The Rodgers family (from left), Stephanie, Randy and Kale, as they were captured in a portrait prior to Randy’s cancer diagnosis in 2011.

Cancer took her husband, not her love of life

By Ed Nadolski

Editor in Chief

Clarity can strike at the most mundane moments. For Stephanie Rodgers one of those moments came while doing something many of us have done perhaps a hundred times.

Years after surviving her own cancer scare and mere weeks after losing her husband to a brain tumor, Rodgers was pushing a shopping cart at Walmart – going through the motions her life demanded.

Clarity didn’t hit her like a bolt of lightning. Rather, she said, it was more like a ray of warm sunshine burning a hole through the clouds.

“I realized, I’m still walking with my head held high,” she said of that moment amidst the babble of shoppers under the fluorescent glow of an otherwise routine Walmart experience. “I realized it’s a choice.

“Happiness is a choice – you choose how you live every day. It’s hard to put into words.”

Rodgers said she discovered the best way to cut through the pain, honor her husband’s memory and be the mother her 12-year-old son needed was to celebrate life’s blessings and love those around her with every fiber in her soul.

Honorary survivor

It’s the message Rodgers, who lives in the Town of Geneva, hopes to convey to the participants in the Relay for Life of Walworth County tonight at the county fairgrounds in Elkhorn. The annual relay raises money for the American Cancer Society’s programs to support those battling the disease.

As the event’s honorary survivor for 2018 Rodgers will get to address those gathered for the relay.

“I know it’s my story to tell, but it kind of brings it all back in a big way,” she said. “(But,) who cares if my voices wavers and my eyes water.”

Rodgers is referring to her late husband, Randy’s, year-and-a-half battle with brain cancer. Those are the memories that cause her to choke up.

Her own encounter with cancer – while concerning at the time – pales in comparison, she said. Sometimes it’s tough for her to reconcile the dichotomy. Why her husband and not her?

“That’s a struggle for me. I was lucky,” Rodgers continued. “I got a ‘good’ cancer – no chemo or hair loss.”

 

Stephanie and Kale Rodgers walk together for the survivor/caregiver lap at the 2017 Relay for Life of Walworth County. Stephanie is a cancer survivor who lost her husband and Kale’s father to a brain tumor in 2013. (Heather Ruenz photo)

 

A cancer diagnosis

She was diagnosed with papillary thyroid cancer in August 2007. Her doctor noticed a lump on her neck and scheduled some initial tests that came back negative.

“My doctor told me that nine times out of 10 it’s nothing,” Rodgers said. “And, of course, I went home and did what they tell you not to – I Googled it.”

The fears stoked by that web search were realized when further tests showed the presence of cancer.

Later that month she had surgery to remove her thyroid. However, a follow-up scan showed residual cancer in her neck, so additional surgery – which included the removal of lymph nodes in the area – was performed.

She lost her voice for four months as a result of the surgery and was reduced to writing on a dry-erase board whenever she had to communicate above a whisper.

And while she struggled with the hormonal effects of losing her thyroid, Rodgers said she learned following a scan in late November of that year that her cancer was gone.

“Still, when I see what other people have to go through I feel bad that I had it so easy,” she said.

Rodgers’ son, Kale, who was 6 or 7 at the time, said he has no recollection of his mom’s ordeal.

‘Rocket’ burns bright

The same cannot be said for the cancer that took his father, “Rocket” Randy Rodgers, whose nickname was earned through his exploits on the local stock car racing circuit.

Kale, who is now 17 and will be a senior at Badger High School in Lake Geneva this fall, was 12 when his father died in 2013.

He said he most remembers and appreciates the brutal honesty with which his parents discussed the cancer prognosis and the way his father conducted himself right up until the end.

“(I remember) just him always being happy,” Kale said. “He was always the same no matter what he was going through.

“I always tell people: ‘Whatever you need, I can help you,’” he said. “I get that from my dad. He took care of me.”

His mother agreed.

“(Kale) could be walking around with a chip on his shoulder, but he chose not to,” she said, “and a lot of that credit goes to his dad.”

Stephanie Rodgers said her husband endured an odyssey with an insidious and unforgiving form of brain cancer known as glioblastoma. The cancer forms the fingers of a hydra and plays hide and seek with doctors’ efforts to find and eliminate it from the deep folds of the brain.

