Freshman year can be a challenging time for any college student, but to know a loved one at home is facing the battle of a lifetime can be especially daunting for a first year student. During this holiday season, Upper Iowa University freshman Erin Drahozal returns to Cedar Rapids knowing that the entire Drahozal family continues to draw strength from friends of her hometown and UIU communities as her mother, Kelly, fights stage 4 melanoma.
A CR Xavier Catholic High School senior when her mom was first diagnosed in January 2015 with breast cancer, Erin said the Xavier community immediately stepped forward in displaying its support; best friends made t-shirts and the basketball team of which she was a member adopted a new color in its color wheel – pink.
“How my family and I coped with this was not easy. While my oldest brother, John, was away at college, I was the oldest child at home. My younger brothers Nick and Joey looked up to me and I knew I had to show them a lot of strength,” admitted Erin. “I thought if I could convince myself I was okay, they could convince themselves that they felt the same. I got up the next morning after my mom was diagnosed and went to school; something they did not expect. Once my brothers saw I was okay, they pretended to feel the same.”
After months of treatment and a double mastectomy in August, the family thought Kelly had possibly beaten the cancer. Unfortunately, it was during a follow-up appointment with her doctor that she and her husband of 25 years, Joe, were informed that it was not breast cancer she suffered from, but rather melanoma.
“I have had two really low times in the past year. The first being on Martin Luther King Day when I was informed that I had breast cancer and I tried to formulate a plan on how to tell my husband and kids,” said Kelly. “The second time was the follow-up appointment. Joe and I literally sat there with our mouths agape staring at the doctor when he made the diagnosis. I don’t think we even comprehended what he was saying. I just remember staring and not really believing it.
“We went into the appointment believing it would be one of the last days we would be seeing these doctors. Only to realize we would be starting all over again in a fight against a new type of cancer,” she added. “There are really no words to describe the complete high we went into that meeting with and the complete, devastating low that we exited with. We sat there stunned, cried, and tried to comprehend our next moves as the doctors recommended the next medical treatment plan. I honestly don’t remember the drive home.”
“After the surgery, I wholeheartedly thought the fight was over,” interjected Erin. “No more doctor visits, no more hospital bills, no more waiting rooms, no more five hour chemotherapy treatments, no more…Then when my mother called and told me we were about to start the whole process over, it was a shot to the heart. We were so close to ending this battle, but we were not close enough.”
A former residential correctional officer and paraeducator, Kelly was referred to the University of Iowa Cancer Center for treatment of melanoma in September of 2015. The 48-year-old was admitted into a trial drug segment that had some great results for stage 4 metastatic melanoma. The cancer has since spread from the armpit/lymph node area to the upper chest on her right side.
Kelly recently started treatment with a trial drug, which requires her to take six pills in the morning and another six at night. She also undergoes immunotherapy once every three weeks; a routine that could go on for years as long as her body tolerates the drug.
“I seriously don’t believe I have a choice but to fight and go on with this disease. It will NOT shape who I am or what I stand for or decide how I look and perceive each and every day,” Kelly stressed. “I’m not so depressed that I have cancer as much as being totally peeved I have it. I still have a lot of things to do and am not going to let a cancer diagnosis take away my will to achieve all of this. I seriously can’t wait for all my kids to graduate, get married, and I have beautiful grandchildren to spend time with. I plan on being around for all of that.”
Added support from Peacock family
On the Fayette campus, Erin quickly discovered she would not be going through this trying time alone. A member of the Peacock softball team, the English/psychology major has been overwhelmed by the amount of love and kindness she has received from people she met only four short months ago.
When Erin committed to play softball at UIU, head coach Amanda Bradberry made “Team Kelly” T-shirts for the Peacock players. In addition to consistently providing words of encouragement and support, Erin’s teammates and roommates continue to provide hugs on those especially tough nights.
Meanwhile, UIU Residence Life student assistants Bethani Jacobsen of Wauconda, Ill., and Luis Ravelo of Turmero, Aragua, Venezuela, recently hosted an evening to celebrate Kelly’s immeasurable strength. While enjoying cookies and refreshments, resident students of South Village One were invited to sign a poster dedicated to breast cancer awareness, which was given to Erin and her family.
“The support shown to my family and me by the Upper Iowa community is second to none. I am so grateful to go to a school such as this; one that shows me so much love, care, kindness, and gives me so much strength,” said Erin. “Through the support and prayers of family, friends, and both the Cedar Rapids and Upper Iowa communities, my mother has been provided the faith and willpower to defeat this disease. My family greatly appreciates anyone and anything that supports finding the cure for cancer.”
“I thank God that UIU has been a place that my daughter has taken to heart and feels so incredibly comfortable in. She loves it there,” added Kelly. “I take so much comfort in the fact that she has is surrounded by so many good people; classmates, coaches, professors, and the residents of Fayette.
“We are definitely at ease with Erin being away from home and out of our constant view. When I do see her, she is smiling, happy, confident, and telling us consistently how much she loves it at Upper Iowa. That is a huge weight off our minds and hearts,” concluded her proud mother. “I miss her every day, but I am happy in her choice in furthering her education and life experiences, while being a part of the wonderful Peacock family.”
Planning to attend law school after graduating from UIU, Erin now realizes time is the most valuable thing a person can provide to another human being. While sometimes wishing she could put a close to this chapter in her life, Erin is grateful this holiday season that her mother’s diagnosis has opened her eyes to what really matters – being surrounded by the people you love and who also love you.