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Finding hope, while fighting breast cancer

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Wilma Wengert, right, is pictured with her friend Nadja Göpple, who is visiting from Germany. (Alison Penn Photo)

A cancer survivor, Wilma Wengert was fortunate to experience the care she needed for breast cancer here in Roswell.

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month and, according to the SEER (Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results) Program, 12.8% of women will face this diagnosis.

Of women who are diagnosed with breast cancer, 89% do not have a family history of breast cancer involving their mother, sister or daughter, according to a study on familial breast cancers.

Wengert said a DNA test determined that she did have genetic predisposition to cancer. Since cancer was not a part of her family’s medical history, her diagnosis in September 2017 was a complete surprise. Before the stage four cancer was discovered, she described feeling as though she pulled a muscle, and the pain wouldn’t go away.

Understanding cancer was a learning curve for Wengert and she said she “learned by doing.” With new and less painful technology available, she encourages others to get mammograms for early detection as soon as possible.

All of her treatments happened in Roswell and she received her care from oncologists at Kymera Independent Physicians at 407 W. Country Club Rd. Her first of four radical chemotherapy treatments began in November two years ago, and her tumor shrank by half after the first treatment and was “undetectable” by the last one.

Following this, she had three months of regular chemotherapy, a double mastectomy, radiation and three surgeries, all while continuing to work. It was discovered in treatment that she also had kidney cancer, and she considered it fortunate to address it quickly.

Though she has lived in the United States since 2005, Wengert’s birthplace is Grafenwöhr, Germany. When Wengert told her mother, who still resides in Germany, the news of the diagnosis, she said her mother’s “mindset” was dated to about 20 years ago when cancer meant a “death sentence.”

Nadja Göppl, Wengert’s friend for over 30 years, was visiting from Germany, and attended the Daily Record’s interview with Wengert last week. Göppl was also visiting in 2017 when Wenger was diagnosed with cancer.

“Take any support that you can get,” Wengert advises cancer patients and survivors. “Your family and your friends are the most important people in your life at that time because they’re the ones that are gonna keep you upright. And if you need to have a breakdown, have a breakdown. Get it out.

“I didn’t because I told her (Göppl), I said if I’m going to start now I can’t stop, so I just didn’t. But it’s like a slap in the face. You don’t know where it’s coming from because I had nobody in my family that had cancer, so I didn’t even know what hit me at first. But you stay positive — and that’s that — and you just move on.”

As of July, Wengert’s last scan came back clean and she is currently cancer-free.

During her treatment, Wengert received some financial assistance to buy groceries from the Chaves County Cancer Fund (CCCF). The nonprofit provides financial assistance via donations to county residents faced with cancer and Wengert said CCCF was recommended by staff at Kymera. She said this was the “greatest gift,” when she was facing the financial burden of four shots costing $20,000 each and the CCCF was able to find her sponsors.

Wengert is a project coordinator and case manager at Lovelace Regional Hospital, where she works with patients on paperwork and insurance. She moved here in 2016 and has worked at Lovelace since February 2017. She said her workplace was “super supportive” during her cancer journey.

Wengert explained that Mary Kopcik, her supervisor, would send her home when she was unwell and many of her coworkers were understanding since they had experience with family members who had cancer. Some of them even donated their paid time off to Wengert.

“She was very brave,” Kopcik said. “I know she was afraid and so was her husband, but they really just decided right off the bat that they were just going to take care of it and move on. I think from my point of view it’s unfortunate that healthcare is so expensive, because that just put an additional strain on her circumstance — but she went through every aspect of that whole process with just a very strong demeanor.

“And I know she was grateful for all the support here at the hospital because everyone was always checking on her from all departments, so that was really good. But she was just very strong and I think in that position most people are — they don’t want to give up … that’s not one of the options …”

In Germany, Wengert attended trade school to be a carpenter, also studied to be an administrative assistant and worked at a customs office. She has been married to her husband for 24 years and with him for 28 years. The couple rescued two dogs two days before her cancer diagnosis and Wengert said the dogs kept her motivated during treatment. She makes jewelry and leather sheaths for the knives her husband makes.

“When I have a problem, Wilma does all that she can for me,” Göppl said and added that she does the same for her friend. Göppl described Wengert as open, lovely, full of laughter and occasionally stubborn.

Göppl’s mother, who also resides in Germany, had five friends that had breast cancer who relayed their advice from Göppl to Wengert. With the last two years behind them, Göppl said she was happy everything went well and that Wengert is still here.

“Don’t give up,” Wengert said. “Don’t ever give up. There’s always hope and love. It might look really bad, and me working in the hospital I see it a lot. It might look really bad at the moment, but with all the things that are going on right now and all the research, and whatever they all find, it is so much better now than it was 20 years ago …”

Special projects reporter Alison Penn can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 205, or at reporter04@rdrnews.com.