They’re living with cancer

Categories: Around the Diocese

June 7, 2013 edition
By Jennifer Janikula
For The Visitor

Cancer is a greedy thief.

It takes away loved ones, body parts, time, fertility, financial security, energy and hair.

Even grateful survivors struggle with scars, depression and a lingering fear of cancer’s return to their own body or the body of someone they love.

Cancer steals from everyone.

Layout 1

Some fight the battle head on as a patient.

Some provide support for a family member or friend.

Others can’t help but open their hearts to the remarkable story of a stranger.

Take Zach Sobiech, the 18-year-old from Lakeland, Minn., who, despite his death from bone cancer  May 20, continues to touch the lives of people across the globe.

Regardless their circumstances, many who live with cancer find meaning in their loss. They locate a speck of hope in their struggle, or they discover peace within their pain.

The people profiled below stumbled upon these “oddly-wrapped” gifts on their walk with cancer. They shared their stories to inspire faith and hope. Their ability to find grace in cancer is a miracle and a gift to all.

Double blessing days


Ray Stumpf chose quality over quantity.

In September, more than two years after his colon cancer diagnosis, Stumpf stopped his treatments.

“We knew it was terminal, inoperable, and untreatable,” Stumpf explained. “The second round of chemo was really hard on me and the statistics for life extension were so minimal.”

Doctors estimated cancer would take Stumpf’s life within six months, but Stumpf passed the six-month mark in April and welcomes “life on the edge of the bell curve.”

“Every day is a blessing,” Stumpf said, “but April Fools Day was my first double blessing day,” every day he lives beyond the doctor’s six months prognosis.

Stumpf, who belongs to First Lutheran Church in Little Falls, has used his double blessing days to strengthen relationships with his family and friends. He wants his wife and his college-aged daughters to know how much he loves them. He wants to collect smiles and hugs from his Navy buddies. He wants the people on his Christmas card list to know how important they were in his life.

The double blessing days have also given Stumpf opportunities to discuss faith and hope with the young people in his life.

Stumpf, an industrial technology teacher at Little Falls Community Middle School, openly shared his story with his students. In return, the students embraced Stumpf with respect and kindness and honored him with a “celebration of life” party.

“It’s really amazing how the kids responded and took care of me,” Stumpf said. “It’s quite humbling.”

One group of students invited Stumpf to their prayer group. “They prayed for me and laid their hands on me,” Stumpf recalled.

When the cancer advanced despite surgery and chemotherapy, the prayer group invited Stumpf back to pray for healing. Though it was a tough conversation, he was honest with them and said: “The expectation of my body healing is unrealistic. I am healed where it matters.”

Since then, Stumpf has shared his story and his faith with several youth groups and more than 120 students at Holy Trinity School in Pierz.

“I accept these offers because they are helpful for me and for the kids,” Stumpf said. “It’s part of my oddly-wrapped gift — it’s just amazing.”

At age 56, Stumpf’s ability to face his final days with peace and gratitude seems miraculous, but Stumpf knows where he’s going.

Two years ago, he had a bad reaction to one of his cancer treatment drugs. The reaction was so severe that he nearly died. Though he was unconscious, Stumpf remembers the white light and being “above and behind what was happening in the room.”

When he regained consciousness, a nurse asked if he was scared. His answer, without thinking or even having time to process what happened was: “No. I know where I am going.”

From that point on, Stumpf’s fear disappeared. He still wonders how it’s going to be at the end — when things get hard — but he hopes and prays that he will remember the peace he felt in the white light.

I was on top of my health

contradoHe didn’t smoke.

He ate healthy food.

He enjoyed regular exercise like running, snow boarding, inline skating and cross country skiing.

But cancer still found Michael Contardo.

Contardo, who practices dentistry in St. Joseph, found a small lump in his neck. After two weeks, the lump grew to the size of a golf ball.

“It became obvious something was not quite right,” Contardo said. After scans and a biopsy, he was diagnosed with stage four oral cancer.

Contardo struggled with the treatment options recommended by his doctors at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester.

“The recommended treatment included radiation and radical muscle and lymph node removal on that side — a very scarring and deforming surgery,” Contardo explained. “I asked if I had to do both and the doctor said, ‘If you want to live . . . do both.’ ” So Contardo complied.

Fourteen years later, Contardo remains cancer-free.

Like many people living with cancer, Contardo agrees the diagnosis and treatment were much more difficult for his family than they were for him. Hard on his wife especially.

“I had no future so I had to focus on the present,” Contardo explained. “Part of your faith just kicks in. I was at peace with it.”

I want to know my grandchildren

rengelAfter her annual mammogram, Dee Rengel got a call from her doctor requesting a follow-up appointment.

