Written By: Meagan Stass, in loving memory of her cousin Jessica on her birthday.
During my first year of teaching, I was blessed to have the chance to work alongside my cousin, Jessica Lynn (Ribando) Dopka, in a charter school in Chicago. We were both new 5th grade teachers who were excited to learn the ropes of our profession. We would plan lessons together, vent about our experiences, and encourage each other to keep working hard. This first year of teaching was what we had mistakenly named the hardest year of our life. We were stressed about making sure our students felt cared and loved for, while also making sure they understood operations with fractions. It was a tough first year, but our bond as cousins turned into a deep connection and solid friendship. We started calling each other on our way to work, only to then hang up when one of us would walk into each other’s classroom with the daily coffee and chocolate long john. After school we would go on insane shopping sprees where we would share life stories, only then to drive home and call each other once again to vent about all the money we just spent on shoes. Jessica turned into my go to person for everything. She was just always someone you could call to get positive feedback or a few laughs from.
During our usual planning period collaborations, she began to mention symptoms and experiences she was having at school. Because she was so young and one of the most physically fit people I knew, I remember we both usually shrugged it off. Fear started to sink in when our conversations about these symptoms started becoming more and more consistent. I remember we talked about the possibility of having a colonoscopy and laughing about how awkward and terrifying it would be. We made jokes that only old men got colon cancer, and I clearly remember being so naïve at the time. It never even crossed my mind of the possibility that my beautiful 26-year-old cousin was actually fighting stage 4 colorectal cancer.
I remember the day she told us like it was yesterday. I remember yelling in tears, “No, it can’t be. Stop! You’re too young!” She was so calm and poised as she told us the news. We were all a mess that day, except for Jess. She was our rock and support. We were supposed to be comforting her, and instead she was more worried about our reactions. I was amazed then, and I continued to be amazed with her grace and dignity through the two years that followed.
In the two years after she was diagnosed with cancer, Jessica engaged and married her childhood sweetheart Greg, became a loving godmother to Lana, and continued to want to teach and touch the lives of her students. She did all of this with a beautiful smile and laugh that was contagious. At her wedding in August of 2014, it was so hard to believe this stunning bride before us was sick. Even then, I didn’t realize just how strong she truly was being.
You wouldn’t have known it, but Jessica was starting to have a tougher time with the cancer. She continued to be so unbelievably spirited and optimistic, but the cancer was becoming more and more aggressive. I’m pretty sure I was mostly in denial for this period of time, because I tried to ignore my questioning of whether Jessica was really feeling better or if she just didn’t want the truth to hurt me.
By late December of 2014, we knew something was truly wrong. Jess would tell me about experiences that I couldn’t even imagine going through as a 28 year old. When she calmly told me that she needed to start thinking about her quality of life, I remember her first expressing fear for her family. Once again this girl was putting everyone else first, and being the anchor to hold it all together. I remember immediately thinking about all the things I wanted to do in the next coming year with her. I wanted to make sure that I was prepared to lose one of my favorite people. All those plans changed when a week later, I was told that she only had a few days left.
On January 18, 2015, I lost my rock, but I gained a beautiful angel. Watching my cousin fight this battle has been the hardest thing for our family and friends, and it is still devastating to text someone that isn’t there out of habit. Even though it is still hard, we remind ourselves that Jessica would want us all to be as strong as she had been during her fight. Therefore we have made it our mission to raise awareness and funds in hopes of making sure less families experience the loss of such a special loved one like we have.
Jessica always insisted on young people getting screened, because she had experienced her diagnosis at such a young age. It is my hope that we can continue her goal and use organizations like the Colon Cancer Coalition and the Get Your Rear in Gear to help with prevention, early detection, and treatment for this disease. I sometimes get really sad and upset with myself for being so naïve when Jess and I made jokes about her early symptoms and fears of a colonoscopy. Being afraid of a colonoscopy seems silly now. It is the number one way you can reduce your risk of colon cancer. Getting your rear in gear can save a life. I truly hope you will join our family in Jessica’s honor to raise awareness and to be strong for Jessica.