Jennifer Gonzalez always had a close relationship with her dad.
Growing up, she shared her father’s love of professional wrestling. A quiet yet jolly man, he sang and taught at church, where he was an ordained elder, and she and her brother, Michael Aaron, went on Christian missions with him.
The father-daughter bond over sports, faith and family continued as Jennifer became an adult and had children of her own. Then last year, when she was 42 and he was 63, they both were diagnosed with cancer.
One in two men, and one in three women, will experience a cancer diagnosis in their lifetime, according to the American Cancer Society.
“I cried a lot,” Jennifer said, her eyes welling with tears as she sat on her couch with her 2-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Kennedy, asleep in her arms. Kayla, her teenage daughter, was beside them and her mom, Mary, sat nearby.
“I couldn’t believe I was sick and Dad was sick too.”
Michael Gonzalez died Jan. 16, 2019, after losing his battle with stage 4 liver cancer.
The family was devastated, but their faith — and Michael’s teachings — have helped them find solace amid the harsh realities of cancer.
“God has bigger plans for us,” said Mary, Michael’s wife of 43 years. “He doesn’t give us anything we cannot handle and not make it through. We don’t always understand, but it’s not for us to understand.”
The first diagnosis
It was March 2018. Jennifer was at the family’s home recovering from a partial hysterectomy when her father called. Mary had left to go clean a local bank — a side job that Mary and Jennifer had taken on several years before.
“He told me to let Mom know that he was going to the emergency room,” Jennifer recalled.
Michael had been feeling bad on and off for most of a year. When things got really bad, he’d go see a doctor, but everything would check out fine. Then he’d begin feeling well again, and the whole cycle would repeat. This time, he insisted on a CT scan.
“He called me and said, ‘I don’t think it’s good news. They found some spots in my liver,’” Jennifer recalled.
That evening, the cancer diagnosis was confirmed. Michael had cholangiocarcinoma, a group of cancers that begin in the bile ducts, the branched tubes that connect the liver and gallbladder to the small intestines.
It’s a rare cancer, and catching it in its early stages is even more rare because symptoms don’t occur until it’s a large size or has spread, said Dr. Doug Kemme, an oncologist with UCHealth in northern Colorado. Michael began treatment at UCHealth Cancer Care and Hematology Clinic – Greeley.
The second diagnosis
While dealing with the realities of her father’s cancer and continuing to recover from her partial hysterectomy surgery, Jennifer felt a lump in her breast.
She figured it was hormones but decided to call her doctor. Her doctor scheduled a mammogram. That resulted in a biopsy. A few days after Mother’s Day, Jennifer was told she had breast cancer.
“She picked up on her own lump,” said Dr. Farrah Datko, UCHealth oncologist specializing in breast cancer in northern Colorado. “It was wonderful she didn’t ignore it and sought medical advice when she found it. That’s why she was able to be treated successfully.”
The importance of self-exams
Women of average risk should begin routine screening mammography annually at age 40 and continue for as long as they are in good health, as recommended by the American College of Radiology guidelines.
Jennifer was at that recommended age when she became pregnant with Kennedy, so she had yet to start her annual screenings. Recognizing something was wrong with her body may have saved her life, Datko said.
Breast cancer tends to be worse postpartum, with an increased risk for metastasizing, she explained.
“So, our treatment is more aggressive,” Datko said. “Also, because we know that having breast cancer at her age is not terribly common, she got the best regimen, which is also the toughest regimen.”
Jennifer underwent a mastectomy first. The cancer had not spread to her lymph nodes, so she didn’t need radiation. She started her first of three rounds of chemotherapy after her body had a month to heal from the mastectomy.
Meanwhile, Michael was going through treatment at UCHealth Cancer Care and Hematology Clinic – Greeley, where he also tapped into counseling services. He participated in studies at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital. He had regular fluid draws in an effort to drain fluids from his nonfunctioning liver. He would sleep for hours during the day, Mary recalled, and he wasn’t getting any better.
“I could tell he was tired, but he never complained,” Michael Aaron said. “I never heard him mad at God. … My father was strong and courageous and he was loved by many. He touched many lives, and I can say I want to be more like him each day.”
Unlike breast cancer survival rates, survival rates for cholangiocarcinoma are low — only 50% of patients live for 12 months after diagnosis, and only 5% live more than five years. And unless it’s caught early, treatment options are very limited, Kemme said.
Winning and losing
By late summer, Jennifer had made it through her first intense round of chemotherapy. She lost her hair and her strength. But nonetheless, she did her best to stay positive.
