Pa. soldier battling brain cancer in fight of her life
COURTDALE — After Joanne Dennis spent a year overseas serving in the U.S. military, she came home to find out she may only have a year to live.
A 31-year-old soldier with the Pennsylvania Army National Guard, Joanne was diagnosed earlier this year with terminal brain cancer after experiencing weeks of headaches, vomiting and memory lapses.
At first, she was angry over the grim diagnosis. Now she accepts it and plans to cherish every moment she has left. And she doesn't plan to give up.
"It is what it is. I just have to do what I have to do. I have to keep fighting," Joanne said recently at her Courtdale home. "I'm just trying to enjoy the time that I do have left."
The type of cancer Joanne has, glioblastoma multiforme grade 4, is aggressive and difficult to treat. After she and her husband repeatedly pressed doctors for a survival prognosis, they finally gave their best guess: 12 to 36 months.
Joanne is hoping they're wrong.
She wants to see her 10-year-old son, Evan, graduate high school. She wants to be there to help raise him to become a man.
"I want him to do more with his life than I did," Joanne said.
Joanne is a member of the Pennsylvania Army National Guard's 228th Brigade Support Battalion, which has its Golf Company stationed at the 109th Field Artillery armory in Wilkes-Barre.
Her unit spent a year in Kuwait maintaining bases before coming home in July. Around Thanksgiving, she starting feeling depression and anxiety. She began having headaches, was frequently vomiting, and struggled to speak and remember things.
"She was having so much trouble talking. Like, she couldn't find the words to talk to you and she got frustrated with herself," her husband John Dennis recalled.
Joanne thought her issue might be something as simple as being pregnant. One day in early December, she left work early and went to a local pharmacy to purchase a pregnancy test. When she got there, she didn't know where she was or why she was there. She called her husband in a panic.
Joanne was soon in the hospital. After a series of tests, doctors found a large mass in her brain. Weeks later, the couple found out it was cancer. A few more weeks later, doctors leveled with the couple: Joanne could have as little as a year to live.
The couple, who will be married two years in August, plans to cherish whatever time she has left.
"Spending time together is much more important now. Every bit of every day matters now," said John Dennis, who many area residents might better recall as DJ Bounce. "If it makes any sense, it's easier to make her smile now because everything makes her happy."
Joanne agreed about the importance of appreciating every moment.
"I don't take anything for granted anymore," she said. "Just spending time with my family is the most important."
Joanne, who has been in the National Guard for six years, said she doesn't regret spending a year away from her family for the deployment. It was her duty and obligation, she said.
"I always looked up to people in the military. It was always something I wanted to do," she said. "I'm very proud. I don't regret being over there because I wanted to be there."
While Joanne is still a member of the National Guard, she hasn't been attending drill sessions due to recent weeks of radiation and chemotherapy. She had to stop working as well. Her husband, who works for the Luzerne County Transportation Authority, was able to get her on his health insurance plan.
Still, the bills and co-payments are burdensome and almost insurmountable on one income. Family and friends recently hosted a benefit for the couple and a fundraising website was set up at www.gofundme.com/jojofightforacure.
Joanne has a "bucket list" of things she'd like to do before she dies. So far, there's only one thing on it: travel with her husband and son to Italy.
"I want to see Italy, that's the one thing," Joanne said.
"It's not a very big bucket list, but that's what it is," John Dennis said.
"Yeah, that's it," Joanne said.
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TO HELP: A website has been set up to raise money for Joanne Dennis at www.gofundme.com/jojofightforacure.