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The odds were mind-boggling, and the outcome heartbreaking.
In April 2013, Mike Avenarius, 42, and his wife, Jennifer, 40, were both diagnosed with cancer. They each had surgery — Mike for testicular cancer and Jennifer for melanoma.
Then, in August 2015, Jennifer was diagnosed with stage 2 Hodgkin lymphoma. In November, Mike was diagnosed with stage 2 seminoma related to his original cancer, which had spread to his stomach.
Nightmare revisited: Dubuque couple both battling cancer -- again
Jennifer has a 19-year-old son in college, and Mike and Jennifer have three boys ages 9, 8 and 5. The middle two children have special needs and other challenges.
“The odds are so against it that a couple would have cancer together,” Jennifer Avenarius said. “And, then, to do it twice in three years is insane. Even at the doctor’s office, they were like, ‘We’ve had spouses before, but not at the same time. And never like this — two times in three years.’”
Of the nearly 1.7 million people expected to be diagnosed with cancer this year in the U.S., about one in six already will have battled a different cancer, according to statistics from National Cancer Institute.
There are no statistics on couples who must cope with cancer at the same time, let alone a second time.
‘THOUGHT WE WERE DONE AND GOOD FOREVER’
About two years had passed since Mike and Jennifer’s surgeries. Their doctors were positive they had removed all cancerous tissue and recommended no further treatment.
“We thought we were done and good forever,” Jennifer said.
Life returned to normal. Then, in July, Jennifer felt a lump on her neck.
“I thought, ‘I’m getting an infection. I better go get some antibiotic,’” she said.
She went to the doctor, who sent her straight to UnityPoint Health-Finley Hospital in Dubuque.
Within two weeks, what was a little marble grew to the size of a racquetball.
Jennifer had surgery to remove part of the tumor, had a port put in her chest and started chemotherapy immediately.
Meanwhile, Mike underwent regular scans, which spotted a swelled lymph node in his stomach. He underwent surgery at the beginning of November.
Jennifer finished chemotherapy Dec. 8. Mike began his chemo the following week, on Dec. 14.
“While it’s really hard to go through chemo, it’s really, really hard to go through watching your spouse have to go through it right after you lived through it,” Jennifer said. “It’s awful watching it and not being able to do anything.”
The experience brought the couple closer together. They learned to draw upon and complement each other’s strengths and appreciate and counter-balance the weaknesses, they said.
“I’m glad I went through chemo first because I realized I’m the stronger of the two of us,” Jennifer said, to which Mike readily agreed.
He said, “After I started having treatments, I was like, ‘Oh my God, you felt this way?’ It was definitely a struggle to keep the family positive and strong. Her attitude is probably what drove us ... and what drove me to get through it.”
Jennifer brought a mascot with her to every treatment — an orange, fuzzy, stuffed monster given to her by her friends as an encouraging reminder of their love and support.
Jennifer affectionately named the lump on her neck “Hank” so her friends dubbed the stuffed doll “Frank.”
“Frank was going to eat Hank,” Jennifer explained.
When Mike underwent his own treatment, the kids bought him a stuffed porcupine to keep him company.
On her way to chemo, Jennifer also would post a video or lyrics to Rachel Platten’s “Fight Song” on Facebook.
The song become the couple’s anthem.
TRYING TO FIND ‘NORMAL’
Today, Jennifer still has bone pain from the chemo. Mike is back to normal, aside from numbness and burning sensations in his fingertips.
Jennifer received her remission diagnosis in January, and Mike in February. Both recently returned to work.
“Right now, we’re trying to find normal again, which is really hard — get our kids back in a routine again,” Jennifer said.
The family is planning a Florida vacation.
“It showed us we are meant to be together because we’ve now done this twice together,” Jennifer said. “... And it made us realize life is short and not to take it for granted.”
Both Mike and Jennifer also hope to raise awareness of the importance of early cancer detection.
“If you have a lump or bump that doesn’t feel right, don’t hesitate to go to your doctor and get it checked out,” Jennifer said. “It can get bad fast.”