DIXON – Sarah Schnake, 18, has spent the last year of her life fighting an extremely rare form of cancer. There are only about 200 documented cases of pancreatoblastoma in the world, and hers is one of them.
Last week, although still not feeling well, she received some good news. A CAT scan revealed that cancer appears to be gone.
Prayer, Sarah’s strong will, faith and determination, combined with multiple surgeries, five sessions of chemotherapy and 25 radiation treatments, are to thank, said her mother, Venesa.
“I was thankful that everything was good,” Sarah said. “There is always that negative thought in your head – something always holding you down when you wait for results. I was prepared for the worst but hoping for good news.”
Although it was good news, Venesa said doctors never will label her daughter “cancer free,” because there is always a chance it can come back.
And before they can breathe a complete sigh of relief, Sarah must overcome a severe bacterial infection, Clostridium difficile, or C diff.
The symptoms are similar to side effects from chemotherapy and radiation, so she assumed it was residual discomfort from her treatment. She was surprised that infection was causing the intense nausea and severe abdominal pain, making her weak, tired and limiting her even more.
Although potentially fatal, it is treated with heavy doses of antibiotics that she says are working.
“I am getting a little bit stronger each day,” she said.
A year ago, the Dixon High student was a power tumbler, a part-timer at Arthur’s Garden Deli and the picture of health.
Because of the severity and rareness of her pancreatoblastoma, Sarah’s prognosis, as well as viable treatments, were unknown.
It affected the inner liner cells that surround her pancreas. Surgeons removed 75 percent of that lining, along with her spleen, gallbladder, half of her liver and several abdominal tumors.
Today, she no longer is able to go to school or work until doctors release her. She studies at home with a tutor, and goes to physical and occupational therapy twice a week.
The 5-foot-1-inch teen is 30 pounds thinner, has scars over much of her torso and her muscles have emaciated. She takes 22 pills a day, something she is simply, “sick of.”
She doesn’t have the strength or flexibility she used to, and the pain and scar tissue prevent her from attempting to tumble. Her long, blonde, treasured hair fell out, but is growing back.
“I don’t really like short hair,” she said with a shrug. “It’s just another hurdle you have to go through, and it’s not the worst. In the long run, it’s just hair and it is going to come back eventually.”
Over the next year, she will be closely monitored via CAT scans and echocardiograms, and blood work will be done to look for tumor markers.
To boost her spirits, her parents agreed to something Venesa said she never thought she would: Laying on her living room floor Thursday, Sarah giggled as Hadley, the newest member of the Schnake family, ran to her with a chew toy bigger than she was in her mouth.
The 12-week-old is a Bichon Frise/Shih Tzu hybrid, commonly known as a teddy bear.
Venesa isn’t a dog person, but she knew Hadley was exactly what her daughter needed to keep smiling.
“She felt so out of touch with school and work. While most kids were planning college, she was thinking of just getting through today. She needed a little something to love.”
Sarah was a little surprised herself.
“I just brought it up to my parents and they were like ‘Oh no!’ and I said, ‘Come on, it would be awesome.’ They said when all of my treatments are done I could.
“I don’t really know I how I pulled that one off.”
Donations to help defray Sarah's medical expenses can be mailed to Sauk Valley Community Church, 498 N. Route 2, Dixon, IL 61021.
Make checks payable to SVCC, Sarah Fund.