Survivor Series News Feed - ValpoLife Sat, 30 May 2020 11:07:53 +0000 en hourly 1 Survivor Series: Tonya Hill-Rios Mon, 25 May 2020 10:00:37 +0000 Kellyn Vale “I never would have thought to help others in this way if I hadn’t gone through it myself,” said Tonya Hill-Rios, a Portage resident and cancer survivor. “It’s been more eye-opening to me than anything else in my life.”

When Hill-Rios was diagnosed with esophagus cancer in 2014, the shock of her diagnosis hit hard, but she immediately embarked on a treatment regimen.

“One day I just could not swallow,” Hill-Rios said. “Luckily, I caught it quickly and was able to go through chemo and radiation effectively. They removed my esophagus, and after my treatment, I was all clear. I was certainly one of the lucky ones.”

While getting treatment early and finding the right medical path for her diagnosis was crucial, Hill-Rios attributes a good portion of her recovery to her positive mental approach.

“Getting the right medicine is only half the battle,” Hill-Rios said. “If you go into it thinking and expecting the worst, you’ve set yourself up to head in that direction. If you go in thinking, ‘I’m gonna beat this’, and find ways to laugh in spite of it, that is the cure!”

The initial shock and devastation of the diagnosis quickly faded into optimism and adaptability, as she embraced the reality of her circumstance with an eye for finding the lessons within the struggle.

“Cancer is harsh, but you learn a lot from it,” Hills-Rios said. “You learn to live one day at a time and embrace every moment as it comes. You learn there are more people out there that care for you than you ever thought possible. You learn to live every day like it’s your last, and never miss an opportunity to tell someone you love them.”

As a survivor herself, Hills-Rios knows that one of the most important factors in life after diagnosis is staying informed and reaching out for help.

“You’ve got to learn how to be innovative and adapt if things don’t work as planned,” Hills-Rios said. “Don’t be afraid to ask anything because there are no stupid questions, especially when it comes to cancer. There are resources all around us ready to help: The American Cancer Society is on call 24/7, online support groups are always open, if you don’t have a computer the local libraries are excellent at helping you find resources. Even reach out to survivors like me and others who have been through it. I’ve never met a survivor who was bitter or unwilling to help and give resources.”

From diagnoses to treatment to recovery, many cancer survivors draw strength from their families throughout their journey. This was especially true for Hill-Rios, who was in no short supply of loved ones.

“I have eight beautiful children and seven beautiful grandchildren,” Hill-Rios said. “If I was having a particularly bad day there was always a baby I could visit to bring a smile to my face. My now 16-year-old, Rachel, was also a big help to me. If I was too sick or in the hospital, she would basically take on the responsibility of ‘mom’ whenever my husband was at work or staying with me at the hospital – making dinner, helping the other kids with homework; she was just a rock.”

Post recovery, Hill-Rios is a full-time crafter, putting her passion for projects toward supporting Relay For Life, donating all proceeds her creations generate to their cause. Looking at her countless boxes and bags filled with unique creations, it’s hard to believe Hill-Rios wasn’t a lifelong crafter growing up. Her inspiration to create emerged when she had an opportunity to bring some fun to her son’s fifth-grade classroom.

“It was my son’s last class party, and I wanted to make something nice for the kids,” Hill-Rios said. “I ended up crafting these little mason jars with the kids’ names engraved on them. My skills and projects started to snowball from there as I branched out into different mediums. Now I have thousands and thousands of creations, and to think it all started with a jar!”

Her works spans wreaths, picture frames, key chains, and apparel, though it seems one category transcends the rest.

“Jewelry is probably my favorite thing to make,” Hill-Rios said. “I think everyone deserves something pretty for themselves, and if my products can bring one person a smile while also helping others who have been diagnosed, then it becomes that much more meaningful.”

Hills-Rios encourages community members to donate what they can to help combat cancer.

“My philosophy is that you don’t have to give money to make an impact,” Hill-Rios said. “Donate your time, donate your support, donate your talents. That’s why I do what I do, making my crafts and giving support through them. Ultimately, they do provide funds when I donate the proceeds to Relay For Life, but more importantly, they spread smiles and become symbols of support. They let people know they are not alone in their fight.”

Hill-Rios may be a full-time crafter, but she is also a part-time student pursuing a business degree with big plans in mind.

“My end-goal is to open my own brick and mortar business, not only for me but for other people in the area who might not have the money to support their own store,” Hill-Rios said. “I’ve met so many wonderful people at vendor fairs who would love their own space, but just can’t swing it. I would like to open a store, rent out spaces within for local vendors, and continue to promote my own products and their underlying cause.”

