Facing Cancer Together
A Family Love Story
|Christine Russell, with her son Jaden Russell, is battling
back from a form of lymphomaat her parents
home in Edgerton.
When it was time for college, Justin and Christine went their separate ways, he to UW-Platteville and she to UW-Stevens Point. They were going to forge their ways in
But as Christine had trouble with a personal relationship, she turned to Tracey who had been her mentor while at Fountain of Life.
“We were sitting on her front steps,” Christine recalled. “I was talking to her about one of my break-ups. And she said, ‘You know Christine, if it’s not Justin, it’s going
to be someone like Justin.’ She always had this thing in the back of her head that we would always be together. Then I felt like I could accept it more. I was like,
‘Okay, all right.’”
Christine ended up calling Justin, but it would have to be a long-distance relationship. Justin moved to Georgia after he graduated and Christine was working for
Advocate Health Care in the Chicago area. Eventually Justin moved to Chicago and they were finally an in-person couple once again.
“He ended up working at the Y and connected with a really good group of guys in Waukegan,” Christine said. “He lived there with a group of guys who were just really
on fire. A lot of them went to Trinity College. At that time, I was working at Abbott Laboratories. I was a senior resident specialist. It was really nice to have him there
because it was one of the most stressful careers ever. It was very high-stress, but I was still in wellness. I was balancing, ‘How am I managing a wellness program’
and ‘I’m under so much stress.’ So it was good to have him there. It was good to have that support at that time in my career. When I was at Advocate, a lot of my
client base were our own employees. I was in employee wellness. To see that demographic and the risk factors of that demographic of nurses and doctors is bad
because we don’t have the best coping mechanism with our stress. And health care by its very nature is stressful.”
Eventually Justin moved in with Christine and they lived in Lake Villa, Illinois even after Christine got a job doing company benefits for Harley-Davidson in
Milwaukee. The winter commutes could take 2-3 hours each way during the winter and so they moved to Wauwatosa, a suburb of Milwaukee.
They ended up moving to West Allis and lived in a rental house with a big yard to accommodate their dog who was not welcome in their apartment. They began to plan
to have a family and soon after Christine became pregnant with Jaden.
“We got married two years ago and celebrated our two-year anniversary yesterday,” Christine said. Life was good. We had a dog, a yard and a house. After I left Harley-
Davidson, I was able to work from home. That has been amazing, especially with being pregnant and then having a little one. We found out that we were pregnant
about a year after we got married, which was perfect. I wasn’t getting any younger. We wanted to start a family. The timing was quicker than we thought, but it was
awesome. I had the best pregnancy. It was wonderful working from home because of morning sickness and all of that. And when Jaden was born, Justin worked
evenings and I worked during the days, so we had this nice transition where Justin watches Jaden during the day and I watch him at night. Everything was working
out really well.”
Justin and Christine had a perfect, idyllic life, relatively speaking. But then reality intruded. Christine began to experience pains in her rib cage.
“I’ve always had those,” Christine recalled. “I’m really flexible. I taught yoga. I’ve been a yogi for years. During an earlier part of my yoga career, I didn’t do it the right
way, so I was a little hyper-flexible. When I was experiencing the pain, I thought my rib had come out and I needed to go to a chiropractor and get my rib popped in and
I would be fine. And then I was doing some physical therapy because it felt different. It felt more painful than it felt before. And then I got to the point where I felt I
couldn’t care for Jaden. I couldn’t lift him. I didn’t feel comfortable carrying him. ‘We need to go to mom and dad’s and get some help until this gets taken care of.’ I
came up here and never left.”
Christine, Justin and Jaden came up to the Edgerton home on June 30th. The pains intensified.
“It was a Sunday night and I was sleeping on the recliner downstairs because I couldn’t sit back very far,” Christine said. “My dad said, ‘You need to go to urgent
care on Monday morning. This is not normal.’ I was like, ‘Fine, whatever. They are going to tell me that I need to get my rib put back in.’ First they asked me about my
pain level from one to ten. The look on my face told them it was a ten. We went to urgent care and they took an x-ray. They took the x-ray and the doctor came back.
