Beyond Appearances

By on April 19, 2017

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Stories of surviving and dealing with cancer inspire 2017 Relay for Life event

“Beautiful” is a word to describe this year’s Honorary Survivor and Honorary Caregivers of 2017 Norlanco Relay For Life. The thing about “cancer” stories is they are each unique and full of underlying personal depth before and after the illness, but because of each person being different, each story is.

Jennifer Graybill, 40, came to the Relay For Life meeting at the New Holland American Legion to tell her story to leaders and organizers. She looked as if she were attending a five-year sorority reunion. To look at her long, thick, blonde hair and bright blue eyes, you would not imagine she is a two-time cancer survivor.

Graybill doesn’t give much thought to her beautiful appearance, however.

“I don’t care what you do to me or how ugly it makes me, I just want to be here for my kids,” is what she told her doctor after she was diagnosed a second time.

“My story began in 2010, just prior to the birth of my son,” said Graybill. “I was just 33 years old. I went for a routine prenatal visit, my provider said that she saw scar tissue. I was confused by that because I had three prior births, they were all routine. I was in good health, I had no medical conditions and all prior Pap smears were good.”

Graybill didn’t speak up or pursue the comment.

“After four children, I thought I had a pretty solid understanding of the healing process but this time things felt different,” said Graybill. “I had headaches, fatigue, severe night sweats, and pain that should have subsided months ago.”

On Valentine’s Day 2011, she was diagnosed with cervical cancer.

“The next six months I underwent a radical hysterectomy, followed by weeks of chemo, radiation, and labs,” said Graybill. “Emotionally I felt grateful, physically I wasn’t sure how I was supposed to feel. I didn’t know what my new normal was.”

The pain came back to the point she couldn’t walk. She went to see her physician, Dr. George Olt.

“’I believe it’s back, kid, and this time we are in a dog fight,’” said her doctor.

“I was devastated,” said Graybill.

Thirty years ago, doctors would have given her over to hospice, but now there is a life-saving surgery, although primitive.

“It’s called a total pelvic exenteration,” said Graybill. “But first I needed to be selected as a candidate. This would be a 13-hour surgery and a six-week hospital stay.”

Graybill had several organs removed, some organs rerouted, and some remade out of other parts of her body on Feb. 23, 2012.

She was asked which organs were removed.

“Basically, everything except my kidneys that are now rerouted into a internal pouch which was man-made and sewn inside,” said Graybill who needs to care for it every couple hours by draining her kidneys through a port.

This is more commonly called an “Indiana” pouch which takes the place of an external urine bag.

“I’m a walking science project and a miracle,” said Graybill. “I have some pretty cool ‘man-made’ parts and I am reminded of it all every four to six hours as my body needs continuous maintenance. It’s definitely not the most ideal way to live.”

Yet Graybill has the best possible attitude to face this with dignity.

“l never forget the day I left the hospital,” said Graybill. “My wonderful hard-working team of nurses stood and applauded as I was wheeled out to the car.

“The trip home I noticed that all of the trees had started to bloom, and I cried. The world had changed while I was gone and I thanked God that I was able to witness another spring starting.”

Her husband, Stan Graybill II, was a big part of her support.

“We would drive down just about every night when she was in Philly,” said Stan. “I work for a family business (Graybill’s Auto Service in New Holland), so I have a little flexibility in scheduling.”

Graybill’s recovery was long, painful, frustrating, but she feels she has a “new lease on life.” The surgery means constant care, but it is what she was willing to go through.

“I get to continue to be the glue that holds my family together,” said Graybill. “I get to live for each milestone of life. My parents, sisters, nieces and friends didn’t have to mourn my loss from cancer.”

Graybill is still closely monitored by a team in Philadelphia.

“I am a walking study for others like me,” said Graybill. “Thanks to research and development, I was able to celebrate my five-year milestone last month! Without those advancements in cancer research, my children would be motherless today.”

Jen must be more careful in not over-exerting herself.

“We have times when she’s fighting infection and goes to the emergency room,” said Stan. “We tell them they better look at her files before doing anything.”

Jan Getz, a leader and organizer of Norlanco Relay For Life, knew when she heard about Jennifer Graybill’s story that she “was the one” to be their survivor.

“It was such a story of overcoming a battle with cancer and it gave such a feeling of hope to us,” said Getz.