Rengel wasn’t really worried.

She had been in this situation once before and the follow-up tests were normal.

Plus, she didn’t have a history of breast cancer in her family.

When her doctor recommended a biopsy, the reality of cancer clicked for Rengel. A few days later, the doctor confirmed the diagnosis and Rengel started her walk with cancer.

The treatment plan included a lumpectomy, radiation and chemotherapy. For Rengel, the mental and emotional stress of cancer was much tougher than the physical.

“We all know we are born to die — but it’s scary when you can see it coming,” Rengal said.

When she considered the possibility of dying, Rengel worried most about her future grandchildren. She remembers thinking: “I don’t have grandkids yet. They will never know me.”

Twelve years later and cancer-free, Dee’s eyes still well up with tears when she thinks about the four grandchildren (and one due in September) she might not have met.

Rengel says routine, faith, family and friends helped her through the mental and physical stress of cancer.

“You gotta have some normalcy when you are facing the big C.” Rengel said. With her son Peter, she owns and operates Rengel Printing, where she said, “I worked and tried to live my life as normal as possible.”

Rengel, a member of Holy Spirit Parish in St. Cloud, says her habit of daily prayer and meditation calmed her fears.

“I have a deep faith,” Rengel explained. “There are so many things in life you have no control over. You have to hitch your star to someone’s wagon — it might as well be his.”

In addition to her faith, Rengel found comfort in the support of family and friends. Her daughter, sister and mom kept her company during doctor visits and treatments. Others made phone calls and sent cards and letters.

Rengel even got some help with her hair. She couldn’t deal with the thought of her hair falling out in random clumps. So, with the support of her kids, a bottle of wine and an electric clipper, she shaved it all off. “Some women are bald and beautiful, but not me,” Rengel said. “I am ugly bald. I bought two wigs.”

Our family has lots of cancer

hanischCancer has been stealing from Dee Hanisch for more than 40 years.

She’s felt the losses on many fronts — as a mother, a wife, a nurse and now as a patient.

Cancer claimed the life of her infant son and her adult daughter.

Her remaining son recently had a cancerous tumor removed from his brain.

Her husband survived prostate cancer, and she is living with breast cancer that has spread into her bones.

Cancer has stolen so much from Hanisch, but she is still fighting — one day at a time.

“My faith gets me through each day,” Hanisch said. “It’s something to hold onto. I know God does not cause this. He is loving and compassionate. He sees me through.”

Hanisch also finds comfort in service to others.

A nurse by trade, Hanisch spent many years working with children and families in the pediatric cancer unit at St. Cloud Hospital. Though her work was a constant reminder of her infant son’s death, helping others gave her a purpose.

“I would cry with the families and I would cry when I got home, but I wanted them to have someone that might understand. I could give something of myself to help them,” Hanisch explained.

Currently, Hanisch serves as the parish nurse for St. Paul Parish in St. Cloud. She preaches prevention and early detection — reminding everyone to get annual check ups and screenings. Hanisch advocates, “Catch cancer early so you can be a survivor.”

Coping with triggers

robakAbout a year after high school, Nicole Robak of St. Cloud began experiencing dizzy spells and unexplained weight loss.

Then, she found a golf-ball sized lump on her neck. Doctors biopsied the lump and ran several tests but did not find cancer.

A short time later, Robak’s right arm went numb at work. Doctors found a mass in her armpit. They removed the mass, but still did not find cancer.

At this point, Robak decided to get a second opinion and was diagnosed with stage two Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma. She was treated with chemotherapy, but two years later, the cancer returned.

For her second battle, Robak packed her bags and moved to Minneapolis to experience six months of aggressive treatment including radiation, chemotherapy, growth hormone shots and stem cell transplantation.

Robak returned to St. Cloud after her second round of treatments and has been cancer-free for eight years, but her mind is still processing the experience.

“People think that you are okay once your treatments end and the cancer is gone, but it doesn’t just go away — it’s a life-long process,” Robak explained.

Many things trigger her memories and fears — summer clothes that reveal more of her scars, illnesses that seem unexplained, relationships that suffer because guys can’t deal with her history or her infertility.

Robak says nursing is her coping mechanism.

After her experience with cancer, Robak decided to change her career plan from teaching to nursing. Her dream job — chemotherapy infusion nurse. She would be able to relate to the patients and wants to give back as a way of thanking all of the nurses and doctors who helped her survive.

Regarding faith, Robak admits it was not important in the beginning.

“Honestly, I was angry,” Robak said.

“I felt like so many things were being ripped away.”

As she moves forward as a survivor, faith is becoming more important to her.

“Everything happens for a reason,” she said. “He has me on this path for some reason, and I have to believe in that.”