Not cured, but cancer survivors hopeful, loved
CHAMPAIGN — Connie Kaiser could barely walk two laps at the Champaign County Relay for Life a year ago, debilitated from treatment for advanced breast cancer discovered about two months earlier.
Sam Wells was feeling and looking good. The Ewing's sarcoma — a form of bone cancer in adolescents — that he'd been diagnosed with five years earlier was in remission.
This year, the two employees of the Champaign County Juvenile Detention Center walked the survivors lap together, far from cured, but buoyed by the cheers, love and support of more than 100 fellow members of Connie and Sam's Crusaders.
Their team was one of 91 registered for Saturday's annual cancer fundraiser at Centennial High School's track, which raised about $185,000 in Champaign County.
Kaiser, 54, of Champaign, is the superintendent of the detention center in Urbana, and a 31-year county employee. Wells, 23, of Savoy, has worked there part time as a master control operator since January. His mother, Janet Wells, is an employee of the Champaign County probation office, and has known Kaiser for the 28 years she's worked for the county.
Neither woman ever suspected that cancer would bind their friendship even tighter.
Kaiser said last year, her brothers and brothers-in-law pulled together a team in her honor.
"All I had to do was come and participate. I was losing all my hair. It was not the most pleasant time. That was a really meaningful, uplifting experience," she said, adding she had help to do her two laps.
"Once that happened, all the kids in detention have rallied around me. When I was in the hospital one time, they made 1,000 cranes for me and sent them up. Hardly a day goes by that one of the kids doesn't ask to talk to me just to see how I am," she said of the children being held for crimes.
Kaiser's last year has included six hospitalizations, oral chemotherapy, and two rounds of radiation of the front part of her body. The cancer that started in one breast spread into her bones, requiring a complicated back surgery.
"I've had it in the front of my hips and down my spine. They've been treating it as it's appeared. I'm doing real well," she said. "Today, I think I can walk (the track) a hundred times."
Likewise, Wells said he's doing as well as can be expected since a resurgence of his cancer, which had been in remission for a couple years.
"I just started a new treatment. The first one was a little rough but the second went pretty good," said Wells, a May graduate of the University of Illinois. He also graduated from The High School of St. Thomas More and Parkland College, where he played on their golf teams.
Wells, his sister, his mom and his grandmother, had been walking for years in the Relay for Life in honor of his late maternal aunt, Jane Waldbillig, who died in December 2011 after living with breast cancer about 15 years. Wells said he drew support from her when he was diagnosed in July 2007.
Janet Wells said it never occurred to her as she walked for her sister that she'd one day be walking because of one of her own children.
The chief caretaker and cheerleader for her son said his positive attitude has served him well through the ups and downs. She tries to adopt his outlook.
"Sam is amazing. He's still golfing. He looks wonderful and has the best attitude of any kid I've seen in my life. Some days I say to him, 'Don't you want to scream?'," she said, conveying the helpless feeling of a mother unable to stop cancer.
"Every day we put two feet on the floor is a good day and if you lose hope, you lose everything," she said.
Kaiser agreed, saying she'd much rather be the cancer sufferer than the mother of one, having seen what Wells has gone through. Her own mother, Pat McMahon, 75, of Rantoul, is a breast cancer survivor. McMahon walked alongside her daughter on the survivors lap.
Since Kaiser's diagnosis, which came just weeks before the wedding of her only daughter, Kaiser said her mother and sister have called daily to see how she is. For a long time, her sisters-in-law were calling every day too, she said. Those are just a couple of examples of the "silver lining" that have come with cancer, she said.
"You get to find out who your friends are when you are really sick," she said.
Having been the superintendent of the detention center 19 years, Kaiser said she's had to learn to not let her job consume her. The staff and the children there have seen to that, she said.