Relay for Life leaders are arguably the most passionate fundraisers in the world.

“We relay for different reasons,” said Getz. “Some of us relay to honor a loved one who has passed and we also relay to celebrate those individuals who have survived their bout with cancer and have beaten those odds. I was a caregiver to my mother and also have a sister who is a 15-year breast cancer survivor.”

Honorary caregivers face a grueling, most personal challenge.

Rick and Amanda Wagner have been in the news for the past six months with their baby daughter, Sophia.

Sophia Rae Wagner was born on April 17, 2016.

“We all commented on how perfect she was,” said Amanda.

During Sophia’s two-month wellness visit, the pediatrician noticed that Sophia had what felt like an enlarged spleen.

“We were sent to the lab to get an ultrasound of her spleen,” said Amanda. “The ultrasound technician determined it was Sophia’s colon and that it was constipation so we went home relieved that it was typical baby stuff.”

The Wagners bought a house in Ephrata and went to work in normal caregiving for their baby.

“Amid all the clutter and chaos of the boxes still not unpacked in our new home, Sophia seemed to not be feeling well as she was extremely fussy all weekend,” said Amanda. “Monday morning, I made an appointment with the pediatrician, assuming Sophia had an ear infection. Within minutes of the pediatrician examining Sophia, an ambulance was called to take her to Lancaster General due to low oxygen levels.”

“The pediatrician told me: ‘I think it’s leukemia’,” said Amanda.

“We originally chose Hershey, however they were not able to do the blood transfusion procedure that Sophia needed, so Sophia was medevacked to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.”

Sophia’s body remained paralyzed for three weeks while she went through tumor lysis, which is the “body trying to get rid of the excessive white blood cells that had died due to starting her treatment.”

“We were told that Sophia’s leukemia was very rare and that she had an MLL rearrangement which was a genetic abnormality that caused her bone marrow to create cancerous blood cells,” said Amanda.

“We were also told that Sophia would have a 20 percent chance of survival,” said Rick while both he and Amanda fought back tears.

“Sophia would need a bone marrow transplant which will give her the best possible chance of surviving her leukemia.”

Sophia overcame small victory after small victory over the course of chemotherapy phases, spinal taps, biopsies &tstr; each showing no cancer after the other &tstr; all leading up to a bone marrow transplant.

“On Halloween, after a few weeks break at home, we packed up our bags and went back to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia to be admitted for her preparation for the bone-marrow transplant,” said Amanda. “Sophia went through 10 days of intense chemo and we saw our beautiful daughter become sicker than we had ever seen her. She completely stopped eating and seemed to be in a lot of pain but we knew it was our only option to save our daughter.

“We are currently at home with Sophia while she continues to recover. She is constantly smiling and every day she gets stronger and stronger! We look forward to a better 2017 together!”

Relay For Life benefits the American Cancer society. The Norlanco chapter will host fundraisers up until the main event in June.

* April 23: “Tracey’s Circle of Hope” team will hold a prize basket Bingo starting at 11:30 a.m. at the Denver Fire Hall. Thirty games will cost $25. Food will be available. For tickets, call 717-824-6084. Tickets are limited.

* April 25: Union Barrel Works in Reamstown, and their “Envision No Cancer” relay team, will host a beer dinner which will be a special $30 four-course Italian-themed menu with a different Union Barrel beer paired with each course, or two glasses of Kog Hill wine. A vegetarian option will be available upon request. A few items will be raffled along with a 50/50 drawing during the event will all proceeds going to the ACS. Reservations are required by contacting Union Barrel Works at 335-7837. For more information, call Kathy at 336-0766.

* April 27: Ephrata Isaac’s teams, “Turtle Trotters: and “Co-Workers for a Cure” will be holding a Community Night from 5 to 9 p.m. Call 733-7777 for takeout orders or email for more information. Twenty-five percent of your meal with go to the teams fundraising efforts.

* April 30: A Designer Purse Bingo will be hosted by “Bonnie’s Believers” team at Reamstown Fire Hall starting at noon. Tickets are $25 each. To order, call 717-656-6741. Coach, Michael Kors, Dooney & Burke are some of the purses to win.

* June 3: A “Do as You Please” bus trip to Cape May will cost $45 per ticket and include round trip bus fare, door prizes and games, and a 50/50 drawing. Call 717-824-6084 for more information.

Michele Walter Fry welcomes your comments at

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