GENEVA – Michelle Gillespie stood in the bright sunshine of a warm August afternoon. Her white wedding dress glittered as she exchanged vows with her now husband, Ronald King, while about 80 friends and family cheered.
The fact that weddings happen in summertime in the outdoor chapel at Mill Creek Golf Club is not unusual, but this particular wedding, on Saturday, had special importance: Michelle King, 29, of Geneva, was supposed to get married last year in August, but about six weeks before the big day, she found a lump on the right side of her neck.
An ultrasound and pathology report confirmed it was Hodgkin lymphoma, a type of blood cancer.
So instead of a wedding, she was prepped for surgery at Loyola University Medical Center. Instead of a honeymoon, she began chemotherapy.
“It was supposed to be a very small one-inch incision. Then they got in there and … [they] took out a lymph node the size of a baseball,” King said. “I was a normal, healthy 28-year-old, and this just came out of nowhere. There were no signs, no symptoms. I don’t know how I did not feel that baseball in my neck.”
As she received chemo and lost her long blonde hair, King said she changed her outlook on life.
“I was definitely someone who would stress over little things and small things,” King said.
“Everything I thought was important and would stress out about and dwell on – this makes you realize not to take everything so seriously. Every small thing you need to have control over – you don’t need control over. Let the small things go.”
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Last year was rough in other ways for the couple.
A year before she was diagnosed, her grandfather, Kenneth Anderson of Batavia, who helped raise her, died of esophageal cancer. Then on Aug. 13, the day her chemo port was installed, her future mother-in-law, Laura Osborne, died unexpectedly in an accident in Florida.
A week later, her daughter, Kayla, then 6, was admitted to urgent care with a ruptured appendix. The little girl recovered and participated in the wedding as one of the flower girls. On Aug. 26, King started chemo and Oct. 1, her future husband was hospitalized with viral meningitis. He also recovered.
“2013 was not our year,” King said.
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But 2014 came with new hope and promise. Her last chemo was Jan. 29, and her last scan in March showed she was in remission – no sign of cancer.
She was hired for a new job she interviewed for in November to work in customer service at the front desk at the Geneva Park District.
“I was honest and upfront about it, and they agreed to hold the position for me,” Michelle King said.
She and Ronald King have been together eight years. Before her job at the park district, she was a stay-at-home mom for their daughter, Kayla.
Her now-husband, Ronald King, 30, works as a heavy equipment operator at Waste Management’s Batavia plant.
When they decided to get married and had to postpone the wedding because of the cancer, neither would back out.
Michelle King said she was determined to get married this year, cancer or not, a wig over her chemo-hair – nothing and nobody was going to stop this next step in their lives together.
Ronald King said he never had a hesitation or a second thought about proceeding with the wedding.
“From the beginning, it was a shock,” Ronald King said of Michelle’s cancer diagnosis. “You never expect something like that to happen to somebody that age.”
Michelle had quit smoking a year and a half before the diagnosis, lost weight and was committed to a more healthy lifestyle, Ronald King said. Though they would have just as soon passed on facing cancer, Ronald King said facing up to it helped them realize how strong they truely were.
“It’s helped us grow and helped us realize if we can get through this, we can get through anything,” Ronald King said. “I think she has really proven her strength – not that she had anything to prove of how strong a person she really is.”
If there was a bright spot in his illness, it was that he recovered quickly and was back to work the next week, Ronald King said.
“We were just so strong together,” Ronald King said. “It’s amazing how we got through that year.”
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Dr. Kevin Barton at Loyola University Medical Center, who treated Michelle King, said Hodgkin lymphoma peaks from age 15 to 35 and then again in the 60s and 70s.
“We don’t really know the cause,” Barton said. “The incidence is very low, about 5,000 per year in the U.S. The goal is to cure them. Having gone through the therapy, [Michelle] has a pretty high probability of being cured.”
Barton, who also is an associate professor of medicine, hematology and oncology, said Michelle’s decision to bring her story to the public can have a lifesaving effect of raising awareness of Hodgkin lymphoma – or any cancer – among young people.
“Her hope was to shine a light on this sort of thing,” Barton said. “It is important, in part, because this demographic of 20-somethings are not folks that do not have much experience going to doctors ... of getting sick and having a life-threatening disease.”
Barton said despite Michelle King not having a lot of symptoms, she went to a doctor after she found the lump. Then she went to a surgeon for a biopsy, and then saw a hematologist for evaluation and treatment.
“It’s important to try to highlight that,” Barton said. “She had the courage that is required of a relatively young person who has other things on her mind, ‘Gee, I’m getting married,’ yet still has the wherewithal to do the right thing and go through the evaluation and all the scariness that goes along with that.”
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As Michelle and Ronald King stood in front of their officiant Kevin Chapman, he noted their challenges.
“The struggles this family faced in the past year would have devastated others,” Chapman said. “But with constant encouragement from each other, they have overcome and are ready now to carry on.”
Then to the gathered crowd of family and friends, Chapman said, “Your being here is a true sign that they are loved by many.”
Amid the hugs and tears following the ceremony, Michelle King said “it was like crossing the finish line.”
“Not only am I officially married, but for me, it was to be able to get that far, it was like crossing the finish line,” Michelle King said. “One of the biggest emotional things about Saturday was not knowing a year ago if I would be able to be standing up there. I really had no idea. Everything was in question. I’m just happy to cross the finish line. I feel like I’ve come full circle.”