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Cancer survivor thriving today

Published: Monday, Aug. 4, 2014 1:15 a.m. CDT
Amber Hendricks-Pecaj, 28, shown July 3 in Galesburg, was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, and her battle started with radiation therapy in July 2010. Amber has not only survived. She has thrived. In July 2012, 2 years after her first radiation treatments, she made it through two rounds of American Idol judging.

GALESBURG (AP) – Amber Hendricks-Pecaj wrote a letter to cancer.

The 28-year-old Galesburg resident shared its content with those who attended the 2011 Knox County Relay for Life event. And as this year's event – held every year since 1996 at Knox College's track – draws near, Amber has thought about what she wants people to know about her experience and the disease that will kill an estimated 7.6 million people this year.

"It started with a visit to my doctor and a lymph node that was giving me trouble in my neck," Amber said earlier this week as she sat outside Innkeeper's.

"In 2010, I had been on antibiotics for a few weeks and what we thought was just an infection wasn't getting any better. My doctor sent me over to Dr. Whittle's office and everyone was pretty sure everything was OK and this big lymph node just needed to come out."

Amber had outpatient surgery and had the "a huge blue mass" removed from her neck. The doctor decided to biopsy the tumor.

"They did the surgery on a Thursday and told me everything was OK and looked good and they would call with the biopsy results in about a week," Amber recalled. "They called Monday and asked to see in the office that day – as soon as possible.

"I felt this lump in my stomach. I just knew that wasn't good. I just knew I was sick."

So did Amber's mother, Peggy Hendricks.

"The car ride to the office was horrible," Amber said. "But waiting in the waiting room was worse. It wasn't anyone's fault. But the wait just seemed forever. And my mom just looked at me and said she wanted to throw up."

The news she had Stage 3 papillary carcinoma was bad enough. But for Amber – a budding singer – it was doubly hard.

About 80 percent of all thyroid cancers diagnosed in the United States are the papillary carcinoma type. It is more common in women than in men. It may occur in childhood, but is most often seen in adults between ages 30 and 50.

The cause of this cancer is unknown, but researchers suspect a genetic defect may be involved.

"It was Stage 3 and doctors didn't know if I would survive – and if I survived, they didn't know if I would be able to speak again," Amber said. "And I knew if I couldn't speak I wouldn't be able to sing."

Amber's battle started with radiation therapy in July 2010.

"That worked, but the cancer came back in my lymph nodes," she said. "By December of 2010, I had a tumor that was wrapping around my carotid artery and jugular."

So she had another surgery, this time in Iowa City. Then there was one more round of radiation.

"They had to really tear me apart for the surgeries," Amber said. "I was terrified – but hope got me through all of it.

"I just wasn't ready to not have family and friends and a future. I had plans and I needed to live."

Amber did live. And has thrived. She sang the national anthem at Relay for Life events. In July 2012, two years after her first radiation treatments – she made it through two rounds of American Idol judging. She currently has a single, "Girl Like Me," playing on 105.3 FM.

And in February she married Marco Pecaj.

Most of all, she read her letter to cancer at the Knox County Relay for Life event.

"In that letter I told cancer that it can't take me away or change who I am. I told cancer that it thinks it's stronger than me – but it isn't. I told cancer it can't take away my youth or my beauty or my voice.

"I told cancer that I'm sitting pretty and I plan to for a long time."

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