Hill-Rios’ fight did not end with her recovery, and she continues to pursue her dreams and support cancer patients and their resources one craft at a time. Anyone looking to support her efforts with either a purchase of their own or by providing an extra set of hands to bring her crafts to life, Hill-Rios is always open to sharing her skills. To contact Hill-Rios, visit her company Facebook page at Tonya &LEILA or send her an email at

Survivor Series: Tonya Hill-Rios
Cancer Survivor Series: Prestin Butcher Sat, 25 Apr 2020 10:00:54 +0000 Curtis Hankins Prestin Butcher’s battle with cancer was sudden and dramatic. Just a fifth grade kid, he started getting severe headaches disrupted his ability to take part in swim practice. His mother took him to the doctor where they did a CT scan that showed a terrifying result.

“First they did an MRI and didn’t really find anything, but they decided to do a CT scan just to be safe,” Butcher said. “Then they found a tumor on the back of my brain, about the size of a ping-pong ball.”

He does not remember much after that, and he was undergoing surgery within hours. They had diagnosed him with medulloblastoma, the most common form of primary brain cancer in children.

“I came out of the scan and saw my mom crying and was just really confused,” he said. “Next thing I knew, they stuck an IV in me and put me in an ambulance to go to a children’s hospital in Indianapolis. I was more confused than anything, I didn’t really have time to process what was going on.”

The surgery went well, but that only marked the start of the battle. He still had dozens of rounds of radiation and many cycles of chemotherapy to endure.

Video Credit: The video above was made by Mr. Varda’s Radio/Television Class at La Porte High School. This video was produced by Preston Butcher and Alaura Shuble and is an award-winning video with the Indiana Association of Student Broadcasters (IASB).

“For the first couple of days, I couldn’t even speak since they’d been working on my brain,” he said. “I had to stay in the hospital for a couple of months after that, I had to work to get back my ability to move around and talk again.”

He did get to return home, but the regular trips to the hospital for his radiation and chemotherapy sessions and his weakened body left him unable to live like a normal kid for some time.

“After that, I couldn’t even go outside. They told me plants and stuff just had too much bacteria,” Butcher said. “It took almost a whole year for me to recover. A year of nothing but lying in bed taking medicine.”

The isolation took a toll, and was the hardest part of the entire experience for a boy.

“I could barely even walk around my own house,” he said. “Doing nothing but staying in bed watching TV sounds nice at first, but it gets so boring and tiresome after a while.”

Butcher credits his family with keeping him sane and on the road to recovery.

“They stuck by me for every minute of it,” he said. “They were definitely big supporters, and never left my side. They’d stay overnight in those uncomfortable hospital chairs. They were there the whole time.”

When things finally started getting back to normal, one of Butcher’s main goals was getting back into swimming.

“The doctors told me that it would take me a while to get back in the rhythm of swimming,” he said. “But, I was able to come back and start swimming again with no problems. It was a really big motivation for me. They’d also told me I wouldn’t be able to ride a bike because my balance was so bad, but I did that too.”

Eight years later, Butcher is now a La Porte High School graduate and spent all four years on the swim team. He is attending Purdue University Northwest and is working toward a career as a teacher.

“When I was going through my battle everyone would always say that I should become a doctor, but that just wasn’t for me,” he said. “I went through cancer in the fifth grade, and that was a lot not only physically, but emotionally. So, I feel like I can be a lot more understanding of kids and what struggles they might be going through.”

For anyone going through that fight with cancer, or those who know someone who is, Butcher likes to offer a message of hope. “It’s not going to be easy,” he said. “At the end, it’ll be totally worth it. You’re going to be so glad you went through all that hell, there’s light at the end of the tunnel. It makes you stronger. I almost didn’t make it, so I feel like I appreciate things a lot more now that I’ve gone through that.”

Cancer Survivor Series: Prestin Butcher
Cancer Survivor Series: Nancy Babich Wed, 25 Mar 2020 07:00:16 +0000 Stacey Kellogg Nancy Babich (top, center) with family

Nancy Babich just doesn’t have time for the negativity. She never has. Don’t get her wrong – being diagnosed with breast cancer wasn’t easy, and the bad thoughts certainly crept in at times. But she wasn’t having any of it, and today, the 10-year survivor is here to share that inspiration with others.

“You know, I’m a positive person anyway – a glass half full kind of person – so trying to maintain that, and the ‘what if’ on the other side, is a balancing act. But I have three daughters of my own and I needed to be strong for them,” Babich said. “I needed my husband to know I was going to be OK. It was, for me, a teaching opportunity that you have to deal with things that come your way. I knew negative thoughts or ideas wouldn’t be beneficial to me, so I didn’t go there.”

