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Beating cancer gave Highland woman a new outlook on life

Bobbi Etherton is used to handling things.

As a senior design engineer at Basler Electric, she designs transformers for heating and air conditioning systems. As a wife and mother of two girls, she devotes her time and energy to caring for her family, running a household and getting the girls to their activities.

But when she heard those words, "You have cancer," she discovered a whole new set of things to handle.

"I felt numb when the doctor told me," said Etherton, 42, of Highland. "I immediately felt as though I had lost all control over my life. I worried about my girls growing up without me."

Her family members, especially husband Steve and daughters Kelsey and Bree, were just as concerned.

"They felt helpless because there was nothing they could do to take the cancer away," she said. "My daughters, then age 6 and 13, were frightened in the beginning just hearing the word 'cancer,' but the more I was able to share with them, the easier it became because I was very open with both of my girls."

Fortunately, when Etherton was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma in August 2007, it was in an early stage, and she was able to get treatment needed to eliminate the tumor.

She is now in remission and planning to attend the American Cancer Society Relay For Life of Highland on Friday with hundreds of other cancer survivors and their caregivers. Etherton, a Highland native, encourages everyone to attend the event at the Highland High School stadium and show their support for area cancer survivors and the fight against cancer.

Relay For Life of Highland is an overnight, community event featuring a variety of activities, food, music and competitions to raise $100,000 for the American Cancer Society, celebrate the lives of those who have battled cancer, remember loved ones lost to cancer and raise awareness of cancer and ways to try to prevent the disease. During the Relay, each team keeps at least one member walking on the track until the closing ceremony at 6 a.m. Saturday.

Cancer survivors and their caregivers are invited to a free dinner at 5 p.m. Saturday at Highland High School. The opening ceremony and survivors lap are at 7 p.m. Another highlight is the luminaria ceremony at 9 p.m. to honor survivors and caregivers and remember those who lost the battle with cancer.

The same Relay for Life events will be held Friday at Belleville West High school in Belleville. The Belleville dinner for cancer survivors is at 4:30 p.m. Friday.

Etherton attended her first Relay For Life of Highland in July 2008 -- five months after her last chemotherapy treatment and while her hair was still growing back in. Her six months of chemo had been the fight of her life.

It all began when she was getting ready for work on the morning of Aug. 6, 2007.

"I discovered a golf ball-size lump at the base of the left side of my neck where my collarbone and neck meet," she said. "The next day, I saw my family doctor. I had a chest X-ray taken immediately and the next week a CT scan of my chest and a biopsy of the lump.

"On Aug. 16, 2007, I received the call to come to the doctor's office and this is when I heard the words 'You have cancer.'"

"The fear of not knowing how advanced my cancer was and the unknown was the most difficult," she said.

Etherton began soaking up books and online information about her disease. She joined an online support group. There was plenty of information available, much of it from the American Cancer Society.

"I was very relieved to find that my cancer had only progressed to stage two," she said. "In addition to the lump I had found, there were several other tumors behind my chest wall.

"The next step was to begin chemotherapy and possibly radiation. The thought of treatment and all its possible side effects did not bother me much at all. I was eager to get started."

During her treatments, Etherton found the support of family, friends, co-workers, church members and her employer was crucial.

The treatments were painful. Fatigue, nausea and muscle pain hit her hard. She lost her hair and eyebrows.

"During the entire six months I had good days and not so good days," she said. "The fatigue seemed to increase with each treatment. I didn't realize how exhausted I would get. I was fortunate to have a wonderful support group of friends, family, co-workers and church members.

"My husband, Steve, was my rock to learn on through the journey," she said. "He was there for me every step of the way. He accompanied me to every treatment and doctor appointments and ended up taking on much of the work around the house, including running the girls to all their practices.

"I can't imagine what it would have been like without his care and support."

Her mother, Marilyn Rickher, provided inspiration for Etherton because she herself was in remission after battling cancer. Rickher was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma three years before Etherton's diagnosis. While the two lymphomas are "like apples and oranges" with vastly different treatments, Etherton had seen her mother's treatments go well.

Etherton's youngest daughter, Bree, asked to grow out her hair and donate it to Locks of Love. "Her thoughtfulness made me very proud," Etherton said.

Daughter Kelsey pitched in to help more around the house and make a difference for their family life.

Her friend, Karen Munie, kept Etherton's spirits up as they went wig shopping.

"I am certain the lady helping us thought we were having entirely too much fun for someone just diagnosed with cancer, but it is a day I will never forget that was filled with laughter," Etherton said.

Friends brought dinner to the family during her treatments.

"This was a godsend as I had no idea how extremely tired I would be from the treatment," she said. "Many days I would go straight to bed when I came home from work."

She remembers all of those supporters through the cards stored in her "blessing basket," which was provided by friends at the beginning of the treatments.

"I kept all the cards that I received during my journey in this basket. I have read through the cards several times over the last year that I have been in remission. They remind me how blessed I am to have these people in my life."

The difficult treatments were worth it, Etherton said.

"With each treatment I could feel the tumor by my collarbone softening and shrinking. This was validation for me that the chemotherapy was working."

Etherton's last chemo treatment was Feb. 14, 2008, and a PET scan showed the cancer was gone. She did not have to go through radiation. A year later, another PET scan showed she was still cancer free.

She points to the success in fighting Hodgkin lymphoma as a reason to support the American Cancer Society and its efforts to find cures for cancer.

Now she has new insights as she continues to handle things in her life.

"I have learned now precious life is and not to take it for granted," Etherton said. "I am thankful for each day. I believe I have a better sense of what is important in my life and what isn't."