O'Fallon Progress

‘I fought hard before, but I’m fighting even harder now’

Karen Zawasky, Johnnie Jelks and Ashley King have one thing in common: they are cancer survivors. On Saturday, they met at O’Fallon’s Relay for Life.
Karen Zawasky, Johnnie Jelks and Ashley King have one thing in common: they are cancer survivors. On Saturday, they met at O’Fallon’s Relay for Life. mhodapp@bnd.com

Karen Zawasky, Ashley King and Johnnie Jelks had never met before until Saturday. But Zawasky of Shiloh, King of Scott Air Force Base and Jelks of Waterloo have one thing in common: they are cancer survivors.

On Saturday, they joined 230 people who participated in Relay for Life held at O’Fallon Township High School. The event raised $12,691 for the American Cancer Society.

Zawasky has now participated in 15 Relay for Life events.

She started to participate in the relay for her dad, who was diagnosed with colon cancer, earlier.

But about five years ago, Zawasky received some more unexpected news.

She was diagnosed with lung cancer in April of 2011.

She was re-diagnosed with lung cancer for a second time in April 2015.

Zawasky, 56, is now undergoing oral chemotherapy.

She earlier had 12 rounds of infusion theraphy that ended in September of 2015.

In the past, Zawasky also underwent radiation.

Zawasky has no idea how she got lung cancer.

“I was a healthy 51 year old woman who never smoked,” she said.

“I wasn’t short of breath and I never experienced any second hand smoke.”

Zawasky, who worked as a registered nurse, now speaks with a soft voice because she has a paralyzed vocal chord.

She has since had her left lung removed.

“I will undergo some sort of treatment the rest of her life if it continues to work,” she said.

Doctors have told her tumor has not metastasized to other parts of her body.

But Zawasky said she has a gene mutation.

She said her doctors are now trying to get her body to kill her cancer.

“That’s basically what I am doing,” she said.

Zawasky remembers going to see a doctor after her hoarse voice and fatigue wouldn’t go away.

Her doctors treated her for a number of things, before they diagnosed with lung cancer. Doctors even treated her for asthma.

She later had a bronchoscopy, a procedure that allowed her doctors to look at her airway. A biopsy later confirmed Zawasky had lung cancer.

She said her doctors have never said she is in remission.

“They don’t use that word, at least with me,” she said.

Zawasky underwent a PET (positron emission tomography) scan a few weeks ago, which revealed she still had a tumor, it however, hadn’t grown or gotten to any other place,” she said.

“That’s a good thing for me,” she said and smiled.

Zawasky said her two children were 24 and 21 when she was diagnosed with cancer.

She remembers sitting with her husband, when she told children she had cancer.

“I really didn’t cry,” she said.

But after Zawasky received herdiagnosis, she thought she might have been mistaken for someone else.

“If they told me I had any other cancer, I might have not been stunned,” she said.

After Zawasky was diagnosed the first time, she said became very quiet and introverted.

But following her second diagnosis, Zawasky is determined to beat the disease.

“I’m just fighting,” she said. “I fought hard before, but I’m fighting even harder now.”

Zawasky recalls seeing her dad, who will be 79 in December, fight and survive colon cancer.

“He is a very brave man,” she said.

The same might be said of Zawasky.

“I want to live,” she said. “I want to see my children marry and have grandchildren. “Life is precious. I want to be there.”

Ashley King was 25 years old when she was diagnosed with melanoma. She is now cancer free.

Much like Zawasky she has dreams.

She has a four year old, and is about to have another baby in a few more weeks.

“I want to be there to see them grow up,” she said.

“I’m not even 30 year, yet. I have a lot of life to live.”

King was diagnosed with stage 3 melanoma in July 2012. King said her cancer is now in remission. While she never had chemotherapy, she was given Interferon.

Interferon is given before or after surgery is standard treatment for melanoma that has spread to the lymph nodes.

King now has PET scans and C scans to make sure everything is OK.

Johnnie Jelks will be 59 in two months and is now cancer free.

After he was diagnosed with prostate cancer six years ago, he recalled being in denial.

“And I just didn’t want to believe it,” he said.

At the time of his diagnosis, Jelks thought he was healthy.

“I walked out of his doctor’s office after I received my diagnosis. My wife asked where I was going,” he said. “I told her I was going home.”

Jelks said it took about a week for his diagnosis to sink in.

It took him several months before he broke the news with his eight children.

He now credits his wife and his children for helping him fight his battle.

Jelks said he also listens to what his doctors say now.

“And I go by my heart, and do what I need to do,” he said.

But maybe most important of all, Jelks looks forward to spending time with his kids and eight grandchildren.

“And I have a daughter who is getting married next year. I have to walk her down the aisle,” he said and smiled.

Mark Hodapp: 618-239-2688