“I just always was positive about it,” Babich continued. “I knew it was going to be OK, I knew that it wasn’t a death sentence, and I just had such incredible support.”

In 2009, Babich discovered something in her right breast that doctors diagnosed correctly as a lipoma – a small, fatty tumor that is not cancerous. She had it removed, and went about her life.

In 2010, after her routine screening mammogram, doctors discovered that the lipoma they took out the year before had been hiding something – cancer.

The interesting thing is, it’s Babich’s job to help diagnose others with the disease. She is the Director of Diagnostic Imaging at Porter Regional Hospital. It’s the department that oversees mammography and other radiologic breast health exams, among other imaging services. So she knew what she was facing, and still tampered the devil of negativity that would crawl onto her shoulder at times.

“I had a double mastectomy and three weeks later I was back to work. I didn’t want to be defined by an illness—I wanted to get back to my life,” Babich said. “I didn’t allow cancer to make my decision for me or keep me from living my life. I have too many people to live for and I wanted people to see that there are survivors every single day.”

While Babich was not diagnosed with cancer in her left breast, she chose the double mastectomy because she felt that option was right for her. Before her diagnosis, both her younger and older sisters were diagnosed as well.

“But we’re all doing incredibly well because we’re aware and we know that we are strong women and we can get through things. You just can’t give up. You have to fight,” she said.

And she had a good team on her side.

“Working in healthcare – of course, it’s an advantage. I’m in imaging, and I know surgeons and our fellowship-trained radiologist in mammography. When I was as going through it all I could actually sit down and have conversations with them. It made me wish every patient had those opportunities, and I think we’re there now at Porter with our breast care coordinator, who connects patients to the resources they need,” Babich said.

“But then sometimes when you’re in healthcare, you know too much, and it can be scary. I knew I didn’t need to go outside of Porter Health Care System to get what I needed. I had all the experts I needed right here.”

Like many patients, Babich endured chemotherapy and eventually underwent reconstructive surgery.

“My husband is amazingly incredible. Chemo was probably the hardest thing to go through just because it sucked the life out of me. My husband was kind of my bodyguard – he would tell people I was doing great and let people know if I wasn’t available for phone calls or visitors.”

The support poured from all over, including her four children.

“My daughter is a pediatric nurse and she came with me for surgery and spent the night with me. I had my surgery the day before Thanksgiving so all my kids were home, and they surrounded me. It was a blessing. When I got home from surgery, all day my doorbell rang with people delivering flowers. It was overwhelming – I felt like I needed to donate them. Knowing that I had touched so many lives gave me a lot of motivation to fight.”

Treatment, recovery, and sometimes even surviving with that tinge of doubt – it’s not always easy. Babich draws strength from being able to help others.

“I don’t regret one decision I made from the time I was diagnosed until today,” she said. “I think the most I have to gain from it is to share this knowledge with someone else.”

One of the staff members at the hospital stopped her in the hall one day, scared about her own diagnosis.

“She asked if she could talk to me and I said, ‘absolutely.’ There’s nothing too intimate to share when someone is facing this. I try to be very open with anyone who wants to know about my experiences because maybe it will help them in their own.”

Activism also fuels Babich to help others. In addition to daily education through her professional career, she walks in the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life and encourages others to find their people during a cancer journey.

Nancy Babich, top center with sash

“Breast cancer awareness is important to me. Early detection is important to me. The Relay for Life and cancer research is important to me. But it’s not just the fundraising, it’s the comradery. It’s set in that positive tone to support breast cancer survivors and lets us know we are all in this together.”

While Babich will celebrate 10 years this October since her diagnosis, she stressed that it’s important to her to make every day a celebration. She plans to relish every moment she has with friends and family. And a large family it is—four children, seven grandchildren, and 10 siblings of her own.

“I’m blessed. There are people who don’t have that kind of support system and we need to be there when they need a shoulder,” she said.

“A lot of positive things can come out of a bad experience. God made us strong and always seems to put people in our lives at the right time,” Babich continued. “Having cancer sometimes brings you to people you wouldn’t normally know. In all my care, I fell in love with my physician’s assistant – she was just amazing.”

And while her brother has since passed away after a battle from pancreatic cancer, Babich still finds hope in positivity and the human connection.

“It’s a beautiful world we live in. We can’t let one disease change that for us.”

Cancer Survivor Series: Nancy Babich
Cancer Survivor Series: Jenny Evanatz Long Tue, 25 Feb 2020 07:17:47 +0000 Sergio Valdes Life is full of ups and downs, and when life hits its hardest points, it’s always good to have people there to support you. This was something Hobart resident Jenny Evanatz Long learned after she was diagnosed with leukemia.

