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Local cancer survivor finds strength after diagnosis

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Breast cancer survivor Jennifer Wieber talks in her home recently about a scrapbook she made during her battle with cancer. — Rich Cooley/Daily

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Jennifer Wieber has collected Relay for Life survivor medals from walking the survivor’s lap each year at an event held at the Shenandoah County Fairgrounds. — Rich Cooley/Daily

By Kim Walter -- kwalter@nvdaily.com

Jennifer Wieber made a list of the 10 things she learned from having and surviving breast cancer. The list includes "I'm tough and strong when I need to be," "I have a great looking scalp," and "There's always a blessing to be found, sometimes you just have to look really hard."

Wieber was diagnosed with breast cancer in November 2003 at the age of 35. She was getting ready for bed and happened to have her right hand up in the air when she felt a lump over her right breast.

"I'd had no mammogram, no family history," she said. About two weeks later on a Friday, she was officially diagnosed over the phone.

"That weekend, until Monday when I could see Dr. Gemma and figure out what we were going to do, was very hard," she said. However, after meeting with Dr. Gemma, a plan was developed and Wieber chose to have a lumpectomy, which also meant chemotherapy and radiation.

"I made a decision that this was happening. I could either be a big baby about it and be miserable, or I could be graceful and strong," Wieber said.

The initial surgery was followed by eight chemo treatments two weeks apart and a month of radiation every weekday. Her last radiation treatment was in June 2004, making Wieber an eight year survivor this year.

The mother of two had someone -- her mother, husband or a friend -- accompany her to every treatment, which helped keep her distracted.

But the realization of her illness didn't occur to her until that first treatment, she said.

"I don't think it really hit me that I had to do this and it wasn't going to be fun until I was sitting in the chair and they were putting the IV in," she said. "It was very emotional."

Wieber said she was confident that she would see a full recovery during almost the entire process, and her Christian faith made her feel secure in that she would go to heaven if the worst was yet to come.

"The thing that really got to me that I couldn't get past was thinking about having to leave my kids," she said. "But once I really thought about it, I wasn't afraid anymore."

Her children, Audrie who was three at the time and Alex who was eight, didn't have many questions for her. However, Audrie was "very distraught" when Wieber began losing her hair. It wasn't very long to begin with, but she cut it shorter to get her daughter used to it, and eventually shaved her head instead of waiting for it to slowly fall out. Wieber bleached it blonde at one point, and only wore hats and scarves when outside her Strasburg home.

Wieber feels very lucky to have been able to stay at home and get better. She also said her insurance was a great help.

"The bags of chemo drugs were $6,000 a piece," she said. "We had an initial co-pay of $20 for Dr. Gemma, but that was it."

Since the process, Wieber has participated in Relay for Life in Shenandoah County every year. Her family stays all night, and her daughter always walks the caretaker lap with her. To start the event, Wieber walks the survivor lap, which she said is always meaningful.

"I think Relay makes cancer survivors feel special. You have a registration, special shirts and medals, and then during the survivor lap every one stands up and claps," she said. "It's one of the only times that I really feel good about [the cancer] happening."

Wieber had a second occurrence when a larger tumor was found in one of her lymph nodes five years ago. It was removed, and after a body scan, doctors found that she was completely cancer free.

Since then, Wieber has kept all her medals from Relay for Life, and has put together a thick scrapbook documenting everything from diagnosis to her last radiation treatment, via letters and photos. But these aren't things that she dwells over every day.

"It's almost embarrassing ... I thought it would be with me stronger than it is now, but maybe that's a good thing," she said.

"It's kind of a self-preservation thing. You can't worry about it every day."

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