Jeanette Sebesta has tackled many roles during a celebrated career as a regional actress in Houston. But recent real-life experience has been the most challenging.
Sebesta's son, Father Andy Sebesta, was diagnosed with an anaplastic astrocytoma in 2004. The cancer was partially removed during surgery to prevent seizures.
After several rounds of radiation, Andy, a Holy Cross priest at The University of Notre Dame, was in remission for six years until he was diagnosed with glioblastoma in 2010.
After a second surgery, Andy received low-dose chemotherapy due to platelet problems. His oncologist, W.K. Yung, M.D., professor and chair in the Department of Neuro-Oncology, said radiation wasn't an option since he'd had so much after the first surgery.
"Physically, he was fine," Sebesta says. "Even though he had a brain tumor, he never had any problems with his mental capacity. Although he had cancer, he was never handicapped by it."
However, by late 2011, Sebesta noticed that her son had a balance problem when walking.
"He assumed this was a side effect from previous radiation and he would just live with it," Sebesta explains.
By the end of January 2012, Andy returned to Houston for an appointment. He was experiencing excruciating headaches, so an MRI was performed. The scan didn't detect any problems, but a few days later, he was admitted to MD Anderson's Emergency Center because the headaches persisted. When he was asked to describe his pain on a scale of 1 to 10, Andy said it was 12 or 13.
Within hours, he went into a coma. Andy ultimately died of an anaplastic astrocytoma that had gone undetected during the scan.
"After his death, doctors determined that the anaplastic astrocytoma had infiltrated everywhere in his brain," Sebesta says. "It didn't flare like the glioblastoma had a couple of years ago."
Facing reality and coping with grief
Thoughts flooded Sebesta as she looked back on Andy's final days.
"I felt guilty. What would they have done had they seen the tumor? Would he have had a good year?"
Instead of confronting her grief, Sebesta traveled with her husband from Colorado to Copenhagen and points in between for six months after his death. "We traveled a lot. I didn't like that. I didn't feel I could mourn."
Back home, she faced reality.
"I've never had anything hurt this bad, ever. Your parents die, but the pain is never like this. It's because it's my son."
Sebesta sought psychiatric counseling at MD Anderson.
"My biggest problem was I could only remember Andy lying on the bed at MD Anderson in terrific pain before he died."
Mary Hughes, a clinical nurse specialist in the Department of Psychiatry at MD Anderson, suggested that Sebesta tap further into her memory to remember positive experiences.
"I had nice memories in the car with him. Music tied us together," she says. "I drove him nuts because I couldn't remember any of the bands' names."
Her faith also was shaken, but she's come through that, too.
"It's not God's fault. We're not perfect. Andy lived his life to the fullest. He had all the faith in the world. God decided it was time for him to go."
Grief counseling helps with moving forward
Sebesta's most recent acting experience has also opened her eyes to the importance of grief counseling.
"In the play, two very different lonely people are brought together. My character faces a challenging situation but never faces it head-on." Of her life experience, Sebesta says, "I'm going through it. I'm facing it. I can't change it anymore."
Other family members are dealing with the pain of loss, too. That includes Andy's seven-year-old niece, the love of his life.
"After his death, she was so sad and mad at the illness that took her Uncle Andy. I told her that even though his illness took him from her, it was because of it that Andy was able to be with her and watch her grow," Sebesta says.
Sebesta offers suggestions to others: "Take time to grieve. Learn how to go on without your loved one. Get hold of your life."
A year has now passed since her son died. Life will go on, but Sebesta knows there will always be a void.
"I can't change what happened. The hurt will continue to exist because a part of me died when Andy died," she says.