Less than two years ago, Darcy Aune noticed something was “off” with her left eye. That something was cancer and her eye was removed less than a year ago.
Throughout the trials and tribulations of the last 24 months, Aune calls her battle with cancer “a blessing in disguise.”
Aune will be the speaker at the Dyersville Area Relay for Life, set for 6 p.m. Friday, Aug. 3 at Beckman Catholic High School. Her husband, Bruce, the long-time anchor for KCRG-TV 9, will accompany her on stage. Bruce will ask her questions that will lead his wife through her extraordinary story.
When Darcy Aune, 47, first went to the doctor with an eye that was constantly watering, it was chalked up to allergies.
“Months passed and It felt like there was something in my eyeball,” Aune said. “I went back and they couldn’t find anything. They didn’t seem too concerned.”
Before she was set to leave on a mission trip to Guatemala in August 2017 her eye was still bothering her.
“I decided to do a self-test. I covered my right eye and I really couldn’t see anything in my peripheral vision out of my left eye,” she said. “And it was like looking at water when it gets on paper. Every other letter was blurry.”
On July 24, 2017, she went to an eye doctor who thought the eye issues might be a precursor to multiple sclerosis (MS). They sent her to Mercy Hospital in Cedar Rapids for two days of tests. She was told that if the tests show white spots on her brain, the diagnosis is MS.
“When the doctor came to talk to me he looked gloomy,” she said. “He said there is good news and bad news. The good news is you don’t have MS. The bad news is there is something in your eyeball. I was like ‘Yeah, I knew that.’”
The eye doctor said the best case was there was a pocket of water in her eye. The worst case was cancer. He said she needed an expert opinion and sent her to the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. She was there Aug. 3 at 8 a.m. and went through a morning of tests.
“It was cancer,” Aune said. “Before telling us the option, they felt the best thing to do was to have the eye removed because the tumor was so large.”
The specific diagnosis was ocular melanoma. Despite the name, there is no connection to skin cancer, but ocular melanoma is a serious disease in its own right. It is an aggressive form of cancer and metastases in about 50 percent of patients within 10 to 15 years. Metastases is universally fatal, according to the Ocular Melanoma Foundation.
After the diagnosis, Aune was sent to an oncologist who gave her the options. One option was to try and save the eye, but only two hospitals perform proton beam radiation, the special type of radiation treatment she needed. One of the hospitals was in Boston, the other in San Francisco.
San Francisco would be able to get her in, but she would be out there a week. The treatment would be costly, as would hotel stays. But if the eye could be saved, they were going to do it.
“That evening, Bruce went to the (Cedar Rapids) Kernels game, as we had planned, trying to keep everything normal,” Aune said. “On the way in (to the stadium), I got a call from the head doctor in San Francisco on my cell phone. He said, ‘You know, I was looking at your chart and the tumor is really large. We can’t guarantee it’s going to improve. There is a lot of costs involved and we’re still not sure you won’t still have draining, and blurred vision and cataracts.’
“I sat there dumbfounded. I went in and told Bruce. Later that night we talked about having the eye removed. We called Iowa City the next day and they said maybe you should try Boston.”
The call to Boston was not encouraging.
“The woman there didn’t have any patience,” Aune said. “She said, ‘I need to know right now if you’re going to take the appointment or it goes to the next person.’ I got a horrible feeling from that woman. My faith is very important to me. I prayed and I felt peace and we talked about removing the eye. I called Iowa City back.”
The surgery was set to remove the eye. She made the trip to Guatemala, returned on a Saturday, attended church on Sunday and had the eye removed on Monday.
She wasn’t fitted with a permanent prosthetic until October. Those two months were the most trying.
“I felt miserable,” she said. “I either had a patch or temporary prosthetic that didn’t fit right. I didn’t want to go out. One day I just wept all day.”
Then she found an online support group for ocular melanoma.
“They assured me it was normal to have a day where you can’t stop crying,” she said. “They assured me you are grieving the loss of your eye. After that I felt such peace.”
She began to write about her experience.
“God inspired me to tell my story,” she said. “I called my eye, Evelyn and wrote about the trip to Guatemala — the final days of Evelyn the Eyeball. I even wrote an obit for her. The new eye was Esther.”
Along with the support group, she credits Bruce with helping her through the ordeal. Now, Bruce is battling his own health issues. He is having a trouble with balance that has not yet been diagnosed.
“My disease can almost be called a blessing because I was able to grow my faith, and now I can help him,” Darcy said.
She has also formed a local support group for cancer victims.
“It’s a faith-based group and we meet once a month,” she said. “There are 20 to 25 women and 10 or so women come each month. Two are having a horrible time. I am able to be by their side and help encourage them. It has been a wonderful blessing.”
Aune is currently cancer-free, but she is not out of the woods by any means. She gets scanned every six months. The metastases are often in the liver.
“It’s a horrible disease,” she said. “They found a couple cysts on my liver but as long as they’re not growing it’s OK.”
Dyersville Area Relay for Life co-chairs Cindy Willenborg and Sonja Ramirez said they are very fortunate to have the Aunes as guest speakers.
“We are very humbled and honored that Darcy and her husband, Bruce, are willing to take time out of their busy schedules to bring her cancer story to the Dyersville Area Relay For Life,” they said in a joint statement. “Darcy brings a unique perspective to surviving cancer. We invite all survivors and community members to join us and hear her cancer survival story at the Dyersville Area Relay For Life as we attack cancer from every angle.”
The Aunes will be speaking Aug. 3, the one-year anniversary of her diagnoses. One year later, her faith is as strong as ever.
“I keep plugging along,” Aune said. “Every day is a gift. We’re not guaranteed a problem-free life. You can choose to look for joy, the good in life or focus on the bad. I choose the former.”