Victory bell dedicated to Rochelle breast cancer survivor at Kish Hospital
DeKALB – After 30 years working as a cancer nurse, Mary Beth Papke recently learned it was her turn to “walk through the fires of Hell” for breast cancer treatment.
In early December 2017, Papke, 57, a longtime nurse and Naval Reserve Nurse Corps Commander, was diagnosed with Stage 3 lobular breast cancer in her left breast, and Stage 1 invasive ductal breast cancer in her right breast.
Throughout 2018, Papke kept numerous appointments with surgeons and oncologists, endured a double mastectomy, five months of chemotherapy, and six weeks of daily radiation treatments. She made it through, and now works as a nurse at Northwestern Medicine’s new Student Health Services office at Northern Illinois University.
“I have to say, I never really felt scared,” Papke said. “And to have your coworkers take care of you, I was never really stressed because I knew I was going to be very well cared for.”
While Papke was undergoing treatment at the Kishwaukee Cancer Center, she had the idea of buying a victory bell for her fellow patients to ring after their last treatment. Unfortunately, she couldn’t afford to buy one.
On Monday, after she went to the center under the pretext of doing some training there, staff surprised her by showing her the new bell they had bought for patients there to ring. They dedicated it to Papke.
“Ring this bell, three times well, to celebrate this day,” the plaque reads. “This course is run, my treatment is done, now I am on my way.”
Papke was the first to ring the bell after its unveiling.
“Every one of you has been a puzzle piece in my cancer journey,” an emotional Papke said Monday to her coworkers at the cancer center, where she had her treatment and worked as a nurse.
Papke, who lives in Rochelle with her four children, grew up in Chicago and joined the Navy Reserves in 1985. She completed her bachelor’s degree in nursing through the Navy at the University of Chicago. She began working at the cancer center in July 2016, and said cancer nursing found her “early” in her career.
“When I got diagnosed, honest to Pete, I didn’t [give it] a second thought that I would have my oncologist and treatment [at the center],” Papke said Wednesday. “Cancer nurses are a special breed, it’s a tough job, and the flip side to working there and having a professional relationship [with the staff], was that I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, now I’m the patient here.’ ”
Papke credits her “chemo buddies” team, including her children, family, friends, and coworkers, and strong Christian faith for keeping her head up throughout a long and grueling year. Her mantra is from Romans 12:12, a verse about maintaining hope through hard times.
“Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer,” it reads.
“As a Christian, I just always felt that I would get through this somehow,” Papke said. “You want to get through it a better person, not a bitter or angry or mad one. You want to be the phoenix in the ashes.”
Papke plans to retire from the Navy in 2021, and feels a calling to continue helping others through their cancer treatment.
“I tell my kids, life is just a circle of kindness, you’re never nice for any reason other than just to be nice,” she said.