Laci Schwenneker, 25, is a passionate nurse and lifelong Winter Garden resident who intends to stay that way, whether for 80 more years or 80 more days.
“I’ve always been really involved in the West Orange community, never wanted to leave here,” she said. “Ever since I was little, I always knew I never wanted to leave. Winter Garden’s my town, since before they redeveloped downtown.”
The latter period recently became a possibility when Schwenneker learned she had Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer originating from white blood cells.
“It’s stage 2A Hodgkins,” Schwenneker said. “They caught it in the earlier stages, because I have nodes in my neck and multiple nodes in my chest. But it’s not in my bone marrow, which is good. If it was in my bone marrow, it would automatically go to stage four. I don’t have any nodes in any organs or anything like that.”
Schwenneker noticed an enlarged lymph node in her neck, but she thought little of it, because she had a cold, which can often cause swollen nodes as a symptom. When her cold dissipated, the node remained big, but she still did not visit a doctor, because she felt fine.
“The only reason I went to my physician was because my girlfriend told me to,” Schwenneker said. “When my physician mentioned she might call her friend who’s an oncologist, I wasn’t freaking out, because there wasn’t anything definitive yet. Once I was admitted to the hospital, they put me in an oncology unit. Then I (said), ‘Oh, my God — I seriously do have cancer.’”
Schwenneker was not sad or worried, just nervous, because she knew she would get a port for chemotherapy, her hair would fall out and the chemo would nauseate her.
“Even now that I’m in the thick of it, I don’t think it’s anything that will kill me, because I know the disease process, and the research on it in the last 15 years has been crazy,” she said. “I was telling my family it’s my task at hand — I have to do this, like when I went to college. That’s how I view this whole process. I’m not going to sit and complain about it or cry about it — I’ve cried once about it, but it’s not something where I’m going feel sad about it, because there’s nothing I can do about it. I decided to pray about it, talking to people and getting counsel from people who have been through it.”
That includes two of her aunts, who had double mastectomies before doctors declared them free of breast cancer.
“It’s awful when you find out any type of cancer,” Schwenneker said. “Both of them have been strong women and a resource for me to talk to, having been through it, and be with and pray with.”
Schwenneker has drawn prayer and other support from throughout the area.
“I go to First Baptist Orlando, and my mom works for a consignment shop they have,” she said. “Everyone that I talk to, from family to friends of family, family outside Florida, people from high school, people from the softball teams I’ve played on or coached, is supportive. It feels like the whole city of Winter Garden and Ocoee and the whole surrounding area that knows is just thinking about me and praying for me.”
One of the first connections to show support was a pair of friends from her West Orange High class. They painted themselves orange and blue for a hospital visit, just as they had with Schwenneker for football games before graduating in 2008. It made her laugh and cheered her up, she said.
Her family hosted a barbecue on Nov. 30 to raise funds, with Schwenneker, her father and her best friend among those shaving their heads.
I live with my girlfriend, Jessica. We’ve been together three years, and she’s a huge support system for me with my family. She hasn’t gone back to work yet, but she will next weekend. We spend a lot of time together, and she’ll ask whether I’m all right. Yes, I promise, I’m doing OK. I’m a nurse who knows what’s going on, and she’s not, so she’s just trying to figure everything out — it’s scarier for her.
BIG SISTER TO ALL
Perhaps the widest outpour of support has been that of the many girls and women Schwenneker played softball with, coached or merely interacted with, from her youth through today. Many of those ladies have told her how they looked to her as a strong role model, always picking up others.
“To hear people say that about me really lifts me up,” Schwenneker said. “I have to get through this for me, but I also have to get through this for my whole community. They’re all looking at me, like, ‘What’s she going to do?’ I’ve always been the local badass. I’m not really, but I play off like I am. I’ve been like that my whole life: everyone knows that’s my attitude around here. I need to uphold that.”
One girl Schwenneker played with and then coached said every girl Schwenneker came across looked up to her somehow, which motivated Schwenneker to beat cancer. A girl Schwenneker met a few years ago while watching her younger brothers play baseball was so encouraged by Schwenneker that she imitated her wardrobe and went to the same eyebrow waxer.
“I was just doing my homework,” she said. “I never knew how much she looked up to me, and now she’s a strong, independent woman. To hear her say that, knowing I have that effect on girls, is awesome. I didn’t mean to — I was just being buddies with them. Girls told me they went into nursing school because I was a nurse.”
Like ladies she read about in the West Orange Times, Schwenneker wants to be an inspiration for local girls.
“Knowing that I’m that somebody for girls is so awesome that I almost don’t mind having cancer,” she said. “Knowing that someone could see me with cancer, if they get something like this, God forbid, I want them to see that it’s completely doable. You don’t have to fall apart. You don’t have to be a sick person. Yeah, I feel great right now and probably won’t feel like this my whole process, but I want people to see it’s OK to lose your hair. I’m fine, and if you go through this, you’ll be fine.”
Once she is cured, Schwenneker plans to continue work as an ICU nurse and then get a master’s degree to become a family nurse practitioner. For now, she intends to spend more time with family — especially her grandparents — and slow down to live in the moment, something she said she needed, regardless of how much she prefers to be industrious.
For more information or to support Laci, visit gofundme.com/stronglylaced.
Contact Zak Kerr at [email protected].