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Yutan community rallies in wake of cancer diagnoses
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Yutan community rallies in wake of cancer diagnoses

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YUTAN – Within just a few weeks, two 2008 graduates of Yutan Public Schools had their worlds changed forever. 

In the month of June, both Yutan Elementary School third grade teacher Alyssa Pascarelli and Regal Awards and Advertising Specialties Accountant Beth (Dooley) Heesch were given the diagnosis of cancer. 

With both Pascarelli and Heesch having fathers in the Yutan Volunteer Fire Department, members quickly became aware of the two Chieftains’ diagnoses. YVFD Assistant Chief and fellow 2008 graduate Matt Thompson first learned of Heesch’s diagnosis and began talking about organizing a community event with other 2008 graduates. 

Thompson then learned about Alyssa’s diagnosis and knew they had to do something to show their support to their fellow Yutan alumni. 

“Yutan is pretty tight knit,” Thompson said. “Everybody loves Husker games so we thought we’d try a Husker tailgate.” 

The Husker tailgate for Heesch and Pascarelli is scheduled for Sept. 11 at 1:30 p.m. at Yutan Veteran’s Country Club and will include pulled pork dinner from BBQ Mann, full bar and live and silent auctions. 

Thompson said so far the community’s response has been “unreal” to support these two lifelong residents. 

Pascarelli is daughter of Wendall and Steph Pascarelli. Wendall is a former YVFD chief and Rural Fire District president Steph is a senior software analyst for DMSI in Omaha.

Pascarelli had thought teaching third grade during the COVID-19 pandemic would be her biggest challenge yet as a teacher. 

That was until a lump on her neck began to develop. On June 1, Pascarelli, of Yutan, went to her normal doctor to get the mass examined and quickly learned that it was something to be concerned about.  

After being referred to a head and neck oncology surgeon, she learned that she would need surgery to have the lump removed. On June 15, Pascarelli had the surgery and a drain was put in. 

She then received a call from the surgeon informing her that what they removed did contain a lymphoma and referred a medical oncologist. 

“I didn’t really know what he meant by lymphoma,” Pascarelli wrote in a Facebook post. “I knew that meant cancer but really nothing else.”

On June 23, she learned what it really meant. Pascarelli met her oncologist that day and he explained to her that she has Diffuse Large B-Cell Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma high grade, or DLBCL, which is the most common type of Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.

She also learned that she would be undergoing chemotherapy after a positron emission tomography (PET) scan, bone marrow biopsy and having a port put in. Pascarelli also took the opportunity to have 21 of her eggs retrieved and frozen prior to chemo so she can have a family of her own one day in case the chemo decreased her chances to become pregnant later on. 

Pascarelli was initially prescribed six sessions of chemo, but before her first session her oncologist informed her that her cancer is in stage 2E which means she only required four sessions. Her final chemo session will be on Sept. 15 and will be followed by radiation. At this time, Pascarelli is unsure how long she will require radiation. 

Pascarelli started this school year off with an entirely different challenge from the 2020 school year – without any hair and taking more time off than she prefers. 

“I never missed work. I literally have maybe taken a total of three sick days in maybe nine years,” Pascarelli said. “So I already have missed three whole days and I’m going to miss three or four more for my next round so that has been really hard for me.”

Ever since learning about the tailgate event, Pascarelli has been overwhelmed by the support for herself and her family. 

“It’s just like I could never repay them. I feel a little bit, not guilty, but almost like just how do you ever repay (them),” Pascarelli said. “But that’s just part of a small town is you all have each other’s back so there is always somebody there to pick you up.”

Heesch, who lives in Omaha, is used to being weary about her health ever since she learned she had Crohn’s disease in 2017. 

She’s dealt with going septic, emergency surgery and being in and out of the hospital for months. After getting her Crohn’s under control, Heesch was finally able to live her life again despite still bi-monthly treatments.  

The daughter of Yutan Volunteer Fire Department Chief Don and school librarian Michelle Dooley, Heesch also thought the inflammatory bowel disease was the cause of the stomach pain she developed in March. She figured she just needed to adjust her medicines. 

However, it wasn’t that simple. 

Heesch’s doctors found a cyst on one of her ovaries. 

Waiting to see if the cyst would resolve on its own, she was placed on steroids to maintain her Crohn’s in the meantime. Heesch and her husband Nick began seeing a fertility doctor. 

At the time, Heesch had ascites, which is when liquid accumulates in the abdomen. This meant that the fertility doctor would be unable to collect any eggs because her organs had shifted locations. The couple also learned that Heesch has the BRCA 1 gene which means she is at higher risk for breast and ovarian cancer. 

They looked into options and came up with a plan to deal with the cyst, or “borderline tumor,” as Heesch described it. 

“We planned to remove one ovary, harvest some eggs and then go back in to remove the other ovary,” Heesch wrote in a Facebook post. “At this point, none of the testing pointed towards cancer, but none of it ruled it out either.”

Heesch had surgery on June 3. That is when they learned the devastating truth. 

“Coming out of surgery to discover that not only was it cancer but that both my ovaries had to be removed was heartbreaking to say the least,” Heesch wrote. 

She then began chemotherapy on June 18 after having surgery to put a port in. Going to chemo sessions is very similar to going to the treatments for her Crohns, so Heesch said the preparation wasn’t as difficult. 

“I think that (Crohn’s) actually really helped me here, (to be) able to catch everything a lot earlier because I was a lot more aware that I needed to be,” Heesch said. “It made me more careful than the average person about what my body was telling me, and I think life has a funny way of working.”

Heesch said she is about halfway done with chemo and that her final session is Oct. 1. 

Heesch also had a similar reaction to Pascarelli when she learned her hometown was throwing a benefit for her.

“It was a little overwhelming honestly just to know that our hometown wanted to do that for both Alyssa and I,” Heesch said. “I’ve been kind of overwhelmed with the generosity of everyone through this whole process. I mean I knew I was loved and supported but it’s another thing.”

Both Pascarelli and Heesch plan to make appearances at the tailgate on Sept. 11 to thank everyone. 

For those interested in making monetary donations, free will donations will be available with the meal. Other donations can be made at First Bank Nebraska in Yutan under the Cancer Benefit Fund. 

Donations for the auction can be made at https://www.signupgenius.com/go/60b0a48adaf2ea4fd0-tailgate.

Some items featured in the auction includes custom Chieftain gear, two tickets to the Nebraska/Purdue football game on Oct. 30 and a 2021 seven-person hot tub from Classic Pool and Spa in Omaha. Tickets for the hot tub auction are $100 and only 100 tickets are being sold. 

The evening before, on Sept. 10, Kona Shaved Ice will be at the Yutan football game, provided by the fire department. Twenty percent of proceeds from sales will also go toward Pascarelli and Heesch. 

Thompson said he hopes the event will result in $35,000 to $40,000 for the two Yutan alumni.

Elsie Stormberg is a reporter for the Wahoo Newspaper. Reach her via email at elsie.stormberg@wahoonewspaper.com.

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