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August 5, 2013 • 08:06:07 a.m.

After surviving childhood cancer, daughter returns home to Crystal Lake when mother diagnosed with Stage IV

By JAMI KUNZER - jkunzer@shawmedia.com

Amanda Armstrong (left) and her mother, Veronica Armstrong bring out the horses at their Crystal Lake home Wednesday, July 24, 2013. Amanda, who beat a very rare form of bone cancer when she was younger moved in with her mother after Veronica was diagnosed with sarcoma cancer. (Sarah Nader - snader@shawmedia.com)

Veronica Armstrong pulled out seven photo albums that tell the story of her daughter's battle with cancer.

Then 10, Amanda Armstrong smiled weakly from a hospital bed. Her body frail from chemotherapy, her head was covered with a purple-flowered cap full of angel pins she'd collected from family and friends.

She picked up the cap, now sealed in a plastic bag.

"I eventually got to the point where I couldn't wear it," she remembered. "It was just too heavy."

She glanced through the photographs along with old, laminated newspaper clippings about her year-long struggle at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital with a cancer that made medical history. 

Amanda had orbital osteosarcoma, basically a tumor in her right eye socket. While the type of bone cancer wasn't necessarily rare, its location was, and surgeons were forced to go off protocol as they eventually spent 11 hours removing it.

It's been nearly two decades since then.

Years since she was quoted as a child with the adult-like wisdom cancer often brings: "Cancer isn't prejudiced. Cancer has no conscience. Cancer has no rules. Cancer has no limits or time."

To Amanda, that was all history. Cancer lost. She won. 

"It's a little surreal. I kind of forgot about all this," she said. 

Then a call came from her mother.

"I have adenocarcinoma," her mother told her. 

In Stage IV, the cancer had started in the 53-year-old's lungs and spread to her brain. She'd need radiation, chemotherapy, just as her daughter did years ago.

Cancer was no longer history.

And just as they fought in the past, the mother and daughter would forge ahead together.

'Here we are again.'

At age 27, Amanda moved back into the Crystal Lake bedroom she grew up in as a child. 

Recently married in May, she brought her husband with her.

She met Yabin Zhao, or "Joe" as he's called in America, while studying in Japan. The two say it was love at first sight.

"We were supposed to start off as friends, but it didn't work that way," Amanda said. 

They both were studying at Sophia University in Japan, where Amanda had transferred to learn advanced level Japanese.

Japanese music had drawn her in as a child, and she vowed one day to figure out what the singers were saying.

She had determination, wanted to live life to the fullest, a motivation instilled in her during those hospital stays in which a return home wasn't guaranteed.

"It probably made me strong, gave me a sense of urgency to do things in life," she said. "I still feel like I should be doing something with my life, proving myself. ... 

"Learning another language was not an easy task after receiving so much radiation. There were a lot of kids that didn't make it. For their sake, I want to be the best I can be."

A couple of years at McHenry County College after graduating in 2004 from Prairie Ridge High School, and Amanda was off on an adventure. 

Regularly tested, cancer no longer posed a threat.

"At 19, they finally said I'm all clear," she remembered. "I'm free to go out into the wild."

She'd earned a bachelor's degree in Asian studies, with a minor in Japanese language, from Temple University in Japan before heading to Sophia University.

Zhao earned his master's degree in marketing.

Originally from China, he and Amanda were married there. 

"I spent all this money to learn Japanese, and I marry a Chinese guy," she said with a laugh. "But we love each other, and here we are."

Veronica attended the wedding. Her daughter sensed something was off with her mother. She seemed tired, and it was if her face drooped.

Amanda worried then, even more when she found out her mother had gotten into a minor car accident. She missed a turn on Bull Valley Road, hit a bush.

Tests at the hospital revealed the cancer.

A few weeks later, Amanda was home.

"It wasn't what I was expecting. It's a little odd. We went through all of this when I was 10 and now here we are again. Some of the chemo she's had, I've had. I've been there before," she said. "It's like reliving the past almost."

'Let it go.'

A massage therapist, Veronica had to quit her job. She's completed radiation, along with one round of chemotherapy. Another four rounds are coming. 

She no longer can drive, but Amanda's there to take her where she needs to be, monitor her health.

She's amazed at how well her mother's doing. Advancements through the years have eased the impact of treatments.

"She's always running around," Amanda said, pointing out Veronica had left the room again, this time to clean a bird feeder in the kitchen. "You wouldn't notice she actually has cancer."

The family has no idea how this latest battle will turn out.

The prognosis for those in Stage 4 cancer typically isn't optomistic, with some statistics showing a 10 percent survival rate. 

Still, Amanda's odds weren't always positive either.

And the family says they have plenty going for them.

"So many positive prayers, I can actually feel it," said Veronica, her bare head wrapped in a bandana. "It's like it comes in ocean waves."

She admits to feeling frustrated, and flattened by surges of self pity sometimes.

But she confronts those feeling head-on.

"Alright universe, what do I have to change?" she asked when the diagnosis came. "You've probably been giving me signs and I've been ignoring them. You've got to knock me down so I pay attention."

When the negativity almost becomes too much, she tells herself: "Let it go. Let it go. Let it go."


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