By MARK BELCHER
She broke out crying, honored to be offered an honorary chair position at the local relay for life event, a position typically held by a cancer survivor.
OBSERVER Photos by Mark Belcher
Top: A sea of purple shirts represent the 150 survivors who came to march for a cure.
Above: Jill Schwertfeger and her son Joshua lead the survivors lap.
"But I'm not a survivor yet," she said.
"Honey? You're a survivor the second you're diagnosed," they responded.
Jill Schwertfeger, 32, accepted the honorific position gratefully, agreeing to tell her story to the thousands who would soon hear it.
Schwertfeger was diagnosed with papillary thyroid cancer early this January, after she felt a lump in her neck she brushed off as a bruise in November.
"I decided to go to the doctor November 29," she said. "The tumor was about five centimeters, roughly the size of a softball, in the side of my neck."
She had headaches which prompted her to see the doctor. She eventually was sent to Roswell Park Cancer Institute, where she had surgery.
"For me the actual cancer was not painful, except it just felt like a bruise on my neck," she said. "The emotional aspect was so overwhelming. I would break into tears throughout the day for the first three weeks."
Schwertfeger, a mother of two, was shocked when she found out the tumor had burst inside her neck, infecting the tissues around it with cancer.
It wasn't the only complication, as she found out her vocal chords had also been damaged in the surgery. A complication the doctors told her was rare.
"It was just pure fear right away," she said. "I'm not a smoker, we very rarely drink and we live a very healthy lifestyle."
She said she decided never to let the cancer, which put her and her husband, a Fredonia fire fighter, through a hellish time which isn't yet over, take over her body.
"I'm fighting for my children, my family and a cure," Schwerfeger said.
And she did fight. She returned for a radioactive iodine treatment, and the radiation is still in her. For nearly a week after, she couldn't see her children Joshua, 1, or Emily, 4, leaving her husband Michael, 40, to take care of the family.
"It has been a very trying year," she said. "I'm trying not to live day-by-day worrying."
She considers herself lucky however, her doctors say one radioactive iodine treatment should work in one dose, but she won't know for months if the cancer is gone.
The disease rocked her world, forcing her to take a semester off of graduate school for becoming a teacher, and changing her body.
"I get very tired. It changed my body. I had to learn to slow down a little, after all, I have no thyroid," she said. "I'm constantly cold and I have temperament chances."
The substitute teacher of 11 years at Fredonia High School said despite all the changes, she was brought back to earth recently, showing her the true meaning of the American Cancer Society's motto, a world with more birthdays and less cancer.
On May 6, she turned 32. She spent her birthday with her family, and she said she is eternally grateful.
"I did have another birthday, and I now plan on spreading awareness about thyroid cancer, and all cancers," she said.
Schwertfeger said she watched a news segment while she was in the hospital saying thyroid cancer is up nine percent in the western new york area. She couldn't believe that fact, and she started her own relay for life team.
Rescue a life, a 19 member team, formed roughly three months ago, and has raised nearly $3,500 for the relay for life event.
"This brought a whole new meaning to relay for life," the seven year relay participant said. "I've always appreciated everyone who helps with the event, but walking on the track this year is going to be a humbling experience for me."
She said she couldn't do it without her family and her support system. She said she couldn't be more grateful for Kim and Darrell Waag, her caregivers. Kim was also chosen to be the relay for life's honorary caregiver for the Saturday event.
"I feel like my soul has changed a little bit. I was a fairly oriented person to start, but I feel my soul really has changed," she said about her time to give back. "I want to give everybody everything I can. I'm just so fortunate that I've been named a survivor."
Schwertfeger told her story Saturday morning, giving her honorary chairperson speech. Although she isn't through her own fight yet, she said her life is changed, and she has advice to offer.
"Still stay true to who you are, don't let a disease start to define you," she said. "Reach out to family and friends for emotional support. We're all at relay to fight the fight, collectively we are hoping to find a cure."
She said if it does one thing for you, the disease will change you. Not always for the worse.
"It'll make you reconnect yourself with your family, friends and God," she said. "Cancer makes everybody stronger."