On September 1, 2005, after a few months of a rough cough and multiple check-ups, Evanatz Long discovered she had chronic myelogenous leukemia, or CML. It is an uncommon blood cell cancer that begins in the bone marrow, which creates an overabundance of white blood cells.

“I was shocked when I first heard the news,” she said. “My children were especially scared since they were so young, but I knew that I had to keep fighting for the sake of my family.”

Once she was diagnosed, she began taking a drug called Gleevec, which was a relatively new drug at the time. She also began making routine visits to the University of Chicago Medical Center.

Despite the trouble caused by the leukemia, Evanatz Long had a strong support system of both friends and family to keep her motivated.

“I had a lot of great friends that stepped up when I was diagnosed,” she said. “They really helped me out when I needed it the most, and we all became really close.”

To keep herself active and to consistently strengthen her morale, Evanatz Long worked for the PTO (Parent Teacher Organization) President at her childrens’ school and participated in various events like fundraisers, student events, and more.

“I was in charge of various events, so it kept me busy,” she said. “I was working with a lot of great people.”

Her family also played a substantial role in her support.

“My husband was especially very supportive during this time,” Evanatz Long said. “He was the one that did most of the research and kept me on my toes. When I was tired and had feelings of giving up, he was the one who said ‘Nope, keep going.’ To be honest, I wouldn’t have made it without him.”

Every year, Evanatz Long and her family participate in the Light the Night charity walk in Chicago. They raise money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and meet other people who share similar experiences.

“I love these events,” Evanatz Long said. “Working and walking alongside other cancer survivors gives me a sense of hope. It also helps us all remember those we’ve lost in our journey.”

Currently, she keeps herself active by babysitting and being involved in her childrens’ lives. She also keeps herself updated on CML and continues to learn more things about the disease.

“Never give up and keep believing. Do everything you can do in your power to stay strong.”

Cancer Survivor Series: Jenny Evanatz Long
Cancer Survivor Series: Wendy Mang Sat, 25 Jan 2020 09:46:21 +0000 Beth Ireland “You don’t have to go through this journey alone,” said Wendy Mang, Community Development Manager at the American Cancer Society (ACS), and a cancer survivor herself.

When Mang was first diagnosed with a rare form of bone cancer, she began researching and came upon the American Cancer Society. At that time, she thought the organization only conducted research, but when she signed up for the Duneland Relay for Life, she soon discovered a community full of helpful resources, support, friendship, and healing.

“For me—and I’ve heard this from many survivors—you go through the grief stage of ‘why me?’ and getting involved with a group of individuals who were going through something similar to what I was going through was healing,” Mang said.

After undergoing jaw surgery to remove the tumor, Mang continued volunteering for the ACS, and in 2011 took a full-time position with the organization. This new position offered her the opportunity to help others going through their cancer journey by connecting them with the services the ACS can offer. 

“Everybody’s journey is completely different and everybody deals with their diagnosis differently, but everybody needs to know that there is always somebody there at ACS to talk to,” she said. “Being able to open up and talk to somebody is helpful. When I first started, I thought that all the American Cancer Society did was research. It was important for me to bring awareness to Northwest Indiana about the programs and services that we have to offer.”

Mang found that being diagnosed with cancer pushed her to also volunteer at other organizations within her community. Recognizing that giving back offered her a healing outlet, she got involved with Chesterton Tri-Kappa, Rebuilding Together, the Shirley Heinz Land Trust, and Free the Girls, among other organizations. By helping and giving back to her community Mang was able to get out of her own head and pull her mind away from negative thinking. 

“I do feel that greater giving heals your soul. You may feel alone at times, but getting involved with an organization helps you feel included and like you’re a part of the team and part of something bigger,” Mang said. “It’s important for me spiritually to be involved in something that is bigger than myself. Knowing that I can give back just makes my heart so happy.”

In 2016, Mang found that the cancer had returned in the same area as before. This time, however, she had a community to surround her and the knowledge, tools, and resources to face this new diagnosis head-on. 

“I didn’t let those dark thoughts come into my mind the second time around,” Mang said. “It was much easier to navigate because I knew of the programs and services. If there was something I needed, I took advantage of them.”

She again would go through jaw surgery, but this time, her entire left jaw bone would be removed and bone fragments taken from her femur were used to rebuild the jaw. The recovery process was much more involved and longer than before, but Mang was ready to face this battle.

“I basically knew what the journey was going to be like and I knew that if I had beat it once, I could beat it again,” she said.

Throughout her journey, in addition to the joy that serving her community brought her, Mang received support from family and friends when needed, mainly, her husband and two sons.

