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Lightening the load


Cheryl Koehn, left, hugs her friend Annette Wright. Annette, a Parnell resident, is living with inoperable cancerous tumors in her brain. After a year of battling cancer, Annette is making the most of the time she has left, spending it with her family and friends.

It was a warm summer day when doctors found the tumor in Annette Wright’s breast in July of 2008.

Annette, Parnell, was on a motorcycle benefit ride with her husband, when she felt sharp twinges of pain on the right side of her chest.

She scheduled the soonest doctor’s appointment she could. When the mammogram revealed a tumor the size of a golf ball (4 centimeters in diameter) in August, she realized she had been wrong to dismiss a lump she had discovered months earlier in the same area as “nothing.”

“I knew it was there, and like a dummy I just thought it was a cyst and it needed to be drained, so I just kept putting it off,” she said. “There was no breast cancer in our family. I never dreamed it would be anything other than a cyst.”

Doctors didn’t know how long the cancer had been in Annette’s body, but it was long enough for the tumor to wrap itself around nerves — which had caused the sharp pains.

“They said normally cancer doesn’t hurt. It was only because it was pinching nerves that I felt it,” she said.

Annette continued to work the second shift at her factory job in Amana while undergoing the six months of chemotherapy to shrink the tumor. The side effects were the toughest part of the medicine that’s eventually supposed to help you. Sometimes Annette would take off work because the diarrhea, nausea and exhaustion caused by the chemotherapy, got to be too much.

“You’re beat. I laid down for a whole week after I had it. I couldn’t function. I couldn’t even lift my arm, I was just so tired,” she said.

As a mother of two daughters age six and eight, Annette worked very hard to remain upbeat around them and not expose them to every aspect of the disease. However, there were some things that she couldn’t hide, even if she wanted to, like hair loss.

“It’s very devastating. When you lose your eyebrows, your eyelashes, you feel like an alien.

“I got wigs from a professional and tried to wear them out in public as much as possible so the kids didn’t have to . . .  I didn’t like them, but I felt a little more normal with them, like I wasn’t being pointed out, ‘She has cancer.’”

At the end of six months of chemotherapy, Annette was doing well and ready for surgery, when she suddenly had a bad reaction to her treatments.

“When I went to the doctor, I told them I couldn’t breathe. They said it was nothing, so I went home. I got home. I was running a temperature of 103, so my family took me to the emergency room, and it got worse from there.”

Doctors discovered Annette had contracted pneumonia. Throughout the month of February, she battled the respiratory sickness and cancer in the hospital, including spending 12 days in a medically induced coma to heal her body. Annette said the hospital stay was one of the most difficult periods for her because she couldn’t be with her children.

“Probably the worst part was when I was in the hospital. They didn’t get to see me hardly. The school sent home a note that Lauryn was crying all day because she missed her mom.”

After the breast tumor was removed in March, doctors discovered more cancer in one of Annette’s lymph nodes under her right arm. A few weeks later she was on the surgery table again and had all nine lymph nodes under the arm taken out to prevent the cancer from spreading.

Things seemed nearly back to normal and Annette started working again part-time at her factory job when she began having excruciating headaches.

“By Sept. 14, my head hurt so much, I pretty much missed Lauryn’s birthday cause I was on the couch,” she said.

A check-up to the doctor revealed the cancer had spread to her brain and it was inoperable. Doctors hesitate to give her a time frame —  just to take each day for what it’s worth. Since then, the focus of Annette’s life has shifted from treating her cancer to spending every minute with her family that she has.

“It’s made me appreciate family and friends a lot more. I don’t know when my last day is. Things I’ve taken for granted before I’m trying not to, like not telling the people I love that I love them,” she said.

Annette admits the long days at home also give her plenty of time to think about the “what ifs,” like what if she had gone to the doctor earlier, what if doctors had run certain tests at different times.

“It’s a roller coaster. One day you think you can do it. The next day you think ‘no.’ I’m mad because I don’t know why they didn’t do a CAT scan on my head before and find this,” she said.

“It’s very emotional. One day you could hate everybody. The next day you love everybody. You’re mad at God. You’re not mad at God.”

However, when she’s having a bad day, Annette doesn’t have to use her strength to bring herself back up, because friends are helping to lighten her load — some that will even go great lengths to understand what she’s going through.

Cheryl (Martin) Koehn, a California friend of Annette’s, showed her support by shaving her head, even though Annette begged her not to.

“I felt if I could go through something with her, that’s something I could do. Now, when people look at her, they’re not just looking at her, they’re also looking at me. I have percent of their stare,” Cheryl said.

Other friends are showing their support through regular phone calls and planning a benefit for Annette to help to pay many of the medical expenses she’s incurred. The benefit will be held Saturday, Oct. 24, at Parnell City Hall. The day will start with a breakfast from 7 to 11 a.m. A raffle will be held at 3 p.m. and karaoke will be held at T.J’s at 5 p.m.

UPDATED October 21, 2009 11:48 AM

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