My Hero

Joanne Mehos Elliott 11/29/1950- 03/01/2009

    My mother, my mentor, my best friend.  I love you and miss you.  I strive to make you proud of the choices I make and the person I become, because you are my role model.

    Joanne Mehos was born in IN to Rose and Sam Mehos.  She lived a comfortable life with her only sister, Deedee (our nickname for her).  Joanne was born with a condition called Moebius Syndrome.  Her childhood was not always filled with joy as she had to overcome ignorance from others.  But she persevered and became a successful well-adjusted professional, wife and mother to two children.

    In 2004, she was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer.  I remember calling her on a Wednesday morning.  I knew she was going to have a suspicious lump checked out.  Our family was familiar with breast lumps as I had had 3 benign lumps between the ages of 15 and 19.  We didn't know to worry because we had had such good fortune with lumps.  But this lump would prove to rearrange our entire lives.  She welled up with tears as I asked her if it was cancer.  And I welled up with tears as I asked the hardest question I have ever had to ask, "Are you going to die."  She confidently responded, "No, not yet anyway."  See that, that is her spirit shining through.

    She fought hard for an entire year.  Her journeys were never easy.  This was not an exception.  Her first hurdle; implanting a port in her chest to receive chemotherapy.  The surgeon punctured her lung and a 30 minute outpatient procedure turned into three days in the hospital to ensure oxygen hadn't leaked into her bloodstream.  Follow this up with an infection in her port site that required immediate removal and extensive wound care for a gaping hole in her chest.  Followed by trying to receive caustic chemotherapy via IV for 6 months.  Regardless of her apparent setbacks, Joanne fought with courage and character.  She never missed work, she never complained, I don't even think she cried.  Ever. 

    She fought, and she won.  Life was restored, well, sort of.  She still had dozens of tests, blood tests for markers, MRIs, scans, etc.  Throughout her year in remission, Joanne witnessed both of her children get married and both of her children move away from home to places halfway and all the way across the country.  Her journey was not over however; in fact breast cancer was just the prologue.

    In June 2006 Joanne made what I am sure was one of the hardest calls she had to make.  She called me at 7am in the morning.  I was off for the summer from my teaching career (first year) and I was teaching swim lessons daily.  This call was out of the ordinary and I knew immediately there was a problem.  She called to tell me that in her last MRI a mass in her pelvis was spotted.  They didn't have any information but to say that it didn't look good.  It could have been metastasized breast cancer or worse, a new cancer, ovarian cancer.

    I flew home immediately to help her.  She would need a total radical abdominal hysterectomy.  We waited for what seemed like an eternity in the hospital waiting room.  The surgeon finally come out to tell us that this cancer was in fact ovarian cancer; stage three, in her lymph nodes.  I was devastated.  We realized quickly what this meant.  There was only a 50% survival rate for the first 5 years after diagnosis.  This was far worse than breast cancer and far more serious.  At this point, I knew that my life across the country had to relocate back home.  I needed these years with my mother.  I needed them for me as well as for her.

    She came out of surgery like a champ!  She was up and moving in hours and back to her normal energetic self in days.  The chemo this time was similar to breast cancer.  It made her very tired but not ill.  Within months she was officially in remission.  Her team had mentioned a genetic test available to women and men with certain cancers.  It was a mutation of a segment of chromosome that indicated high rates of particular cancers before the age of 50 and 70.  This mutation could come in two forms.  BRCA1 and BRCA2.  My mother was all for the test.  Her results were positive for BRCA2.  This meant that she has about an 85% of developing breast cancer before age 70 and a 30% chance of ovarian cancer in the same age range.  Clearly, she has already experienced both of the statistics first hand.  This might be where I would say my journey begins. 

    My mom enjoyed 8 months of remission before having a reappearance of her ovarian cancer in 2008.  During her remission, her own mother passed away of pancreatic cancer.  Before her death she was also tested for BRCA mutations.  She as well was positive for BRCA2.  In looking back to my grandmother's mother, she died of breast cancer.  And while the testing was not available to her, the assumption is that this mutation has passed through these generations impacting all these women.  In addition to my grandmother, my grandmother's sisters developed breast and ovarian cancer respectively.  On a positive note, Joanne enjoyed the birth of her first two grandchildren during her remission as well.  Joanne's grandchildren were the light of her life.  I think they gave her hope and a chance to experience another milestone in what one might deem a full life.

    With the second coming of Joanne's ovarian cancer in 2008, life again took a tailspin.  We were so used to her beating cancer.  This time, we learned about "maintenance chemo" and controlling the spread.  "Cure" was no longer a word to describe her cancer.  She remained vigilant in her approach to her care.  She attended all appointments while continuing to work full time.  She enjoyed the time she had with grandchildren and her own children.  She again never missed a day of work, never stopped laughing and rarely complained of even the inconvenience of weekly treatment.

    Early in 2009, Joanne's team made the decision to stop treatment.  Chemotherapy impacts a person's immune system.  It impacts a person's quality of life.  There comes a time when the benefits no longer justify the risks and side effects.  Sadly, that time had come.  Joanne refused to believe it at first.  She campaigned for clinical trials at local research hospitals.  Ultimately, our family prepared to care for her at home.  She started the retirement process, hospice started visiting, and she started losing the ability to perform daily tasks.  Her third and fourth grandchildren were on the way, but before their birth, Joanne passed away at home, surrounded by her husband and family March 1st 2009 12:40am.

    Joanne's legacy is one of tenacious energy and generosity.  She had the strength of a lion but the heart of a teddy bear.  She was poised and dignified in everything she did and is remembered offten and missed daily.

Moments Missed:
  1. May 27, 2009- Birth of grandson via natural childbirth
  2. June 5, 2009- Birth of grandson via VBAC
  3. October 2009- Daughter spoke at Komen 3 Day Walk to 3,000 walkers and thousand more crew
  4. December 2010- Son graduates with double Engineering degrees
  5. May 2011- Daughter graduates with a Masters of Education
  6. May 2012- Daughter chairs the Relay for Life and raises over $60,000 for the American Cancer Society
  7. June 2012- Granddaughter graduates from Pre-school
  8. September 2012- Granddaughters both start kindergarten
  9. March 2013- Daughter Speakers on the radio-thon for the Relay for Life
  10. May 2013- Daughter runs first half marathon
  11. September 2013- Daughter competes in first triathlon