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She has hope born of courage

Kim Warneke snuggles at home with her best animal friend, Riley. Her themed T-shirt, designed by 16-year-old cousin Abby Andrle, a River Falls High School junior, says more on the back, including: "When the world says give up, hope whispers, 'Try it one more time.'" As she battles cancer a second time, Warneke takes those words to heart. Phil Pfuehler photo

How would you react if told your cancer is back? What would you do if that fateful news comes hours before you're to join your team for the Survivors Walk at the annual Relay For Life?

"At first it was so hard to decide. I did not want to have to deal with cancer again -- and to fight it," said 46-year-old Kim Warneke, a River Falls resident who teaches third grade at Prairie Elementary in Hudson. "But then you realize that you can't just go to bed and die. It's not the end of the world. Life goes on, and you have to be strong for those who support you.

"They are the ones who feel the most helpless. They don't get any support. I'm the one getting the medicine and all the assistance."

So last March, Warneke walked and mingled with her team and the hundreds of others who took part at Relay For Life at the high school. Proceeds from the giant fundraiser go to the American Cancer Society.

That resilience and hopeful outlook earned Warneke the "Courage Award" last month. It was given at a regional gathering of the American Cancer Society in Wisconsin Dells.

The timing of the award couldn't have been better. Warneke was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2003. After many rounds of radiation and chemo, she was free of the disease for four years.

When it reappeared, the cancer had spread to her bones and liver. Now, more-aggressive treatments and the expanding disease cause acute pain. Her voice is hoarse.

"The award gave me a bump to keep going," said Warneke, who again questioned if she could endure the spotlight of another ceremony. "I didn't know if I was up for it -- for the award.

"I was in pain and not holding up well emotionally. I didn't want to get up there for the award and start blubbering. Is that courage?"

It wasn't long before Warneke knew the answer: "If I didn't go, the cancer would win. That gave me a new sense of strength. Courage means to keep going on, do your best. When I got the award, the tears did flow, but by then I knew it was OK to cry, even to say I'm scared."

Warneke, from Forest Lake, Minn., graduated from UW-River Falls in 1987 with a bachelor's in education. At the university she met her future husband John.

Today he's a program coordinator for the Washington County, Minn., Sheriff's Department. Married 20 years, the couple have one daughter, Kaitlin, who attends River Falls High School.

The Courage Award referred to Warneke's CaringBridge Web site journals and her signing-off slogan: "Keep Hope in Your Heart."

"That's what I use to anchor myself," Warneke said. "It can apply to anybody, not just someone with cancer. It could be for a student trying to pass a math test. It helped me to have a way to end my journal entries.

"It's nothing really heavy. Just a grounding, especially for bad days, to keep hope in your heart to the very end. To live. I thought it was better than just writing, 'Have a great day.'"

Part of courage, Warneke says, is allowing family, friends, neighbors and church members to come together, to take care of her and to show their compassion.

Some have visited to pray, bring meals, put up Christmas decorations and even decorate the street she lives on with pink ribbons.

In downtown Hudson, her school and the community had a special day for her last spring. There was a silent auction and a sunset launch of a thousand helium balloons with personal messages addressed to her.

"I miss those little faces, not going in every day, seeing my colleagues, being part of the school and doing good work there," Warneke said about her teaching absence. "Kids in third grade show so much love. They're like sponges -- so creative, curious, wanting to learn. It's amazing to be around that."

Warneke's aunt, Lisa Andrle of rural River Falls, said the need to do something for her niece is excruciating.

"You just feel so helpless," Andrle said. "I sometimes think if I could just take that pain from her for one day...that would be my dream.

"Kim has a hard time eating, and I make her orange Jell-O, which she likes. It's such a little thing, but I would make that for her all the time if she needed me to."

Warneke said her bout with cancer has reinforced not only her faith but her marriage.

"Something like this is either going to break you or make you," she said. "John and I have had a good marriage, but this has brought us closer.

"John puts me first. He doesn't complain or ever say, 'Here she is, sick again.' He only wants to fix me and never makes it seem like I'm a burden. His boss has been wonderful to give him the flexible work schedule that he asked for.

"But I tell John he needs to take more breaks for himself -- like getting away, go golfing."

John Warneke said he simply does everything he can to screen his wife from outside distractions so she focuses on her health and healing.

Kim Warneke said her daughter Kaitlin still contends with all the ups and downs related to the disease. Kaitlin did so once as a fifth- and sixth-grader, and now must do the same as a high school student.

"Even though this is horrific, I want to be a model of a strong adult woman for her," she said. "At the same time, I don't feel it's necessary to be strong at all times. I'm not afraid to show my emotions with her."

Warneke said the outpouring of love on her behalf has taught a lesson.

"Yes, there are many bad, bad things happening in the world," she said. "But in times like this, you know that people are still basically very good. They do care, and many are kind and decent.

"There's so much yuckiness with cancer, but maybe if there is a purpose, it's to bring out the kindness that we can have for one another."

Brave as she is, Warneke is realistic.

"I beat cancer once, I can probably beat it again," she said. "But those are just words. I'm not sure if I totally believe them. I'm struggling. It's tougher the second time. I'm trying to hit reality with hopefulness and find a balance. I need to keep remembering that today is a new day."