Dixon teen fighting rare cancer
|Sarah Schnake, 17, a junior at Dixon High School, is being treated for children’s pancreatoblastoma, a rare form of pancreatic cancer, at Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago. (Alex T. Paschalfirstname.lastname@example.org)|
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CHICAGO – Sarah Schnake, 17, is a junior at Dixon High School. She is a power tumbler and the picture of health, which is why when she began feeling sick, she chalked it up to the flu.
When her vomiting would not subside, and she could no longer deal with the pain in her stomach, though, Sarah told her parents, Jerry and Venesa, that something wasn’t right.
“As a parent, you think all kinds of things,” Jerry said. “She had been intermittently throwing up once a week, and she didn’t bother to tell her parents until 2 or 3 months after it began. I thought, OK, is she pregnant? Drinking? Bulimic?
“You know how parents are. You can’t imagine that is what is wrong, that there’s a silently growing beast inside of your daughter.”
What appeared to be typical symptoms of a late February illness ultimately was identified as a rare form of cancer.
“At 17, I am really shocked. It really blindsided me,” Sarah said recently from a bed at Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago, where she gets her chemotherapy treatments.
“All this time I thought it was the flu. I kept telling my parents, ‘You might be wasting your money taking me to the doctor.’ Now that it is cancer ... I never imagined it would happen to me.”
An ultrasound revealed a mass surrounding her pancreas and many other abdominal tumors.
As they awaited results of her biopsy, everyone the Schnakes came in contact with asked how they could help.
Online: Visit Sarah's Facebook support group – facebook.com/SarahsFightClub
Jerry and Venesa Schnake have five children: Kyle Schnake, 27, Abbie Jossart, 31, Aarron Schnake, 23, Hannah Schnake, 21, and Sarah.
Desperate to do something for his family and keep his mind occupied, Kyle went online to research various websites that offer fundraising services.
You Caring (www.youcaring.com) was the only one he found that didn’t take a cut of the proceeds. He gathered some pictures of his vibrant sister and put together a video for the site as a way for people to get to know her and contribute to the $1 million-and-growing hospital bills.
Hannah, 21, also is working on a fundraiser for her sister. She had black plastic bracelets with “Sarah’s Fight Club” printed on them.
They are being sold at Dixon, Newman Central Catholic and other area high schools and at local businesses.
Sarah’s friend Susie Hicks is a member of the Monmouth College softball team. They dedicated their last home game of the season to Sarah, and the team wore commemorative black and pink arm sweatbands donning boxing gloves in her honor. They also sold T-shirts and bracelets at the game.
The outpouring of support and kindness of strangers has been overwhelming at times, Jerry said.
“It is just amazing that so many people are willing to go out of their way to help and meet our needs. You feel so guilty. You feel like George in ‘It’s a Wonderful Life.’ They keep giving and giving, and know you can’t give them anything in return.”
It took doctors a while to figure out just what Sarah had: children’s pancreatoblastoma.
The tissue sample “went, literally, around the world almost 4 weeks to determine what this thing is,” Jerry said. “It is an extremely rare cancer with only about 200 documented cases in the world.”
Sarah said she thought it was “pretty cool, being a medical anomaly” when she learned her biopsy had been seen by countless surgeons, oncologists and pathologists nationwide.
Children’s pancreatoblastoma strikes the inner liner cells that surround the pancreas. Because there are so few cases, treatment is iffy, and the prognosis is not good.
That’s not something the Schnake family wants to talk about.
“I’m a Christian, we all are,” Jerry said. “We walk by faith not by sight. When they talk about prognosis, they are going to give you Las Vegas odds, and I don’t see any parent playing those kinds of odds on their child.”
With faith, they pray for their daughter’s strength and wellness. And just to make sure the whole family was on board, Venesa showed all of their children how to download a Bible app directly to their phones.
“The whole family agreed, even some of those who are not Christians,” Jerry said. “Venesa told them, ‘Go get your smartphones and download a Bible app; it will read you Scriptures and it’s free.’ And they have been, in fact, they bombard her with Bible verses if she is having a
bad day. Prayer has done some amazing things.”
Sarah has a newfound relationship with God.
“I didn’t really have a lot of faith in God that day when we saw the ultrasound.” she said.
“I just started to believe in him again. I absorbed the diagnosis as much as you can. It’s a shock, especially at 17. I don’t know how to handle it, so I just trust in God to get me through it.”
“We are just trusting in the Lord,” Vanessa said. “Faith is the only thing to get us through – not like we are a stranger to tragedy.”
In 1998, the Schnakes’ 6-year-old son, Kenton, died. A family friend was driving them to a church event when another driver ran a stop sign. Sarah and Hannah also were in the car.
Kenton was left brain dead.
“It was a difficult time for us to go through. We had to make the choice to donate his organs and pull the plug on him. ... It was a real test of faith,” Jerry said.
Sarah was 4 at the time. “I remember bits and pieces of the accident, screaming, waking up in a huge bed, not knowing where my brother was, family members all crying, and then I knew whatever happened wasn’t good.”
She also remembers sitting on Clark Kent’s lap the day Kenton died. He was the family friend driving the car when it was hit.
“I woke up and saw him. I climbed into his lap and said to Clark, ‘It’s OK. You don’t have to cry anymore. He is in heaven.’ I was 4 years old and knew he was in a better place.”
It’s always been Sarah’s nature to focus on how others are feeling rather than be concerned about herself, her mom said.
That true. “I spend my time thinking how people around me are doing with it more than I do about me,” she said.
“Mom is here all the time. I feel like she thinks nothing bad is going to happen to me if she doesn’t let me out of her sight.”
Sarah’s best friend, fellow Dixon High athlete Stevie Hicks, visits her at Children’s Memorial Hospital as often as possible. They sit and talk, laugh, apply makeup, listen to music, color in coloring books like little girls, and dream of their futures as they curl up in the hospital bed, side by side, praying for a miracle.
“When I found out, I was so upset,” Stevie said. “She is like a sister, and I tell her everything. If I could take her spot I would.
“I feel like I don’t know how bad she is hurting because she is smiling all the time and putting up a front for everyone around her, she was always like that,” Stevie said.
“But I still think she is going to be fine because of how strong she is.”
Sara has a pretty firm handle on the source of that strength.
“I believe that God has a reason why he does things, and I think he will lead me to victory.”
Make checks payable to SVCC Sarah Fund and mail them to Sauk Valley Community Church 498 N. Route 2, Dixon, IL 61021, or to Jerry Schnake, 1722 Riverview Drive
Dixon IL, 61021.
Go to facebook.com/SarahsFightClub Foundation to donate online or for more information, or contact Kyle Schnake at www.SarahSchnakeFund@yahoo.com or 815-823-5344.
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