“My strength was my family. I have an incredible husband who supported me during the time of my surgery and recovery. He’s been my rock,” Mang said.

From her initial diagnosis to now, Mang is happy to be looking forward to a bright future full of new experiences with her family. 

“I’m very much looking forward to my oldest son getting married. Going back to my thoughts when I was initially diagnosed in 2007, I didn’t think that I would see the day my boys would graduate high school, college, have careers, get married, or have kids,” Mang said. “I’m very much looking forward to being a grandma at some point and I’m just excited to see the next generation of our family come about.”

As Mang would say, cancer is her life because her position at ACS keeps her in constant contact with those walking their own cancer journey. But it’s not something she would change, because, through her own battles and years of working with the ACS, she has gained some valuable advice for anyone dealing with cancer. 

“If you’re secluding yourself, that’s when your mind can go dark and you become depressed. Remain positive and find what makes you happy,” Mang said. “Also, be an advocate for your own body. If you know that something is not right, you need to be willing to speak up for yourself.”

She encourages anyone who is going through a journey with cancer, a caregiver, or even someone who just wants to help support the cause to get involved with the ACS through one of their many community events.

“There are a lot of events that we have throughout Lake, Porter, and LaPorte counties and we have a lot of different ways for those who are interested in getting involved to do so. They can definitely get in touch with me,” Mang said.

You can find more information about the ACS and the services they provide through their website:

You can also call the ACS hotline, 24/7, at 1-800-227 2345.

Cancer Survivor Series: Wendy Mang
Cancer Survivor Series: Joan Hasse-Rodriguez Thu, 26 Dec 2019 20:02:03 +0000 Sergio Valdes When surrounded by pain or fear, having unbridled resolve and a support system full of loved ones can help you move forward.

Joan Hasse-Rodriguez has that, and more. Having lived with cancer for the past couple of years, Hasse-Rodriguez understands that life is meant to be cherished. He has found strength in her resolve to take control of her healthcare decisions, and her choice to stay positive against adversity.

In March 2017, Hasse-Rodriguez went to the doctor after contracting pneumonia and had CT scan that showed nothing outside of the infection. After some convincing from her husband, she returned to the doctor in April for a follow-up scan, which revealed suspicious-looking tumors on both her pancreas and liver that weren’t present in the first scan. She was told to get a biopsy, which confirmed they were cancerous tumors.

“I was very stoic when I heard the news,” Hasse-Rodriguez said. “But it is what it is.”

Over the course of eight rounds of chemotherapy treatments, she was told that the tumors were shrinking. The day before Thanksgiving, she underwent surgery and remained in the hospital for two months.

“It was really hard,” she said. “I went down about 100 pounds and couldn’t eat a thing.”

After returning home, and with some much-needed recovery time and physical therapy, she slowly regained her strength.  

“All I could consume were protein shakes and plain, unflavored water,” she said. “That is what chemo had done to me.”

She went back to her oncologist in April 2018 to have a check-up. That scan revealed cancer in her stomach, pancreas, liver, and lymph nodes. It had developed into Stage 4 cancer.

“Once again, I was stoic,” she said. “I do not intend to go back to a cancer doctor. I do not intend to ever do any more cancer treatments.”

She was recommended to be placed in hospice, but she rejected, saying she wasn’t ready for it. She asked for medication to manage pain and anxiety and has not returned to the oncologist since.

During this ordeal, she has tried her absolute best to keep her hopes and spirits up. Her biggest aid during this time has been the strong support of her husband, a son, three daughters, and two step-children.

“It’s mind over matter. If you have a negative attitude, everything about you is going to be negative. I have my beautiful family and home. I’m blessed.”

Despite all that has happened, Hass-Rodriquez still carries a strong sense of optimism. She volunteers for the Portage Exchange Club, a group of individuals working to make local communities better places to live. This is an extension of her will to spread positivity and hope.

“It’s a wonderful life. I have such few regrets and I have been so happy. I wish everyone could be as happy as I am. It can be hard, but I’m trying.”

Cancer Survivor Series: Joan Hasse-Rodriguez
Cancer Survivor Series: Shirley Edwards Mon, 25 Nov 2019 14:31:55 +0000 Stacey Kellogg You would think that being a nurse would give you the upper hand when you learn you have cancer. Perhaps, in terms of the knowledge base, but not in terms of the fear factor. Just ask Shirley Edwards.

“I found a lump in my breast and scheduled a mammogram. I went to the appointment by myself, and immediately after the mammogram they told me they wanted to do a needle biopsy, so I knew something was up,” Edwards said. “That same day, I learned that they were 99 percent sure I had breast cancer. I went into the car and just broke down.”

