VALPARAISO — Jessica Wells was in her mid-20s when she learned she had Stage 3 colon cancer.
She quickly realized that the cancer support system is designed either for kids or the elderly.
Luckily she had friends, family and community members who came together to raise more than $10,000 for her care. But she wondered what happens to people who aren’t so fortunate.
So just five months after her cancer went into remission, Wells started a charity, the Wishing Wells Cancer Foundation, dedicated to assisting cancer patients in their 20s and 30s.
“That age range seems to be the most critical time in your life,” said Wells, 27. “It’s the time you don’t have your parents there to support you and you’re trying to make something of yourself: build a career, build a family, have children.”
Young female cancer survivors also have to deal with the fact that, because of their chemotherapy, they may never be able to have children naturally. Wells went through in-vitro fertilization, an expensive proposition not covered by insurance. She ended up getting pregnant on her own. Her son, Michael, was born in June.
Additionally, it’s hard for working-age adults to have to stay home because they’re sick. “You feel alone, like everyone else is successful and having careers,” she said.
Her foundation is hosting its second annual Party in the Park fundraiser Aug. 19 in Valparaiso’s Central Park. The beneficiary of the inaugural event, which raised more than $16,000, was Melissa Kinder, a Valparaiso mother who was diagnosed with Stage 3 colon cancer at the age of 30.
When Kinder had gastrointestinal bleeding two years ago, her doctor told her not to be concerned, that she was too young for it to be cancer. But Kinder got a second opinion and was referred to a specialist. She ended up having 18 inches of her colon removed, followed by nine months of chemotherapy.
“My surgeon says in another six months I would have been dead,” she said. “I’d been dealing with the symptoms for over a year. If I hadn’t been prudent and gotten a second opinion, my son would be growing up without a mom.”
She was told the chemo would likely destroy her ovaries, so she had her eggs frozen. Even so, like Wells, she was able to conceive naturally; her daughter is due on Halloween.
Kinder, 32, said it was difficult to do chemotherapy while raising a 1-year-old. Her youth didn’t make the treatments any less unbearable. She also may never be able to work again because of the damage from the chemo.
“I have severe neuropathy. My feet don’t work. My hands don’t work. So I struggle with daily activities,” she said. “It’s hard to find support. People think you’re young and you should be fine.”
She said the gift from Wishing Wells Cancer Foundation helped greatly, allowing her to pay off medical bills and make up some of the drop in income from having to be on disability.
Wells hopes to raise enough money at her second fundraiser to help more than one survivor.
“It’s not common for, say, a 25-year-old to be faced with cancer,” she said. “It’s definitely more shocking than when it’s someone in their 50s or 60s, working toward retirement. We’re still trying to get on our feet at that age and support and create a family.”
That’s something that Wells has been able to do. And she hopes to help other survivors do as well.