When Jodi Checkeye sat down next to her son, Tyler, she didn’t say a word.
No words were needed.
Tyler was holding his son, Patrick, grinning at the 3-month-old staring back at him. Jodi, who was a teacher for 42 years at Isom Elementary School in Greenwood, was marveling at her grandson like he was the first child she had ever laid eyes on.
Tyler, a father, and Jodi, a grandmother — it’s something neither thought they would experience. At least not together.
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In February 2014, Tyler Checkeye’s wife, Hannah, had a miscarriage. Three days later, Tyler Checkeye found out that the lumps around his neck were thyroid cancer.
A mother had to watch her son face cancer. Tyler Checkeye’s diagnosis forced her to face the reality that he might never get to be a father.
“My parents are both living and in their 90s. It was hard for them to think about Tyler facing cancer instead of them. And I thought why not me? When it’s your child, you’d rather it be you,” Jodi Checkeye said. “You don’t want your kids to have to go through anything bad. You’re scared for them. The word cancer scares everybody.”
When he was diagnosed, Tyler Checkeye wasn’t told what stage of cancer, he was simply told it’s advanced. In a matter of weeks, he and his wife received the news and prepared for surgery.
When Checkeye was alone with his thoughts, he was afraid of dying. He was afraid for himself, afraid for Hannah and afraid for his family. He appreciated his doctor’s straightforward approach. There was no false optimism, no forced encouragement that everything would be OK, no pat on the back after he explained what the next steps were. His doctor said the cancer was aggressive, and in less than two weeks time he was going to perform a procedure to remove the cancer from his neck and throat.
‘You feel helpless’
“There’s nothing like watching the person you love the most in the world go through this,” Hannah Checkeye said. “You feel helpless. It’s scary. There isn’t anything you can do. I would sit there and watch him sleep, and it was just so unfair, why is this happening to us.”Tyler Checkeye’s procedure was successful. By May 2014, his cancer had gone into remission, and he and Hannah could begin to focus again on starting a family. He was also able to stand as a groomsman in his younger brother’s wedding.
Later that month, Jodi Checkeye learned she had aggressive, Stage 3 breast cancer. Just as Tyler Checkeye was recovering and getting back to a normal life, his mom was facing a fight with cancer.
Based on the aggressive stage her cancer was in at the time it was discovered, doctors told Jodi Checkeye a success would be her living for the next five years.
“We didn’t have time to bounce back from Tyler’s diagnosis and surgery,” Hannah Checkeye said. “It was hard watching her go through it.”
Cancer dealt Jodi Checkeye a huge blow: a forced, early retirement. She loved her job. She loved the kids. But the fight that was ahead of her left no time, no energy and no realistic possibility to continue teaching.
On the last day of the 2014 school year, the last day of Jodi Checkeye’s long, decorated and respected teaching career, she had an appointment that included radioactive scans. As long as she had been a teacher at Isom, one of the most reliable sights on the last day of school was Mrs. Checkeye standing at the door to the buses, hugging her students as they left.
On this day, just before she returned to Isom to carry out that same tradition for the last time, her doctor told her she couldn’t be around children for 24 hours because of the radiation.
When Jodi Checkeye returned to Isom, she could only stand at the door and wave and explain to the children who couldn’t understand why Mrs. Checkeye wasn’t able to give them hugs that she was sick.
‘Don’t want to give
up’One of the children asked her, ‘Are you going to die?’ in the innocent, curious way children do. Not today, Jodi Checkeye said.Jodi Checkeye cried all the way home from Isom, mourning her job and that she couldn’t even hug her students.Just as Tyler Checkeye did, she thought about death. During the early days, weeks and months of her battle, she thought about the possibility of dying, and just like her teacher career, life, too, ending well before she was ready.
“I never wanted to go online and know what the statistics of surviving were,” Jodi Checkeye said. “I don’t want to give up anything that’s on earth right now. I like being here. I like being around my family. Cancer is just you, though. It’s your own personal journey. You realize everyone else is going to go on. I’d do chemo, radiation and surgery again because I think life is pretty amazing.”
By September 2014, Jodi Checkeye’s days were melting together between the chemotherapy, radiation and the imminent surgery she would need.
During the worst of chemo, she would close her eyes and sleep without fear of not waking up and just letting go, drifting deeply into sleep, succumbing to the battle of fighting the side effects.
At one point, she was lying in bed, her sons Tyler, Evan and Ryan in the room with her, and it was the one time she almost willingly gave up.
“Alone with your own thoughts, I’d do all the things people facing death tend to do, thinking that my turn on earth may be over. It’s pretty sobering,” she said. “That day, though, with all of my boys in the same room. That was probably the easiest day I could have just let go. I was at peace.”