That was in 2004. Edwards was 61, and just one year into her retirement.

“It was scary. I knew immediately what I could be up against. I had a lumpectomy done and the first time they couldn’t get clean margins. So they went in again to take more out. I still felt like I wanted a second opinion, so I went to Northwestern and they discovered two papillomas under my breast. They said sometimes those can become malignant if left alone, so I opted for a mastectomy and had my left breast removed,” Edwards said.

Even with subsequent chemotherapy treatments, Edwards said her treatment was relatively uneventful, save the time she overindulged on Fannie May candy and got sick.

“It wasn’t a horrible treatment and I did relatively well.”

Today, Edwards is cancer-free, and despite the difficult roads she’s traveled in life, she feels grateful for the love of family and friends.

“My daughters have just been wonderful,” she said. “At the time, my mother was in her late 80s and living with us. It was a lot to deal with, but everyone sort of played a role and I had a lot of help.

By her sixth chemotherapy treatment, Edwards began to experience what is known as the cumulative effect – when the chemotherapy builds up in the system and causes undesirable side effects.

“All of a sudden I couldn’t walk,” she said. “I ended up calling a good friend in Griffith for help. She came over and called my doctor and learned that this was a common side effect. So it put me at ease.”

Edwards was born in Ohio but grew up in West Virginia. When she was 13, her family moved to Indiana. She lived in Ross Township and graduated from Calumet High School in Gary. She and her husband lived in Schererville for 40 years before moving to Wanatah. Edwards’ husband passed away in 2018, and she now resides in Valparaiso.

“The years passed, and my life has not been easy. But there have been some good things in my life and I’m always very thankful when a survival anniversary passes. It’s been 15 years – that’s a long time. I’m 76 now, but if anything happened now, it would be OK, because I have had the opportunity to live past my diagnosis, and I know of a lot of people younger than me who have not.”

Edwards said prayer has helped her stay positive over the years, but she also recommends those who are newly diagnosed form a list right away of the people who can help them. And she encourages survivors to be there for others.

“I was always wanting that guarantee that everything would be OK, but you can’t really get that, so you need to have people in your life to support you. Nights were bad for me,” she said. “I kind of had a list in my desk somewhere about things you can do to be available to help people, and I use that. Talk to someone. Listen to them. Be positive. It’s very important.”

Edwards sheepishly agreed that sometimes nurses are the worst at taking care of themselves because they spend a lifetime taking care of others. It was true for her as well, but she also acknowledged her own stubbornness.

Edwards had a falling out with her healthcare provider who didn’t listen well, so she put off her own appointments for years before she found her lump.

“I could have kicked myself because I knew that I should have been getting my mammograms, but I was just stubborn. I had to get over it, though, and forgive myself because there were too many other things to do in life,” she said.

“I had been taking care of someone since I was 10 years old. I started babysitting at age 10, and then there was nursing, children, my mom, and my husband who died last December. That’s probably why those who are inclined to be nurses miss caring for themselves. You know you have to, but for whatever reason, you just don’t. I just happened to be one of the lucky ones.”

Edwards loved her nursing career, which began in 1964 caring for high-risk newborns and ended caring for children in an intermediate step-down unit. She never faltered and is amazed at how far care has progressed with technology.

“I worked in a premature nursery at Methodist Hospital and they didn’t get their NICU until 1988. When I first started working, nurses didn’t even start IVs – only doctors did that. Florence Nightingale was still working then,” she recalled, referring to the famed founder of modern nursing.

Today, Edwards enjoys spending time with her daughter and her granddaughter, who she said is 10 going on 30.

“I also go to breakfast with a group in Hanna. You never know who’s going to show up for breakfast. I enjoy that socialization a lot. I’m just so thankful to be alive and be able to walk around and have no issues with my bones or my back,” she said.

Her two pieces of advice for others: be there to wrap your arms around someone who may need it while going through treatment and get your annual screening mammograms.

“It’s very important. You have to watch out for yourself. I know a lot is going on in everyone’s lives, but you have to watch out for number one or you won’t be around to take care of others.” 

Cancer Survivor Series: Shirley Edwards
Cancer Survivor Series: Esther Lewis Thu, 24 Oct 2019 19:26:40 +0000 Beth Ireland In January of 2019, Esther Lewis, then 39, found a small lump in her breast. Having dealt with swollen lymph nodes before, she thought this lump was most likely that. But being cautious and proactive, Lewis sought confirmation that would end up saving her life. 