She said that my lung had collapsed. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is the worst ever.’ She said, ‘Let me ask the x-ray technicians take a look at it and get their opinion.
We’ll just double check. She came back a few minutes later and said, ‘Actually you lung is fine. There is a mass on top of your lung that they mistook for my lung it
was that big. You should go to the ER.’ Dad said that I was going to take the ambulance to the ER. It took maybe three hours to get me to be able to lay down for the CT-
scan because they said I had to lay down, one way or the other. It took so long because I was in so much pain. I felt like I was suffocating if I were to lay down any
further. They finally got the CT-scan and then they took a needle biopsy after they admitted me. We found out via My Chart when we got to my room. It said, ‘CT-scan
assumption of lymphoma. Sent biopsy for confirmation.’ We were like, ‘What the heck.’ Justin asked when I was admitted, ‘What’s the worst-case scenario. What are
we looking at here.’ The doctor was like, ‘The top six options would be lymphoma and less likely are other things.’ So lymphoma was at the back of our minds. It wasn’
t the first time that we heard it, but it was just kind of ‘really?’ We got the phone call that Friday from our doctor that it was indeed lymphoma.”
Lymphoma is actually a blood cancer that can impact lymph nodes, which are situated through one’s body. Christine’s lymphoma was in her chest area, creating a
mass that stretched from her collarbone to the base of her sternum. It was a rapidly advancing form of cancer.
“It had only been growing 3-4 months,” Christine said. “I was really concerned that I may have had this when I was pregnant with Jaden. The doctor said that it had
been only 3-4 months. I have seasonal allergies in the springtime and it was a little harder for me to breathe. I thought it was only a really bad allergy or dealing with
an asthma. I remember asking my sister-in-law for my nephew’s inhaler. I just couldn’t breathe. But it was all in line with springtime and I wasn’t thinking anything
else until this intense pain happened. And I had this intense pain for a reason and I am so glad that I experienced the pain that I did or else I don’t know if this would
have been caught. I would just have kept putting my rib back in place and doing physical therapy. I wouldn’t have taken it that seriously.”
The doctors and Christine evaluated her options.
“If it weren’t cancerous, they could do four incisions, break the piece apart and remove it like they do sometimes with viral cancers and things like that,” Christine
said. “Then they were thinking they may have to do a full surgery to remove it all at once. Once they determined it was cancer and how quickly it was growing, chemo
was the only way. The other freaky thing is a lot of the cancer cells are already dead. They are growing so quickly. Tracey gave the analogy of a sun flower. The center
of the sun flower is brown and then you have the pretty leaves that are reaching out for nourishment. The core is composed of dead cells and everything else is
reaching out for nourishment. It’s very aggressive and it wants to keep growing and take over, which cancer does. That’s why they wanted to start chemo as quickly
as possible. I’m on five days of chemo, 24 hours per day. It’s a pretty aggressive chemo, but they had to get a handle on it. And also I’m on a toxin. That drug solely
goes after the lymphoma cells. It goes after my cancer cells. The hope is really getting it under control because it really goes crazy and breaks apart the cancer cells.”
Christine would go through six cycles of chemotherapy, through November, where she was on the drug for five days, 25 hours per day and would then be off for two
weeks to give her body a chance to recover and build up its white cell count.
