my hand and said, ‘Don’t worry, take your time, it’s going to be fine.’ The kindness is what you remember most.”
 
Rozana lost hair on half of her head, but experienced no other side effects of the radiation. She said Dr. Lapierre, her oncologist, and the staff at The Princess Margaret helped her understand what to expect from the whole process. “My time at the cancer centre was a wonderful, top-of-the-line experience,” she says.
 
Now five years later, Rozana has been declared cancer free.  She still deals with issues of balance and has lost all fine motor skills and the finer aspects of sensation. In most of her body, for example, she can’t distinguish between the touch of another’s skin and the touch of steel.
 
Fortunately, for both Rozana and Panos, her lips have retained full sensation. Such is the power of love.
 
“We’re always kissing,” grins Panos. “We’re always making out,” adds Rozana, giggling. “We’re like teenagers.” This year they will celebrate their 11th wedding anniversary. Rozana credits Panos for her recovery, and he in turn, says she’s the hero.
 
Now that Rozana feels stronger, she wants to do everything she can to support cancer research and patient care at The Princess Margaret. She lost her own father to lung cancer, and Panos’ father died of stomach cancer, both within a few months of their diagnosis.
 
“There’s not one person I know who hasn’t, in one way or another, been affected by cancer,” she says. “I believe in The Princess Margaret. I want to make a difference in their search to fight this deadly and horrible disease that impacts our fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, partners and friends. I hope that we find a cure to conquer cancer in our lifetime.”