Lewis went to her doctor right away to have the lump checked. The doctor was concerned that it was something more serious and sent her to have a mammogram. It wasn’t what Lewis wanted to hear, but she drew on her faith to help her through this worrisome time.

“I got the mammogram and in my head, I was thinking, ‘There’s nothing wrong. God wouldn’t do that to me,’” said Lewis. “But then the doctor told me that they would need to do a biopsy because they were concerned about the mass.”

The biopsy came back as cancerous. 

Only 7% of women diagnosed with breast cancer are under 40 and with Lewis being so young, there was great concern that she carried the BRCA gene. If so, her treatment would most likely involve a double mastectomy and chemotherapy.

“I could only think about how I wouldn’t be working or taking care of my child. I just thought, ‘No, this can’t be,’” said Lewis.

Throughout this time, Lewis dug deeper into her faith by attending church, reading the Bible, and listening to sermons. It was an important part of keeping her strong and hopeful. 

“It was a lot. I was going to different doctor appointments and listening to what they had to say,” said Lewis. “At the same time, I was reading scripture and listening to what my pastor had to say about faith and healing. I needed something to combat what the doctors were telling me.” 

Within a week, she received the news that she did not have the gene and treatment would only involve a lumpectomy and radiation. It was a best-case scenario.

As a life coach, Lewis has watched others cope with cancer diagnoses. Having spent years encouraging and motivating people through their tough times, she knew that one of the most important things she could do was to keep moving forward.

“I knew that I could not be still,” said Lewis. “So many people are attacked by this disease and they stop or shut down. If nothing else, I wanted to continue to move forward. That’s the important thing, to keep going.”

Lewis had the lumpectomy and started radiation. Physically, she was doing rather well. It wasn’t long, however, until the effects of radiation and tire of fighting began to wear on her emotionally.

“I started radiation and I had been good, but it became taxing,” said Lewis. “One hundred percent of what I do is listen to other people’s problems, and it got to be too much to shift gears between doing that and going to radiation.”

The darkest period of Lewis’ fight, however, was only now about to begin. Finishing up with regular radiation treatments, she received her first of three “booster” treatments.

“All through radiation I had been working out, working two jobs, and I hadn’t felt the effects. I hadn’t lost weight or felt tired,” said Lewis. “The first day they did the boost dosage, I felt different. I wasn’t feeling good.”

Another treatment left her feeling worse and feverish. She had developed an infection and would need emergency surgery to put a drain into the lumpectomy site. This new struggle left Lewis battling the physical proof of her cancer.

“That was the most challenging part for me emotionally because before, I couldn’t really see the physical proof of the disease,” said Lewis. “When they put the drain in, my skin started peeling, the drain was there for three weeks and was noticeable. It was hard for me to continue to look at it every day.”

Thankfully, the infection cleared up and Lewis could begin the healing process. 

Finding the motivation to keep going and continue to fight is one of the hardest but most important things to do when going through a difficult time, especially cancer. For Lewis, her faith was her motivation and strength. Now on the other side of her cancer, she knows that everything she went through was for a larger purpose.

“I went from asking God ‘why?’, to asking him, ‘what do you want me to use this for?’” said Lewis. “I now understand why, and I know God wants me to use this experience in some way.”

Cancer Survivor Series: Esther Lewis
Cancer Survivor Series: Steve “Beaver” Lopez Mon, 30 Sep 2019 18:42:13 +0000 Sarah Corn Steve “Beaver” Lopez has never been one to let obstacles slow him down. It’s how, at age two, he got his nickname. 

“I used to chew on my baby crib,” he explained. “I ate one of the wooden bars so my parents gave me the name ‘Beaver.’”

So when Lopez was diagnosed with testicular cancer at age 35, he knew he wasn’t going to let it stop him. Sitting there in the doctor’s office, stunned, he had one clear thought.

“I’m too young to die,” Lopez said.

With the long history of cancer in his family— his mother, aunts, and grandfather all having battled the disease— he knew from experience that there was no time to waste. Two weeks after the diagnosis, he was in for surgery to have the cancer removed.

And yet, the postoperative test results were still high enough to be concerning. He and his wife, Rae, traveled from their home in Northwest Indiana to Indianapolis to see a specialist— a doctor who had worked with Lance Armstrong. 

After a consultation, Lopez went through a second, 8-hour long surgery that removed 14 lymph nodes, 10 of which showed evidence of cancer. When his second round of postoperative tests once again came back high, he determinedly started chemotherapy.

“It’s pretty heavy-duty stuff,” Lopez said about the chemo drug regimen. “But luckily, it knocked it all out, and since then, I’ve been good.”

Despite being in and out of the hospital several times during the course of his treatment, his spirits never dampened.

