Thursday, October 18, 2018

2018 SACS honorees share their stories

Cancer is a common thread that weaves numerous stories, journeys and paths together in communities throughout the world. Their paths may have never crossed and they may not have much in common but this year’s Sparta Area Cancer Support Honorees will come together because there is one thing they do have in common, cancer.

As the 2018 SACS Honorees Deb Mashak-Hundt, Ron and Jeanne Button, Kurt Brown and Ella Konze will represent each other and their fellow cancer survivors and those currently enduring the fight at the 2018 SACS Walk/Rally in Sparta this summer.

Ella Konze is currently wrapping up her freshman year at Sparta High School and working to get her driver’s permit, but unlike her peers, Ella is currently undergoing treatments to shrink an inoperable tumor affecting her brain stem and cerebellum.

The first area of Ella’s brain affected by the tumor controls her heart, swallowing, speech and breathing. The other portion of her tumor is on the cerebellum, which controls balance and fine motor skills.

Ella began radiation in November in an attempt to shrink the tumor and chemotherapy at the beginning of February; she is currently on her third course. She had a scan in April, which showed the treatments are beginning to help. The tumor located on her cerebellum is reacting to the treatment and the one located on her brain stem is showing slight changes as well, which is positive.

According to Ella’s mom Katherine Konze, both Ella and her grandfather, who is also going through cancer treatments, have received financial support from SACS.

“They have done so much for our family,” Katherine said, adding when SACS reached out to them and asked if Ella would be this year’s youth honoree there was no hesitation. 

Ella is hoping to help spread the word about SACS to the youth in the community who may not know much about it and help with some fundraising.

“Once we’re back on our feet to be able to help out however we can I think that’s part of that goodwill and being able to pay it forward that’s what helps the group to be as successful as they are,” Katherine added.

When this year’s male honoree, Kurt Brown found out he had stage 4 colon cancer he was inspired by something his friend Jerry Revels, who passed away from brain cancer, told him, “He said there are three Gs. One is God, a good wife, which I would add friends and family. The other is Gundersen, which I would say, ‘Gundersen/great doctors,’” Kurt explained, adding his friend’s words to him have stuck with him throughout his cancer journey.

He had just turned 50 and was anticipating getting a colonoscopy as recommended. He started to feel tired and was having some pain when he made the appointment and found out he had cancer and it had already spread to his liver.

He first received chemotherapy and then radiation to treat the cancer in his liver. Due to the more specialized treatment, it took a greater toll on him than he anticipated.

“The side effects and the drugs they give you along with radiation and chemo really raises havoc on your body,” he explained.

Kurt will continue to need treatment for the remainder of his life due to the late stage of his colon cancer. He explained he will never be cancer free anymore and it is something he will need to manage with the help of his doctors. 

“It’s a life-changer. You have low days when you struggle and then you have days when you feel pretty darn good,” he said, his view on life has changed tremendously in the last two years. “You’ve got to take it one day at a time and enjoy it when you can. You can’t get worked up over the little things, just deal with them when you can. If things get bad, you just ride them out.” 

Kurt is a co owner at Service Plus, in years past he and is business partner have always donated to SACS. “I never thought I’d be on the other end of it,” he said.

Jeanne Button, of Sparta felt as though she was punched in the stomach with the wind knocked out of her when she heard the word ‘cancer.’

She explained, “Once you’re able to breathe again you can say, ‘okay what do I have to do?’”

Jeanne was diagnosed with breast cancer in January 2013 when she underwent a double mastectomy and has been clear of cancer for the last five years.

“It really took us really by surprise because I had no symptoms. I have a family history of it so I had a routine mammogram and about an hour afterwards, they called me and said, ‘we need to see you in La Crosse.’ I just sensed it,” she added.

Her husband Ron, who is Mayor of Sparta, was diagnosed with lung cancer last May, which was treated aggressively all summer with chemo and radiation.

Ron almost cancelled his pulmonology appointment, believing there was nothing wrong with his lungs. After comparing a CT scan from the year prior, there was evident growth in the two tumors on his lungs and a biopsy confirmed it was cancer.

“It was a shock,” Ron said.   

He is done with treatment and will have another scan in June. He is now nearly in full remission.

“We’re pretty lucky. We have a great support network of family and friends and we were both really lucky it didn’t take such a toll on us like it does some people,” Jeanne said, adding they both tried to keep their diagnosis on the down low. “You’re just grateful for everyday and don’t take anything for granted because you never know.” 

Deb Mashak-Hundt, of Cashton, is no stranger to cancer. Her grandmother had breast cancer, her dad passed away from leukemia and her older sister died of brain cancer at the age of five. She herself has been diagnosed with breast cancer not only once, but twice.

In October 1996, she received the news that she had stage 2 breast cancer, which was growing rapidly. Her treatment was aggressive and she recalls her chemo treatments back then were awful.

When she received her diagnosis she felt panicked because her sons were 5 and 9-years-old at the time. “When you have two small children you want to be the one to raise them, you don’t want anyone else to,” she explained.

She was diagnosed with a different form of breast cancer a second time in October 2014, which she attempted to keep a secret due to the fact that her brother had died of cancer on February 7 of that year.

The second time around Deb exhausted all measures. She had a mastectomy, removed all of the nodes, received chemotherapy and 28 treatments of radiation.

 “I’m not going to waste a minute. I’m a twice cancer survivor. You try to keep as healthy as you can and do all of the right things,” she said. “You’ve got to be upbeat and you have to be around people who are happy. I hate when people are down and pessimistic about life. Now, you just make every minute count.”

She now has a list of all of the things she wants to do. Her list includes traveling to Italy and Germany as well as attending little things in the area such as plays or trying new restaurants. 

She feels she got through her cancer diagnosis because she believes in fighting through it and living the life she wanted to regardless of her illness.

“I’m a tough old bird. I just want to go to work everyday and be around people,” she said. “I just don’t believe in staying home and wallowing.”

Deb currently serves on three different boards. Having recently stepped down from two, she has more time available and would like to volunteer for Hospice.

She also manages the Westby Co-Op Credit Union (WCCU,) which in years prior has always supported the SACS Walk/Rally.

 “I try to give back as much as I can so when I was asked to be an honoree I said yes,” she said. 

The honorees will attend several different parades throughout the summer. They will also make other appearances at different events in the community representing SACS.

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