 

Kale Rodgers joins his father, Randy, for a photo while Randy recovers from a stroke suffered following surgery to remove a brain tumor.

 

It began with a headache

Randy Rodgers’ ordeal began with a headache that lasted a week and forced him to call his wife in tears and tell her, “I can’t take it anymore.”

An emergency room visit followed by a CT scan revealed the tumor that irrevocably changed the course of the family’s life.

“I knew it was bad when the doctor wheeled over close to us and pulled the curtain closed,” Stephanie Rodgers said. “You feel like you’re watching from the outside. We had all kinds of family plans, but that day our lives changed.”

Three days later Randy had surgery at St. Luke’s Medical Center in Milwaukee to remove as much of the tumor as possible but not before he shaved his head despite being told he’d be able to keep most of his hair since the tumor was on the right front of his head.

“Sunday morning we walked into his hospital room and he was bald,” Stephanie Rodgers said. “He said, ‘I think I can pull it off.’”

“He was pretty cute bald,” Stephanie said. “I’m not gonna lie to you.”

The initial prognosis following surgery was that Randy would have three to four years to live. However, after the cancer was confirmed as glioblastoma, that prediction was changed to 11 months.

What followed was a course of oral chemotherapy and 30 radiation treatments.

“He felt pretty good, but toward the end of the radiation, you could tell he was tired,” Stephanie said.

Through it all Randy continued to work at his family’s business and maintained his sense of humor, his wife said.

A living example

Kale Rodgers said he admired the way his dad continued on as if nothing was wrong.

“It always seemed that he was fine,” he said.

The beginning of the end came on March 12, 2012, when Randy lost control of his legs, fell and had to be helped to the couch by Kale.

“He called me at work and the first thing he said was, ‘Don’t panic,’” Stephanie recounted. “Of course I panicked. I had 30 minutes left at work and he wouldn’t let me come home until I was done.”

The tumor had regrown and was again pushing on his brain. His medical team responded with chemo infusions and gamma knife radiation through that following summer. But a follow-up scan showed that it failed to stop the tumor’s growth.

The family opted for another surgery in the hopes of buying additional quality time. But Randy suffered a massive stroke following the surgery and lost control of the left side of his body.

“That was life-changing,” Stephanie said. “I was 40 years old and they told me I had to find long-term care for my 42-year-old husband.”

Randy spent 7.5 weeks in rehab at St. Luke’s, learning to feed himself and eventually learning to walk again with the use of a cane and a gait belt for support.

“That’s when everything set in,” Stephanie said. “He realized he was never going to be the same.”

 

Stephanie and Kale Rodgers share a milestone moment – photos prior to Kale’s junior prom – last spring. It’s been five years since they lost husband and father, Randy Rodgers, to cancer.

 

Focus on quality time

But that didn’t quash Randy’s sense of humor. That fall, as hunting season approached, Randy spent a considerable amount of time trying to figure out how to rig his wheelchair to an ATV so he could spend some time in the woods, according to Stephanie.

“The stroke was a blessing in disguise,” she said. “We decided not to pursue any more treatment and decided to focus on quality over quantity.”

It allowed Stephanie and Kale to focus on the man they loved in the home they made together.

“You just want to spend every minute with him you can,” Kale said. He fondly recalls eating waffles nearly every day because that’s what his dad wanted.

As the Christmas season approached in 2012, Randy leaned over and told his 12-year-old son, “I’m gonna have to go soon.”

Several days later, at a family holiday gathering, Stephanie saw tears running down Randy’s face as he ate what would be his final Christmas meal.

“Rocket” Randy Rodgers died on Feb. 23, 2013.

“I wouldn’t change a thing,” Stephanie said through her own tears. “A lot of people don’t get a chance to have the kind of love we had.

“Through the worst times in our lives, we found the good.”

Every day, as she looks at her son, Stephanie sees glimpses of her late husband. “People ask me if that’s hard.

“I think it’s a gift.”

 
 

1 Comment

  1. Mary Kay Erickson says:

    What a beautiful heartfelt story. You are an amazing young woman. Such an inspiration to others. Know how you have made your family so proud.

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