Debbie Yeager was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma, a rare form of cancer, in May after she found a swollen lymph node in her neck. Now, she's undergoing months of chemotherapy treatments before radiation. Even though she's scared, Yeager said the disease has helped her appreciate things she'd taken for granted before.

Photo by Michelle Balleck

Debbie Yeager was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma, a rare form of cancer, in May after she found a swollen lymph node in her neck. Now, she's undergoing months of chemotherapy treatments before radiation. Even though she's scared, Yeager said the disease has helped her appreciate things she'd taken for granted before.

'More than hair'

Cancer patient sees past cosmetic drawbacks to see beauty in life

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— She thought she was ready.

When Debbie Yeager asked her husband, Bryan, to shave her head, she thought she was ready.

Ready to no longer find clumps of hair on her pillowcase.

Ready to stop clogging the drain.

Ready to see herself in a new way.

Yeager was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma, a rare form of cancer, in May. Following her first chemotherapy treatment, her hair was falling out by the handful. Her part was an inch wide.

"I figured I'd be proactive instead of reactive, so I had my husband shave my head," Yeager said. But, "I didn't want to look in the mirror after I was done.

"When I finally did, I said, 'Wow, you have cancer. You're sick.' That's when it really hit me."

After trying hot, itchy wigs, Yeager decided she preferred baseball caps to keep her head warm and avoid attracting attention. Now she's come to terms with her changing appearance.

"There are so many things more important in life than hair," Yeager said. "If my hair never grows back, I'll be OK with it.

"I think that's why cancer is a blessing. It makes you see those things you take for granted every day."

'Scared to death'

But having cancer certainly has not been a pleasant experience.

Yeager, 29, a former Moffat County High School biology teacher, decided to stay home with her children, Tanner, 16 months, and Kassie, 3 1/2, about a year before she found the first lump in her neck.

"I wasn't worried at all," Yeager said. "Lymph nodes swell up all the time."

When she went in for a regular check-up six weeks later, doctors soon identified six apricot-sized lymph nodes in her neck and two apple-sized lymph nodes in her chest.

"Everyone tells you to be positive," Yeager said. "But it's hard because I'm scared to death."

Doctors have tempered those fears somewhat by letting her know she's responding well to chemotherapy treatments, which will be followed by a month of radiation this fall.

"I feel I am so lucky I have Hodgkin's instead of another kind of cancer because it's one of the most curable forms of cancer," Yeager said.

However, being on a "toxic cocktail" of four kinds of chemo - one of which Yeager is allergic to - is not fun, she said.

"I'm in there five hours getting pumped full of stuff," Yeager said.

The treatments often rob Yeager of her energy and appetite for as long as four days each time.

Mom to the rescue

This lack of energy - she can barely move from the bed to the couch - prevents Yeager from spending more time with her children.

So, Yeager's mother, Jane Emberty, from Flagstaff, Ariz., has been filling in. Emberty was visiting her daughter in May when she got her diagnosis.

"I was surprisingly calm," Emberty said of her reaction to the news. "I knew the kind of person she is. She'd get through it no matter what. She has so many things to live for."

Emberty had planned to stay five days. She stayed a month.

After a short visit home to bring more clothes and secure her house, Emberty returned and now intends to stay through the last of Yeager's chemotherapy treatments.

She cares for Kassie and Tanner, preparing meals, playing outside and bathing them whenever Yeager is too sick to do those things herself.

The children seem to understand what's happening, Yeager said. They will lie in bed with her when she's ill, giving her hugs and kisses.

"That's nice just to have that sense of Mom's still here and Mom still loves you even though she's sick," Yeager said.

'Come together and unite'

Kassie plans to show her mother she's still there for her, too, by joining her in the survivors' lap during Craig's first Relay for Life on Friday and Saturday at Moffat County High School.

Emberty will assist her daughter, who's participating two days after another dose of chemo, on the lap, as well.

Emberty, a 10-year survivor of breast cancer, participates in the seven-mile Climb the Mountain in Flagstaff each year. And despite the pain or fatigue of the hike, Emberty said participants press on.

"Very similar to what the treatment is - whatever happens, you just keep going," Emberty said.

So, she's happy to see Craig host the similar Relay for Life event, and she's happy to see that Yeager is being so candid about her disease, something Emberty was not.

"She is very open about it, which has helped her cope with it and the whole family cope with it, as well," Emberty said.

Yeager's older sister has supported her by cutting and donating her hair to Locks of Love, which supplies wigs to children with diseases causing long-term hair loss. Her younger sister used her business contacts to get a custom design made with angel wings and a "4D" to signify "for Debbie."

That design will be featured on about 100 hats the family is having made to give to those who have stood behind Yeager during her treatment. The family asks for a donation to the American Cancer Society in return.

Emberty said that's the family's symbol that hope can come from cancer.

"It's not sad," Emberty said. "Everything has a purpose, and to see everyone come together and unite, that's what it's all about."

Michelle Perry can be reached at 824-7031, ext. 213, or mperry@craigdailypress.com.

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