Mother learns about life through death

After Janine Carter published her book in 2004, “This is a Good Day to Live,” about the fatal illness of her daughter Amber Carter, she was diagnosed with her own serious cancer in December 2008.

She received the news by telephone from her nurse practitioner at the time and was not told that she had cancer, but to see an oncologist in Santa Barbara.

Having spent nearly five years caring for her daughter, ill with Hodgkin’s disease (cancer of the lymph nodes), Carter, 59, knew what the word “oncologist” meant — a cancer specialist. Rather than traveling to Santa Barbara, she soon found local doctors who would help her through her own ordeal with ovarian cancer.

Amber Carter graduated from Arroyo Grande High School in 1994, and had been a dance student there under Debby Sims-Sagisi, teacher and director of the school’s dance company.

After Amber Carter passed away in 1999, the Carter family and Sims-Sagisi established the Amber Carter Memorial Scholarship fund for dance students at the high school.

Students can receive from $250 to $1,500 depending upon yearly fundraising and can also receive continuing scholarships in college.

Thirty-six scholarships totaling $14,550 have been granted so far. The main fundraiser each year is the “Past and Present” dance performance presented by the students each spring. This year, it will be May 6 and 7 at the Clark Center.

Pacific Gas and Electric Co., where Amber’s father, Tom Carter, works, gives matching funds to the scholarship each year.

When asked about Amber Carter, Sims-Sagisi indicated she still had trouble talking about her. Amber was “a wonderful student for me — would even call me from college” in San Diego.

“This is a Good Day to Live” is based on the journals kept by Janine and Amber Carter and Amber’s sister, Bridgett Carter, during the span of Amber’s illness, beginning with her first semester at UC San Diego just before the illness was diagnosed in December 1994.

Janine Carter calls it a “labor of love and heartache.” More than 400 books have been sold, each sale benefiting the Amber Carter Memorial Scholarship.

Carter’s struggle with ovarian cancer was a surprise because her ovaries had been removed seven years prior. Her medical insurance would not authorize a full hysterectomy because her uterus was not involved in the tumor (diagnosed as benign). She believes now that it all should have been removed.

Carter said she has received “wonderful” care from her doctors at Arroyo Grande Community Hospital. After chemotherapy treatment for five months, she says she has been fortunate to be on a clinical trial of the new drug Avastin and now is in remission. She doesn’t know if she is on the placebo or the drug, but she feels good.

After writing and publishing her memoir of her daughter’s life, Carter received a first place writing award for Creative Nonfiction/Memoir at the 2009 Central Coast Writers’ Conference at Cuesta College.

Carter said that taking care of her daughter taught her that “death is not anything to be afraid of; it’s a stepping stone to someplace else.”

There was a peacefulness and calmness in Amber at the end, a “floating” feeling, “ethereal and comforting,” Carter said. Adding that when the time came for her to die, she put her head on her father’s shoulder and was entirely ready; she went willingly with her family present.

As we wrapped up our interview, Carter said she was headed to a healing bowl ceremony at the Cancer Resource Center at French Hospital Medical Center in San Luis Obispo. It involves crystal bowls used to balance a person’s chakras, a healing system used by yoga masters and others.

She is thankful that San Luis Obispo County now has cancer support centers. Her family had to go to the Los Angeles area for support when her daughter was sick.Carter can be reached at jacpoet@aol.com. Her blog is at www.janinesnews.blogspot.com.

The South County Beat appears every other week. Anyone with story ideas involving interesting people in the South County can reach Gayle Cuddy at 489-1026 or nightengayles@aol.com