“Even when they were probably suffering the most, you rarely would know it. They would just continue on somehow.”
Kathy Bower, Craig resident about her sister, the late Carma Sixkiller, and her late niece, Ryan Sixkiller-Allen, both of whom lost their lives to cancer
Gail Allen’s words hung suspended over the heads of the more than 200 somber faces before him Jan. 13 in the Moffat County Fairgrounds indoor arena.
“How do we see God in times like this?” said Allen, who was officiating over the memorial ceremony.
His voice echoed through the cavernous interior that seemed to swallow the crowd filling nearly every available folding chair and almost every foot of dusty ground beyond the podium where he stood.
Framed photographs of Ryan Sixkiller-Allen filled the table before him — reminders of better times and a life cut cruelly short.
In one, she is a radiant bride standing next to her husband, Eli Allen. The two were married for a little more than a year when cancer claimed her life Jan. 6.
Other photos show her daughter, Hannah, a bright-eyed and sunny-faced child.
The crowd represented all stages of life — mothers soothing fussy babies, boys in tyke-sized cowboy boots, somber patriarchs in black cowboy hats — and before them all loomed a single unanswerable question.
Cancer — a disease so often indiscriminate — has operated with sobering arithmetic in the Sixkiller family.
Ryan’s mother, Carma, battled breast cancer, lung cancer and more types of cancer than her husband, Bill Sixkiller, said he could remember.
It took only 18 months for their infant daughter to show signs of the deadly inheritance.
“We were just scared — just didn’t know what to do,” Bill Sixkiller said.
When Ryan was diagnosed with fibrosarcoma, her uncle, Bill Leonard, was in high school.
“Just total disbelief,” he said. “ … Especially being 18 months (old), it’s just like, how can someone that age have cancer? That just doesn’t make any sense.”
Ryan would battle cancer for the rest of her life. It would disappear, only to regenerate in another form.
When she was a student at the University of Wyoming, she was diagnosed with osteosarcoma. Chondrosarcoma came next, followed by
Three months after Hannah was born, Carma died of cancer.
For so long, both women had been able to vanquish the disease, but Carma’s death brought a chilling realization to the family.
“I think after we lost her mother to cancer, I think it kind of hit home that people really do die from this disease,” said Kathy Bower, Carma’s sister and Ryan’s aunt.
Later, after Ryan moved to Dixon, Wyo., and Hannah was only 7 years old, cancer dealt the family yet another blow.
Like her mother and grandmother, Hannah wasn’t spared from the disease. In 2010, she was diagnosed with cancerous brain tumors.
Ryan’s marriage to Eli only a few months later was a ray of hope that brought reprieve to the family.
“It was like, finally, this family is getting to see some happiness,” Leonard said.
Yet, a little more than a year later, on Christmas Day, he saw Ryan for the last time.
She was fighting her fifth type of cancer — this time, an undifferentiated sarcoma — but she was determined to see Leonard’s family.
“Any family time was a big deal with Ryan,” he said.
A week later, he got the call: Ryan had been taken to Grand Junction, and there wasn’t much hope for a recovery.
“When it comes to that situation, everyone has to make a choice,” he said.
He didn’t go to Grand Junction. Instead, he said, he wanted to remember his niece the way he had seen her on that final gathering Christmas Day.
“I don’t regret that,” Leonard said. “I’m glad I got to spend Christmas with her.”
Ryan died Jan. 6 at St. Mary’s Hospital in Grand Junction. She was 32.
Hannah, now a third-grader at Little Snake River Valley School in Baggs, has received treatment and is doing well, Kathy said.
Yet the shadow cast by the disease remains.
Bower, of Craig, said she worries about Hannah, wondering, “Is she going to have to deal with this cancer thing for the rest of her life as well?”
A possible, darker reality also looms.
“I guess that’s all kind of in the back of our minds,” Kathy said days after Ryan’s memorial service.
“Are we going to go through this again?”
The question of why this has happened to the family resonated through the dusty air in the arena during the memorial service.
It may never have an answer.
Yet, if there’s one thing that’s certain, it’s that cancer wasn’t the final arbitrator in how Ryan lived her life.
“She just … kind of kept going” and continued to pursue her love for rodeo, Bill Sixkiller said.
“She never backed down,” Leonard said of his niece. “She was always willing to take on any challenge from … when she was a little kid to adulthood.”
Ryan had optimism.
She had courage.
She had “true grit,” he said.
Nor was cancer the sole inheritance. The will to live was passed down from mother to daughter, from Carma to Ryan.
They continued to live their lives, treating cancer like it was “not a big deal,” Kathy said.
“Even when they were probably suffering the most, you rarely would know it,” she said. “They would just continue on somehow. I don’t know how they had the tenacity to do it.”
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