Husband shares story of loss at annual breast cancer awareness event

GUEST SPEAKER — Leslie Aftanas, left, and Janet Sharpe, right, are co-chairs of the Women In Action Against Cancer Coalition of Jefferson County which Thursday sponsored its annual breast cancer wreath ceremony at Jim Wood Park. Ralph Knight offered “A Husband’s Story” as part of the event, reflecting on the death of his wife, Kelli. (Photo by Janice Kiaski)

STEUBENVILLE — Thursday would have been Kelli Knight’s 61st birthday, a day her husband would have gladly celebrated with her.

Instead, it was the annual breast cancer wreath ceremony conducted by the Women in Action Against Cancer Coalition of Jefferson County.

Ralph Knight was remembering her cancer battle as the speaker at the informal event held at Jim Wood Park.

“She would have wanted me to be here,” Knight told the small group assembled in one of the park’s shelters for the observance in recognition of Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

The ceremony traditionally includes as its main speaker a breast cancer survivor who shares her cancer story and journey, but this year brought a twist with “A Husband’s Story” instead.

Coalition Co-chair Janet Sharpe extended the welcome and made introductions, including Knight’s. “We lost two of our members last year. Both of them are still very dear in our hearts, and one of their husbands decided he would talk to you about what it was like to go through breast cancer with his wife, not once, but twice.”

“It was a long battle,” said Knight, who attended the coalition event with son, Zac, and daughter-in-law Nicolette. Kelli was 59 when she died Sept. 28, 2019, and had breast cancer in 2014 and again in 2018.

Kelli had been diagnosed with a small lump, he said, which ultimately spread to her lymph nodes. “She had metastatic breast cancer,” he explained.

“She had a mastectomy and reconstructive surgery, and 18 months after that, she was declared NED,” he said of the acronym that stands for “no evidence of disease.”

“Things started to look up,” he said. “She started to get back to herself. We had always planned to go to Alaska so we did make it in 2017,” he said.

A checkup about a year after that brought the discovery that the cancer had returned.

“It had spread to her liver and throughout her lymph nodes,” he said of what would initiate chemotherapy treatments again. By May 2019, they learned the cancer had spread to her brain, “so they stopped chemo and started radiation.”

But the cancer advanced.

“It was a downhill slide from there,” Ralph said.

“During the last months of Kelli’s life, we both knew she was dying. We never said that out loud, but we both knew,” he said of his wife, whom he described as “a very giving person,” family oriented.

Ralph thanked her co-worker Ken Perkins who was in the audience. “Ken stood by her the whole time, allowing her as much time off as needed.

“Women can hug and cry — men can’t show feelings,” he said of what constitutes a difference in the way men and women grieve. Men might pat each other on the shoulder, “say sorry about your wife and that’s it.”

“It’s very hard,” he said.

“I have a part-time job now, and I go back to my house, which is no longer a home. It’s a place where I eat and sleep, no one to kiss goodbye, no one to talk to.”

After the ceremony, Knight said, “As a husband, when you get married, you’re supposed to provide for and protect your wife and you get to a point with cancer where you can’t do anything. You can still provide, but you can’t protect her, and you’re helpless. You feel useless.”

During the program Sharpe also thanked the audience and participants and acknowledged that the coalition is one of four in the state. “Ours is the largest and has the most survivors,” Sharpe said.

Cindy Misogiane, a coalition member, provided an overview of WIAACC, which was founded in July 1994 and is a community-based, nonprofit organization that started as a result of the high incidence and mortality rates of certain cancers in the Jefferson County area.

It focuses on increasing awareness, providing education and promoting early detection and prevention of cancer in Jefferson County with its mission being to encourage and motivate individuals to take charge of their health. Its grassroots efforts, according to Misogiane, help residents become more aware of when and where to seek early detection for cancer, how to proceed when cancer is diagnosed, how to navigate through an increasingly complex health care system and where to turn for community resources and support for survivors.

The coalition helps women who need financial assistance get breast and cervical screenings and helps with funding for free prostate screenings during Minority Health Month. Varied educational outreach programs have been held through the years. In 2018 and 2019, we brought in an inflatable colon to educate and help increase colon cancer screening in Jefferson County,” she said, citing various fundraisers that include a car show, banner project and Riesbeck’s brown bag lunch program during October.

“Our breast cancer wreath ceremony is our favorite project, and this year we have gone back to our roots. We started this project on the steps of the courthouse in 1994 and after several moves found a home at Prime Time. Due to COVID, we are once again outside,” she said.

The coalition of 28 welcomes new members, the only qualification needed being a willingness to help, she said. It meets the first Wednesday of the month at noon at Trinity East’s cafeteria conference room. For information on the coalition or its services, contact Sharpe at (740) 632-1144.

“Twenty-six years and still growing — now that’s something to be proud of,” Misogiane said of the organization.

RoseAnn Piofer, certified breast patient navigator at Images, told the audience that statistics show one in eight women will develop breast cancer in her lifetime. Being a woman and getting older are the most common risk factors.

“Men also can develop breast cancer,” she said. “A man’s lifetime risk of developing breast cancer is about one in 800. It is estimated that approximately 2,600 men will be diagnosed with breast cancer, and approximately 500 will die.”

According to the U.S. County Profile, the female breast cancer rate is higher in Jefferson County than in the state of Ohio, Piofer said, citing barriers to breast health including financial and transportation issues along with a lack of health education.

“It is projected that more than 276,000 new cases of invasive breast cancers will be diagnosed this year, and more than 42,000 women will succumb to breast cancer,” she said. “Every two minutes, a woman in the United States is diagnosed with breast cancer,” she said, adding that, “In this country, breast cancer death rates are higher than any other cancer besides lung cancer.”

Better screening, early detection, increased awareness and improved, innovative treatment have contributed to a decline in breast cancer deaths in the United States, according to Piofer. “There are more than 3.5 million breast cancer survivors in the United States.”

Keeping a healthy weight, limiting alcoholic drinks, discussing the risks and benefits of taking hormone replacement therapy or oral contraceptives are among ways to reduce the risk of breast cancer.

“The importance of breast health education, annual screening mammograms, awareness of risk factors, knowledge of available community resources and establishment of a patient/physician relationship is imperative to promoting breast cancer awareness in our valley,” Piofer said.

Leslie Aftanas, coalition co-chair, presented a rose to breast cancer survivors who identified themselves and noted their years as a survivor.

The ceremony also included the presentation of a proclamation from Jefferson County Commissioner Dave Maple and a resolution offered by Steubenville representatives Mayor Jerry Barilla and City Council members Eric Timmons, Willie Paul and Asantewa Anyabwile.

Sharon Kirtdoll offered the prayer, and Gracie Philllips, a senior at Edison High School, sang the national anthem.

(Kiaski can be contacted atjkiaski@heraldstaronline.com.)


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