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Thursday, 10 July 2014 00:00

She's a fighter: Two-time survivor leads cancer relay

Written by  Ian Gronau
Becky Greco tries to appreciate every day after two bouts with cancer. Greco and her husband, Tony, are the honorary survivor and honorary caregiver, respectively, for this year’s Walworth County Relay For Life. She is pictured with sons Kaleb, 13; Zak, 16; Aidan, 13; and Eli, 11. Becky Greco tries to appreciate every day after two bouts with cancer. Greco and her husband, Tony, are the honorary survivor and honorary caregiver, respectively, for this year’s Walworth County Relay For Life. She is pictured with sons Kaleb, 13; Zak, 16; Aidan, 13; and Eli, 11. Terry Mayer

WALWORTH COUNTY SUNDAY -- This year’s Relay For Life honorary survivor, Becky Greco, is still thinking about exactly how she wants to phrase her speech to attendees. But explaining a battle with cancer to someone, unless they know it themselves, is tricky.   

“I was trying to figure out how to explain cancer to someone,” said Greco, a Walworth resident. “The best way I can think of is that it’s a roller coaster. You get in line, that’s you going to the doctor. You’re thinking about it, ‘What’s he going to tell me?’ and then you’ve got the diagnosis and you’re going up and up. Then you’re thinking OK, I’m ready to fight this, but then you shoot down that first slope and your stomach drops.”

This year’s Relay For Life of Walworth County will begin with an opening ceremony at 6 p.m. Friday, July 18, at the Walworth County Fairgrounds in Elkhorn. The event will run until 8 a.m. the following morning and include all sorts of activities, including musical chairs, a hula-hoop contest, a water balloon toss, a scavenger hunt and Jazzercise.

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“Our theme this year is ‘Not All Superheroes Wear Capes,’” said Relay For Life specialist Meghan Havill. “It’s one of the ways we are celebrating our survivors and their heroic struggles this year.”

The honorary survivor and caregiver positions this year are being held by Becky and her husband, Tony. The Grecos were nominated by Heidi Schulz, a  Relay For Life committee member who served as the honorary survivor two years ago.

“Everyone in the committee all had a chance to nominate someone and I picked Becky,” Schulz said. “I actually went to high school with Tony and knew of Becky’s battle and what she had been through and what a fighter she is. I just thought she’d be the perfect example of an honorary survivor.”

Schulz has been participating in the annual event for five years, but this year will be the Greco family’s first.

“Becky has never participated in a relay before so we are really excited to have her and her husband involved this year,” Havill said. “Her and her husband are doing a sort of dual survivor and caregiver role thing and participating as a relay team as well.”

Greco’s struggle with cancer began with a diagnosis in 2010. She’d been experiencing recurring bouts of a sinus infection. Even through she was seeing an otolaryngologist, the antibiotics prescribed weren’t taking care of her symptoms. More than that, Greco could tell something was wrong. It wasn’t before long that the feeling manifested into something more real.

“Finally one day my neck had swollen up so big that I almost looked like a linebacker,” Greco said. “It was huge. They ended up doing a biopsy and found out that I had NK/T-cell lymphoma, but it was based nasally, which is very rare. They usually only find this kind in Asian and older people. It was pretty tough.”

She fought through chemotherapy and radiation to deal aggressively with the cancer, aided by the support of her family and doctors. The treatment seemed to have worked, and Greco remembers feeling great. But lingering sinus infection symptoms started casting doubt on the idea that the fight was over.

“Then the sinus infections came back in full force,” Greco said. “So we did a sinus surgery and another biopsy. Then in 2012 I was re-diagnosed and had to have a stem cell transplant.”

The stem cell transplant was an intense experience, Greco said. At one point doctors had to quarantine Greco for 21 days in the hospital and she couldn’t leave or receive visits from her four sons. 

“They don’t want anyone to get you sick because they basically bring you down to nothing,” Greco said. “The chemo kills everything and you are to the point where you are almost dying. The chemo doesn’t know good cells from bad ones.

“So it wipes you out completely and you get the new stem cells and slowly start to build yourself back up. It’s almost like you’re a baby starting new. I even had to get all my vaccinations again.”

After a long and difficult fight, Greco beat back the cancer. She jokes that even though she will be celebrating her 40th birthday in December, she’s still only 2 years old in relativity to starting fresh with her stem cell transplant.

Greco credits much of her survival to having strong support from her friends, parents, four sisters, four sons and, of course, the honorary caregiver, her husband, Tony.

“He was a rock,” Greco said simply. “He did everything. He had to be mom and dad. He was constantly at my side, always there when I needed him. He’s an amazing man, and he still loves me after the whole thing.

“You know, cancer changes someone. Good or bad, you’re different afterward.”

Reflecting on how her battle has changed her, Greco said that she tries to make sure that she’s thankful for every day now. She plans on using her time as honorary survivor as an opportunity to encourage others to never give up their battles. Greco is a firm believer that someone battling cancer should try to always think the best is going to happen.

“You can’t think the worst. If you do that you will be down and out and you’ll never get through anything,” she said. “So fight. Fight like crazy. Don’t ever give up.”

Greco admitted there were times in her battle where she was feeling utterly overwhelmed, like the day she lost her hair. But she said you have to cry it out, give yourself the day and then resolve to keep fighting.

While the superheroes theme is a bit of a playful comparison, Greco drew a serious parallel from it to her fight.

“Sometimes it’s like being a superhero because you have no choice but to fight,” Greco said. “More than anything you just want to be normal again like everyone else, but you just can’t. You have to fight.”

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