Joliet Catholic Academy English teacher Maria Fischer knew she didn’t burn the lasagna, so it couldn’t be sirens from the Minooka Fire Department. It’s a running joke between family and friends reflecting back on the time Fischer did indeed toast family dinner.
Maria knew something was up when her husband Andy kicked her out of the house two Sunday’s ago; he suggested she go to the library to study, as she is currently enrolled in the University of St. Francis’ Education Doctoral Degree program. When she arrived home, nearly 30 family members, friends, and colleagues were there to greet her. Not long after, Maria heard the sirens.
Pink Heals is “an organization started in 2007 to help people battling cancer with a focus on women and what they mean to us in our daily lives. It has evolved into a mission to keep fund raising and donated dollars local to support people within our community. (They) drive (their) pink fire truck across America to bring the Pink Heals Program to cities every year”. (www.pinkfiretrucks.org) The local chapter of Pink Heals in Joliet operates as a separate entity from the national chapter, and 100% of every single fundraised dollar stays right here in the community.
Maria Fischer was diagnosed with breast cancer almost one year ago, on August 14th, the first day back to school. The St. Francis Academy alum (’88) has five children; Zoe is a senior at JCA, Meaghan is a junior, and the three youngsters all attend Holy Family.
Breast Cancer affects about 1 in 8 U.S. women (about 12%) over the course of their lifetime (courtesy of www.breastcancer.org). But cancer isn’t about statistics, it is personal. It touches all of our lives in some way, and in talking with Maria, whom I first met during this interview, I couldn’t help but think about the similarities in the way the Joliet Catholic Academy community embraced my family 22 years ago when my father, Patrick Quigley (a former JCHS graduate and teacher) lost his battle to cancer.
Maria’s day included two pink fire trucks, a pink police squad car, a pink ambulance, and more hugs than she could count. One of the fire trucks is named after St. Francis Academy graduate Kris Toborg, known as the “Queen of Pink Heals in Joliet”, who courageously lost her battle with cancer back in March. “When I walked in the door and saw Sister Barb, Chris Scheibe (both JCA teachers) and several former students I knew something was up. If you have to get sick, and no one wants to, JCA is the place for it to happen. I’ve been surrounded by friends, family, and prayer throughout”.
One constant about Maria’s story is that the focus was not on her, but on the others around her that have stepped up and impacted her life over the past year. “It was emotional signing the truck, and every single person (and there seemed like a hundred) had flowers, one hug after another, and the same message ‘we love you, and we are all fighting for you’. It’s powerful and emotional coming from strangers. I cried when one woman hugged me and said we have matching hairdos”.
Maria’s point is that cancer brings us together. Strangers band together for a common cause to create a community, a spirit that is undeniable and that is what Pink Heals is all about. Pink Heals targets people, not diseases. That support can help those stricken with disease to fight a little harder on those tough days, and it can make those that are healthy appreciate it and want to reach out within the community.
“There wasn’t a day that went by over the past year were I didn’t get a card with encouragement. The JCA community provided cooked meals for my family, the students ran a ‘Pink Out for Mrs. Fischer’ at one of the football games where they raised $2,000 towards hospital bills, teachers shaved their heads at the St. Baldrick’s Day event, and students bought me bucket hats, which I got to give away when my hair started growing back”.
And it’s not just the JCA community, but the entire Joliet area community that has been supportive. Lincoln-Way North’s badminton program donated from a Pink Heals event they ran and Joliet Township High School’s Adaptive Vocational and Academic Center (AVAC) program coordinator Becky Kemp (a St. Francis Academy graduate) donated $3,800 raised during the “Avon 39 Walk to End Breast Cancer” event.
Maria finished radiation over the summer, and currently has chemotherapy-type treatments every third Friday. She’s feeling better, and plans to be full-time in the fall on the one-year anniversary of her diagnosis. “I’d rather be here (at JCA) than at home on the couch”, she added. Maria has been an inspiration to those around her in the Minooka and Joliet communities.
Her message is simple: “Pay it forward”. Maria added (again wanting to single out others), “JCA librarian Barb Powers (a breast cancer survivor) paid it forward to me by setting up my Pink Heals day, and others before me like Kris Toborg paid it forward. I don’t want anyone to get sick, but I’ve learned that if you do we have to keep paying it forward”.
– Visit www.pinkhealsjoliet.org to Donate to the local Joliet Area Chapter of Pink Heals and stay updated on upcoming Pink Heals events.