Alicia Rayner has learned a lot about cancer in the last few years. She can quote you statistics. She call tell you about the science. But the most important thing she has come to know did not come from a doctor or a medical journal. It came from within.
“I have learned on this journey you have to have a positive outlook if you are going to make it,” said Rayner, who grew up in Highland.
And Rayner is unequivocally upbeat. You need look no further than her smile. It’s beaming — and constant. And attitude is more powerful than any drug, she said.
“It is about beating the odds and surviving because I have so much to live for each and every day,” she said.
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Most might recognize Rayner by her maiden name, Flath. She graduated from HHS in 1995 to pursue her dream of teaching, which she says was influenced by her mother, Shirley.
“I have to thank my mom for my love of teaching,” Rayner said. “My mom was in education, and I always loved working with her. She and I would do different presentations at different conferences together.”
After high school, she graduated from Western Illinois University with a bachelor’s degree in elementary education. She earned a master’s in administration from Roosevelt University, near Chicago. She took a job teaching in Highland in 1999 and taught here four years in before moving to Libertyville, Ill., where she taught from 2003 to 2007. She met her husband, Tim, while teaching there. The two married in 2007, and moved to Woodland District 50 in Gurnee, Ill., where they currently live and teach.
Life was good for Rayner. She had the career she wanted, and the family she wanted. She and her husband have two small boys, Caleb and Jacob.
But things took a dramatic turn in 2013.
“I realized I was having pain back in 2013. I just started developing pain in my abdomen. I kind of put it off from September to December,” she said. “When we were coming back from visiting my sister in Houston, I decided I needed to go to the doctor.”
Rayner went to a gynecologist the following January, and it didn’t take doctors long to figure out something was wrong. They performed an MRI and discovered something no one wanted to find — a tumor.
“At this point, they weren’t sure if it was cancer, because my type of cancer is rare,” Rayner said. “The tumor was about the size of a softball in January.”
That’s when things went from bad to worse. She was scheduled to have surgery in February. But right before she was set to go under, the doctor delivered news she’ll never forget.
“They did another scan, and it had grown to the size of a small basketball,” Rayner said. “I could tell because the pain was increasing.”
Rayner was diagnosed with leiomyosarcoma, a rare type of cancer that affects the connective or supportive tissues of the body. It attacks bone, cartilage, fat, muscle, and blood vessels, and can invade and metastasize other organs of the body, forming secondary tumors. Doctors told Rayner the cancer had progressed to stage 4 and had spread to her lungs.
With the increase in size, doctors were unsure if they would be able to remove it. If they couldn’t, Rayner would have to start chemotherapy. After hours in the operating room, the cancer was removed, but not all of it. A few spots were left in her lungs and other surrounding organs.
But that’s when she says God intervened.
“God just had a plan all lined up,” Rayner said.
Her sister, Alanna, is a doctor in Houston, where the MD Anderson Cancer Center is located. The center specializes in leiomyosarcoma treatments.
“My sister told me to come down to Houston, because this cancer is so rare. So I flew down six weeks after surgery,” Rayner said. “Every six weeks, I have to fly down to Texas for treatment, and I’m so thankful my sister and her family live there, so I have a place to stay.”
She started chemotherapy in the summer of 2014.
For the past two years, she’s flown to Texas for treatment, which has included six different types of chemo.
“I did one, but you can only tolerate it for so long before you start experiencing side effects,” she said.
The travel is expensive. Ticket prices range from $150 to $800. But she said the amount of support she’s gained has been phenomenal.
“There are so many people who have helped me,” she said.
Her aunt and uncle, Neal and Marlene Scholl, and her cousins have been tremendous, she said.
“Even high school friends here in Highland have, too,” she said.
Things were looking up for for a while, at least until doctors realized the tumor Rayner was fighting wasn’t shrinking.
Rayner was a part of two different clinical trials, but the tumor just wouldn’t stop growing.
“The minute I was off treatment, (it would come back),” Rayner said.
And with this form of cancer, metastasis to other organs is a real danger.
With the disease still advancing, a different course of action was required. But it would mean surgery, again.
“At first, they didn’t want me to go through some radical surgery and total change my quality of life,” she said.
But there was no choice. Rayner started radiation in preparation of another operation. This time, she stayed with her sister for three full months, from December 2015 through February 2016. That’s when her miracle happened.
“They didn’t anticipate it to shrink. The doctors just wanted to sterilize pelvic region for surgery, but it shrunk a centimeter, which was shocking,” she said.
She went home for six weeks, like she had in the past, hoping and praying God would somehow give her another miracle.
The surgeons were crying. It truly was a miracle.
Alicia (Flath) Rayner, cancer survivor
“At this point, the only way to remove the tumor and get clean margins was to remove my entire bladder, part of my intestines, and my right kidney,” Rayner said. “The doctors told us either we do it now or we can’t at all.”
It didn’t take her anytime to decide. The doctors put her under and prepared for an 11-hour surgery.
Sitting outside the waiting room, her family and friends waited and prayed. After a few hours, one of the four surgeons operating on Rayner came out to deliver the news. They were able to remove the tumor and save all her organs.
“The surgeons were crying. It truly was a miracle,” Rayner said.
Looking to the future
Rayner still has years of treatment left. She is still flying to Texas every six weeks, but right now, she’s on top of the world.
She said the support of her family, friends and faith have carried her through the past three years and continue to inspire her.
“The Highland community had fundraisers for me, and even though I don’t live here anymore, they still had a prayer vigil for me,” Rayner said. “The doctors say I’m healing well.”
And she has advice for anyone else going through tough times like she is.
“It’s alright to accept help and rely on family and friends,” she said. “Have faith and pray. Be still and you will look and see signs. Joshua 1:9 got me through the tough times. It says, ‘Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.’ ”
About Relay for Life
When/Where: July 8 at Glik Park in Highland.
What is Relay for Life? The event will feature a variety of activities and competitions to raise funds for the American Cancer Society.
For more information: Contact Joy Krouper at 618-409-7864 or firstname.lastname@example.org.