With long hair, Jenny Rodgers never really gave a lot of thought to her neck.
Rodgers had noticed a knot on it.
“But so what,” Rodgers thought. It would go away. Too much was going on in life to slow down and worry about the knot.
But her doctor was concerned.
Rodgers was a 13-year-old about to enter eighth grade. Born and raised in Pauls Valley, she was involved in dance, basketball, and cheerleading. A physical was required to participate in sports. Rodgers' mother insisted she go to her doctor for a complete physical.
“They thought it was cat scratch fever at first and treated me with antibiotics,” Rodgers said. “But when the knot didn't go away, they decided to do a biopsy.”
After a long weekend of waiting, Rodgers and her parents went to the hospital that Monday for the results.
The family met with the doctor who delivered the news, “Hodgkin's lymphoma ... cancer.”
Today, Rodgers, 29, is executive director of the Cavett Kids Foundation, which provides positive experiences for courageous kids diagnosed with life-threatening illnesses. The program promotes the development of character, coping skills and connection. The foundation's mission is to provide camps and other events for children who have life-threatening and chronic illnesses.
“I had lost dear friends to cancer in the past, so all I really knew was that cancer equaled death,” Rodgers said of hearing the diagnosis. “(The doctor) explained that we would be going to Children's Hospital in Oklahoma City for testing the next week.”
The family cried and asked lots of questions. When they left, they cried some more.
Then suddenly, the teen was done crying.
“I remember telling my mom in the car, ‘OK, we cannot cry anymore,'” Rodgers said. “‘It's not going to help us. So if you need to cry, don't do it around me and I won't do it around you. Deal?'
“She agreed, and honestly, I don't really think I ever saw my parents cry again during the process, except maybe for the good news.”
When Rodgers got home, “pretty much the entire football team and town of Pauls Valley was there waiting and cheering me on.”
“I love the support of a small town,” she said.
A genuine love
The biopsy was the last week of August in 1997. Rodgers underwent a surgery and had her first chemo in early September. She finished radiation treatments on Dec. 10, 1997.
She felt blessed that it had been caught very early. She underwent six rounds of chemo and 14 radiation treatments. Rodgers had many other trips to the doctor and tests, but again felt blessed not to have any overnight hospital stays the entire time, she said.
When Rodgers looks back on her battle with cancer, she sees a teen preparing for her future.
“I saw so many different and incredibly courageous people throughout my journey,” she said. “For the most part, I did my treatments and was ready to get back home. But I always remember looking around and seeing the ‘sick kids' that looked so much worse than I did. I sometimes forgot I was sick, and it was just a really big reality check to see kids that could barely move, they were so sick.”
She never forgot those children.
They have different names and different faces, but she still works with them today at the Cavett Kids Foundation.
“I get it,” she said. “It's really as simple as that. I get what they are going through and what they are feeling. I get their emotions, their fears, their frustrations, their joys, their sorrows, their scars — physical and emotional — I just get it.”
Danny Cavett is chaplain at The Children's Hospital at OU Medical Center. He is also the man for whom the Cavett Kids Foundation is named.
“She has a genuine love for the kids,” Cavett said. “Then there's her excitement about taking life and making the best of it, and she instills that in the kids.”
A huge family
Rodgers, who lives in Oklahoma City, calls the children she has worked with and those she still works with, her “Cavett Kids Family.”
It's a huge family. She provided an example of these children who bless her and she tries to help them.
Stevy Cellum was a teenage girl who attended Cavett Kids Ski Camp. She beat one form of cancer and then was diagnosed with a different type of cancer, leukemia.
Cellum was in Rodgers' condo at camp. So the two got to know each other not only then, but during Cellum's 100-day hospital stay. Rodgers also became close with Cellum's family.
Even during the toughest times, the family remained strong in their faith, Rodgers said.
“They always said, ‘We believe,' and had T-shirts and bracelets made,” Rodgers said. “In all conversations, it was obvious that Stevy believed in God's plan for her.”
After a long and courageous battle, Cellum was told that there was nothing else that could be done. Stevy Lyn Cellum died on Oct. 15, 2011, at age 16.
Rodgers attended her close friend's funeral.
“Stevy had requested that “I STILL BELIEVE” be embroidered on the lining of the casket, under the part they lift up,” Rodgers said. “Even in her final days, she never stopped believing. What a beautifully strong and courageous angel.”
Rodgers tells that story to acknowledge that her job “could make anyone question why these kids go through things at such a young age.”
“But I knew that God was sending a message through Stevy,” she said. “I keep a picture of her on my desk to remind myself that no matter what, I have to keep believing and trusting in God's plan. That's how I feel about going through my cancer; God knew what He was doing.”