‘Jodi was so s
elfless’Jodi Checkeye wouldn’t remember many family visits during her chemotherapy due to the impossible fatigue. Her family didn’t expect anything more of her. They knew she was exhausted, but she would not let on how much she was going through, nor the magnitude of her sickness, Hannah Checkeye said.When her son Evan Checkeye and his wife, Diondra, would visit, they couldn’t comprehend what she was going through because she didn’t let it show, Diondra Checkeye said.“Jodi was so selfless. She wouldn’t be honest about how bad chemo was, or how she was. We always knew it was worse than what she was saying,” Hannah Checkeye said.
The best days during chemotherapy were still miserable, Jodi Checkeye said.
One day, she drove to Tyler Checkeye’s home. He had just finished his fight with cancer. Jodi Checkeye was merely beginning hers and being around Tyler brought her comfort.
She sat down next to Tyler and didn’t say a word.
For Tyler Checkeye, talking about cancer wasn’t something he did often. He just wanted life to get back to normal, he said. When he was fighting cancer he didn’t need his mom to say anything to him, he just wanted his parents to be there for him.
Jodi Checkeye didn’t want to talk about cancer either.
So the two sat. For nearly three hours, they watched TV. They laughed, but they didn’t speak. That time provided more medicine for her heart and soul than any treatment.
Several weeks later, Jodi Checkeye was starting to beat cancer. On this day, Tyler and Hannah Checkeye had an announcement for her that, much like the comfort of simply sitting next her son, or lying in bed while all three of her boys were present, didn’t need many words.
‘I wasn’t ready to quit’
The couple had a picture of an ultrasound. Tyler was going to be a dad; Jodi, a grandmother. Her cancer was on the path to remission.“Telling mom about the baby was lifting to her spirits,” Tyler Checkeye said. “It was more than anything we could have said or done. She loved getting ultrasound pictures and updates and we were excited to tell her.”
By April 2015, Jodi Checkeye, no longer taking the rounds of chemotherapy and recovered from her mastectomy, was at the hospital to welcome her grandson, Patrick Checkeye, into the world.
Doctors tell Checkeye she is in remission. But she feels like she will be living in a fight against cancer for the rest of her life.
“I had to be honest with myself, if it was time to go, but I wasn’t ready to quit. I got Patrick, and I want to see Patrick’s siblings and Evan and Diondra’s kids, and I hope Ryan finds someone and has a family. I want to be here for that. So, when I go to the doctor, I want to hear cancer-free, but they won’t say that. So, I’ll be living the rest of my life with cancer, but I’m not ready to quit,” she said.
For Jodi Checkeye, reflecting on all she has accomplished in life and basking in the happiness of having a grandchild makes living with cancer a little less bitter, and it makes her fight all the more worth it.
“Cancer makes you think about all the things you wish you had done and didn’t do. But the two things in life I wanted most I got. I have a family, and I wanted that so badly. I wanted to be a teacher, so badly, and I got that. I don’t want to have cancer, but it’s kind of selfish to be upset about getting cancer when God had given me all I ever wanted,” Jodi Checkeye said.
Name: Jodi Checkeye
Diagnosed: April 2014
Type of Cancer: Breast Cancer, Stage 3
Treatment: Radiation, chemotherapy, mastectomy
What cancer taught me: I met so many people so much younger, with so much courage, having to go through it. There were people who have children that have cancer. You don’t realize how many people are affected by cancer.
How cancer changed me: I’ve become aware of other people’s hurt and troubles. It makes me more sensitive knowing people have gone through huge things. I’m more aware of what people are dealing with.
What would I tell someone just diagnosed with cancer? Just letting them know I’m sorry they’re going through this, and answer any questions they have about going through this.
Name: Tyler Checkeye
Diagnosed: February 2014
Type of Cancer: Thyroid cancer
Treatment: Radiation, surgery to remove lumps in neck
What cancer taught me: Cancer is not the unknown that it was before. Life doesn’t just stop when you’re fighting cancer. You think before, someone going through it, they must be doing just chemo every day. Life goes on with cancer, it doesn’t rule your every day. You can’t just stay in your bedroom how ever many months you’re fighting. And the fight isn’t just physical, it’s mental. You’re trying to fight the defeatist attitude: is this the end? But you have to go on about your business.
How cancer changed me: I know it’s just people being nice, but people go through the motions with false optimism, saying it’s going to be OK. People would tell Hannah ‘This is the best cancer to get’ when she would tell them the news. I just wanted people to feel sorry for me. When I see someone going through something, I just tell them I’m sorry, and feel sorry for them. I felt like people saying it’s going to be OK was just lip service.
What would I tell someone just diagnosed with cancer? I would love to tell my story to someone I knew that had to go through this. And if they don’t want to hear it from me, even if it’s a different cancer, I’ll at least listen to you.