“I always say ‘it could be worse.’ That’s my motto,” he said.

Lopez attributed much of the strength and positivity that helped him through the surgeries and chemo to his wife of 20 years. Together, they joked to keep his spirits up.

“My wife has been a really big part of my healing. She’s just awesome,” Lopez said. “She’s been to every surgery I’ve ever had. She’s always there to take care of me.” 

“We have a lot of fun— we laugh, we giggle, we try to make laughter a big part of our healing,” he continued. “We have big faith in God; we are both Christians and that helps, too.”

In testament to that faith— in God, in each other, and in his recovery— Beaver and Rea adopted a baby girl in 2009.

“She’s a big part of our lives now, too,” he said.

Before beginning his battle, Lopez was an active, prolific, and well-loved member of the regional, national, and international music scenes. He played with a Pearl Jam cover band named “Even Flow” and through that work built himself a strong local community of performers. 

As the end of his chemo regimen neared, and the medical bills started to pile up, his music family rallied around him to help. On his last day of chemo, they held a benefit concert to help cover the costs of his care. The event, named “Beaver’s Ball” (pun intended), raised over $40,000 to help pay for his care. It was so successful they held it again for the next two years, with each subsequent year benefitting another local cancer survivor.

Taken on his last day of chemo

“That was really cool,” he said.

A couple of years ago, he started performing shows again. The cancer had complicated his recovery from an earlier vocal polyp surgery, which combined had kept him from returning to his passion for many years.

“It’s fun to get out there still and just play,” Lopez said.

Living in a body that has fought, and won, battles with cancer, bad knees, carpal tunnel, vocal polyps, and more is not easy.

“On a daily basis, I probably have a pain from my chin down to my toes of probably about a good six, on a scale of one to ten. My body always hurts, but it’s something I’ve adapted to,” Lopez said.

But those struggles didn’t slow him down. In 2010, he went back to nursing school and became a registered nurse. After graduating, he worked on an oncology floor for five years, followed by a short stint in hospice. Currently, he works in the emergency room and serves at the RN Liaison at St. Mary’s Medical Center. 

“I am able to sympathize with and have empathy for all of my patients. My body has endured a lot of these symptoms that people come through with,” Lopez said.

It especially meant a lot to him to be there to give comfort to other cancer patients when he worked with the oncology team. After Lopez was diagnosed, he and his wife relied heavily on the advice and support from other survivors they found through Facebook, and he appreciated the opportunity to do the same for those in his care.

“When I was on the cancer floor, I was able to really reach out and give comfort to a lot of the patients,” he said. “And give them a sense of hope, as well, that just because they have cancer, that doesn’t mean there aren’t things you can still do.”

Cancer Survivor Series: Steve “Beaver” Lopez
Cancer Survivor Series: Joe Blandford Thu, 29 Aug 2019 00:06:37 +0000 Logan Ozdyck A bell’s ring is a short sound, but resonates through time. It can be symbolic of the end of something, but also the beginning of something else. 

A little more than a year ago, Joe Blandford, a Lowell resident and small business owner, was diagnosed with throat cancer.

“It was interesting because I had a friend who went through the exact same thing,” Blandford said. “I didn’t know a lot about the process though.”

Blandford turned to St. Francis hospital in Crown Point for treatment where he underwent seven weeks of radiation and chemotherapy. 

“The doctors sat down with me and told me the good news and the bad news,” Blandford said. “The good news was the cancer I had was quite curable.”

Blandford went through treatment every day except weekends. 

“I made it through the treatments pretty well,” Blandford said. “When I was done with treatments, I walked out the door and that was that. No fanfare or anything like that. I was just glad to be done with it.”

During his time getting treatment, he learned a lot about the other people going through the same process as himself.

“Sitting in the waiting room in the morning, you are sitting with people who are going through the worst of it,” Blandford said. “The friendship and warmth of the people who were suffering the most was incredible.”

When his friend went through treatments, he had mentioned being able to ring a bell at the treatment center when he was finally done. 

“He sent me a picture of the bell the Mayo Clinic had in their radiology department,” Blandford said. “When patients were done with treatments, they would celebrate by ringing the bell.”

Blandford thought that would be a lot better than “just walking out the door”. He told his kids about it and they decided to buy a bell and plaque for him as a Christmas present. Blandford then turned around and donated it to the hospital.

“It’s pretty rewarding,” Blandford said. “Everyone looks forward to ringing it. As far as a reward goes, that is pretty good. I really enjoy hearing that.”

Blandford added that he wants to take his contribution to the next level.

“I think I’d like to get them a bigger bell now,” he said.

Cancer Survivor Series: Joe Blandford