“I can’t say it was all me,” Jennifer said. “We talk about our faith a lot, and I knew for my kids especially, I needed to stay positive.”
Datko said attitude and a strong support system play a part in the success of treatment and recovery.
“There are still those physical side effects of treatment, but Jennifer really did have a good attitude,” Datko said. “That’s her personality — that fighter — tough it out and do what it takes. And then there was her family who rallied around her.”
Michael Aaron credits his dad for instilling such strong personality traits in his children.
“I remember everyday my dad would walk in the front door, he would always greet everyone in our home, especially my mother, with a smile, no matter what adversity he had to face that day,” Michael Aaron said. “He never allowed adversity to bring him down. My dad would always have a positive attitude and uplifting things to say.”
A family united
Kayla attends Campion Academy, a private boarding high school in Loveland, where she is currently a senior. Last year, as a junior, she’d return home often on weekends to help the family.
Because of her strong relationships with her mom and grandfather, the realities of cancer struck her hard. She lights up when she talks about her grandfather, who drove her to and from school and often stopped to get a special treat they could enjoy.
“He lived to make us better,” she said.
As a mom, Jennifer wanted to be there for her daughter, but as she fought cancer she found that often it was her daughter who had to be there for her.
“Kayla took the brunt, taking care of me a lot,” Jennifer said.
So much to deal with
Having chemotherapy close to home allowed Jennifer to return to her job at a local early childhood center during her second round of treatment. Although she didn’t spend as much time in the classroom because of her already compromised immune system, it provided her with a healthy outlet.
“I tried to work through it on my second chemo,” Jennifer said. “Dad was getting worse though. But I know, for me, it took a lot of my thinking away from what I was going through. I had something else to focus on. It helped me stay busy, and I knew once I got well enough I was going to return full time to work — that was never a question.”
Work also provided stability for her and her family. Her youngest daughter attended the early childhood center, so having Mom down the hallway lessened Kennedy’s anxiety during a very chaotic time.
Finding peace in the realities of cancer
When Michael’s chemotherapy didn’t work, the family had exhausted their treatment options. They brought Michael home and began working with hospice.
On Nov. 27, 2018, Michael gave his last sermon at Carbon Valley Seventh Day Adventist church in Dacono as he was told he probably only had a few more weeks to live. As an ordained elder, he often helped with church services. Mary said their friends, family and church helped lighten their burden during this time by providing food, visitations and prayers.
There were also many helpers at UCHealth, the family said.
One of the moments that stands out is the day Jennifer finished chemotherapy and rang a bell signifying the end of her treatment. Her nurse read a poem:
“What Cancer Cannot Do.
It cannot and will not … destroy confidence, cripple love, shatter hope, take away peace, corrode faith, kill friendship, shut out memories, silence courage, reduce eternal life nor quench the spirit.”
“That for me was really emotional,” she said. “It was at a point where I finally realized that I fought breast cancer, beat it and was recovering — it was the very first time that I actually realized what was going on. At the beginning everything is happening so fast, you are going through the motions, doing what you’re told so you will be better and fight it.”
Moving forward, staying strong
Jennifer and her family think of their father daily.
“I’m remembering how positive he stayed through everything,” Jennifer said. “Lots of times, no matter what, he always tried to have a smile on his face, even though there were days, especially towards the end, we could see he was in pain.
“But he said whatever happened, we should always remember that he loves us, and remember the good times we had, and that God is always with us and would help us through it.”
Jennifer said her father accepted his death — something she struggled with.
“He wasn’t going to make it, and I was,” she said. “I don’t know how long it will take, but there are still days I feel that little bit of guilt. I just have to remember; I can hear his voice in the back of my head saying, ‘It’s OK. You still have your kids and your life. You need to go on.’”
With the support of each other and their faith, the Gonzalez family is moving forward. They have settled into a new home, as the memories of those last few months of Michael’s life engulfed too much of their old home. Mary and Jennifer have returned to their jobs. And Kayla is getting ready to graduate this year.
They remind themselves of Michael’s strong faith and celebrate him whenever they can.
“I remember him every day,” Mary said. “He told me to look at our grandkids with pride and give them kisses; tell them that he loved them.”
Recently, the family, including Michael Aaron and his 12-year-old son, Michael David, gathered at Glenmere Park in Greeley. It was Michael and Mary’s favorite spot, one they had been visiting together since becoming high school sweethearts. It was Michael’s birthday, so they released white balloons and scattered some of his ashes.
“It’s not easy,” Mary said. “But you have to — and you can — go on. This was God’s plan for us. We need to always place our trust in him and know he will help and direct our lives accordingly.”