Christine was lucky that she had worked in the medical field for she had good insurance and knew how to work the system to get what she needed at a price that she
“I go in daily to get GRANIX injections which help stimulate my white blood cells and my immune system. And then next week, I’ll feel pretty good. My numbers will be
fine. And then we’ll go back and do another cycle. Our health insurance has been awesome. When I do GRANIX injections, it’s about $500 per cycle. My insurance
company, the doctors and everyone else work together to get them covered. I actually have to go into the hospital to get them. That makes it covered. If I were to take
them home with me and inject them myself, then it is a $500 co-pay. Even working in company benefits the last 10 years, it is still amazing to me how things can be
wiggled and modified to fit the regulations. You have to ask the questions. If I were to say, ‘I’m just going to pay the $500 because this is my only choice,’ the other
alternative wouldn’t be found out. The alternative is getting an injection that lasts longer; it makes the chemo administration more complicated because it stays in my
system longer. What other risks am I exposing myself to if I would have gotten an injection that wasn’t what I really needed or wasn’t really working as well as it
should have, but it was all that I could afford?’ Sometimes you have to do things that are more complicated. I got a bill the other day and I think the total cost of the bill
was over $30,000. And I’m only on cycle two. With my insurance, I’ve got my co-pay and my deductable and all of that sort of stuff. I can’t imagine going through this
By Jonathan Gramling
It was a long drive down to Bill and Jean Conklin’s house in rural Edgerton. They have a beautiful
home surrounded by a paradise of hues made brilliant by the summer sun when I visited. It is the
childhood home of Christine Russell, the daughter-in-law of Tracey and Brian Russell and wife of
“My son Jaden and my dad were just playing out in the patio,” Christine said as we sat in their dining
room that was lit up by the summer sun. “It just brought back so many memories. He was pointing out
the butterflies on the trees. Who needs an iPad when you have so many beautiful butterflies hanging
around the white flowers on the trees?”
Christine grew up here and went to Stoughton High School where she participated in Future Farmers
of America and other school clubs. And while the family tried to find a faith community to call their
spiritual home in the Stoughton area, it wasn’t until Jean went to work for Nehemiah Community
Development Corporation as its office manager that the Conklins made Fountain of Life Church their
spiritual home. And that is where Justin met Christine.
“Justin and I met in youth group at Fountain of Life Church 16 some years ago,” Christine said. “He
was one of my crushes. I thought he was super cute and he was a star football player and totally out
of my league, just kidding. We did a lot of work together in youth group. We were in a Nefertiti Cotillion
together. We were in a magazine that did an article on our group and the Nefertiti Cotillion as well. We
dated for a while when we were young.”
without insurance. There are all of the other things that aren’t covered. Or,
God forbid, this isn’t handled and gone in November or there are more
complications or whatever or it goes on into the next year and your
insurance is for the calendar year. What’s going to happen in 2019? Am I
going to incur additional costs?”
Sometimes it’s a case of mind over matter. As we talk at the dining room
table, Christine’s disposition is as sunny as the sun-lit room behind her.
“You have to have a good attitude,” Christine emphasized. “It’s too much to
think about and too much to worry about. And then if you have a bad attitude
or if you allow fear to take over, life just gets miserable and more difficult
than it needs to be because you can’t control cancer. But you can control
your response to it.”
But Christine readily admits that she could not make it through this if it
weren’t for her husband, her parents and others who have come through to
give her support.
“With these GRANIX injections, I get a lot of pain,” Christine said. “And
Justin was up here over the weekend and I was in so much pain that I was
getting an anxiety attack. I told the pain to just leave. It still hurt, but I was
able to control it enough where I could get dressed and move on with my
life. Sometimes even though this is what I practice and what I preach, you
need those reminders from the people you love to be like, ‘Have a green
smoothie, please.’ You need to be reminded about these things because
you get so caught up in fear and it is debilitating.”
Christine just finished her sixth cycle of chemotherapy and she has been
very sick the past month. Her family is praying that this will be the end of
Her sister set up a GoFundMe account to help Christine and Justin with the
extraneous medical bills and other costs associated with Christine’s
medical treatment. Visit GoFundMe.com and type in Christine’s Life Infusion
Christine and Justin have gotten through this because of their love and the
love of family. And with the love of the community, they will make it through
this health crisis so that they can experience together the love that always
seemed meant to be.