During the past several months, the stack of medical bills has continued to grow, and the Whiteland couple can only shake their heads at the total: $13,000.
And that doesn’t include the $700 in medication Chuck Abner has to take each month for a range of conditions, including pain medicine for his back and insulin for his diabetes.
Abner, 46, has always had a bad back. The Whiteland resident underwent two surgeries on his back after a fall at work left him with ruptured discs. During the second procedure, complications left him with nerve damage in his leg, and he applied for disability benefits since he could no longer work due to restrictions, such as lifting a certain amount of weight, and other limitations to his mobility.
Since that time, the family has largely depended on Jennifer Abner, 47, who works nearly 50 hours a week for Midwest Electric.
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Earlier this year, Chuck, who already had extremely limited mobility, thought he was coming down with pneumonia. But when he went to the doctor, they ran at least seven tests, and he was diagnosed with diabetes and Multiple myeloma, a cancer formed by malignant plasma cells found in bone marrow that are a vital part of the immune system.
“My heart sank. Hearing that news, it was numbing, complete disbelief. My heart breaks because he has to go through everything,” Jennifer Abner said.
So while he thought he was coming down with pneumonia, his body was actually just breaking down because his immune system was weakened by the cancer.
Doctors told him they needed to begin treating the cancer as soon as possible, so he began chemotherapy sessions once a week for six months. In August, he had to have a stem cell transplant to replace unhealthy cells. Doctors will continue to administer tests and check on Chuck’s condition in the coming weeks to see if the transplant was successful. If not, it will mean more chemotherapy and potentially another transplant attempt, Chuck Abner said.
The hope is that the stem cell transplant takes, and Chuck Abner will be able to live with the cancer in remission for the foreseeable future. Doctors have told Chuck Abner that he could live as long as 10 years before cancer could potentially come back, the couple said.
The diagnosis was a punch to the gut for a family already struggling to get by. Jennifer Abner looks at the bills scattered on the couch, then at her husband, trying to find the best way to explain her feelings.
“It’s a mixed emotion. I’m glad it’s treatable, but sometimes the mental strain financially can be tougher than the idea of him having cancer,” she said.
Even with a cancer diagnosis, life continues, and bills need to be paid, they said.
On top of the financial situation, Chuck Abner is defeated by the fact he can’t do some of the most routine tasks around the house, he said.
When the couple’s 7-year-old son, Harrison, went to Sawmill Woods Elementary School — across the street from their house — Chuck Abner couldn’t walk him to school. And he can’t be on his feet long enough to do laundry, cook dinner, clean or spend time with Harrison, he said.
Harrison is not experiencing life like a normal 7-year-old, and is having to grow up way too fast because of all of this, Chuck Abner said.
Harrison is not only having to do work around the house, such as laundry and making food for himself, he’s also dealing with stress a child his age shouldn’t have to carry around, Jennifer Abner said.
One morning, when Jennifer Abner was leaving to run errands, Harrison refused to go with her, saying he wasn’t going to leave his dad by himself. He was worried he might need assistance and be all alone, or even worse, need medical attention, she said.
Earlier this year, while Chuck Abner was going through chemotherapy, nurses at the clinic put their money together to buy zoo passes for the family. Harrison doesn’t usually get to do things like that, Chuck Abner said.
Even playing basketball, or teaching him how to ride a bike in the driveway are out of the question, Chuck Abner said.
“I feel like a burden. It’s the hardest part for me, feeling like I’m holding everyone back,” Chuck Abner said.
The couple is behind on their mortgage, and unable to pay all of their household utilities, they said. And Jennifer Abner couldn’t afford to take off work to be there for Chuck’s chemotherapy, Jennifer Abner said.
“I’ve always wondered what ‘normal’ was. There’s many definitions of ‘normal’,” Chuck Abner said.
“For me, ‘normal’ would be not having to take all of this medicine, all the time. And not having to constantly be behind (financially). We aren’t even living paycheck to paycheck. It’s disconnect notice disconnect notice.”
With Chuck’s disability benefits included, the couple makes around $2,000 per month, with more than a third going to medication, Jennifer Abner said. They tried a website where friends and family could donate money, but after about a month only $85 had been donated, and they closed the page.
Family members have dropped off groceries, bought Harrison back-to-school clothes and brought toiletries to the family, Jennifer Abner said.
While the help is appreciated, the one thing that makes a difference each day — especially for Chuck — is simply hearing from family and friends. A phone call, or someone stopping in for a visit does more for the family’s morale than any amount of money could. They become more disheartened when they feel like they’re facing it alone.
They also try to enjoy the little things. They’ve pushed the couches together in the living room, creating a makeshift bed big enough for the three of them to bunk up and have movie nights and spend time together.
Their closeness helped Chuck Abner dig deeper and push through the days when he didn’t want to go to chemotherapy, or the next procedure needed, he said.
Right now, Chuck Abner has his sights set on being able to move around his house long enough to put up Halloween decorations — it’s at the top of his “little things” list, Chuck Abner said.
“I’ve thought about it. Why do all this if I can’t do (much)? Being around to see my family is the only thing that kept me (fighting),” Chuck Abner said. “My body might be broken down, but at least I can do the little things.”
The two could have given into the pressure and snapped at any moment, but they didn’t. The couple won’t allow it.
“When one of us looks broken down, that’s when the other one will be positive and uplifting,” Jennifer Abner said.
Name: Chuck Abner
Cancer and date diagnosed: Multiple Myeloma, Jan. 29, 2016.
Treatment: Chemotherapy once a week for six months. Stem cell transplant.
What cancer taught me: Things can go bad in life in a heartbeat. Even while battling cancer, you have to cherish each and every day. You have to cherish life.
How cancer changed me: It humbled me. I look at everything differently now.
What I would tell someone just diagnosed with cancer: Don’t panic, don’t be afraid. Just take everything one day at a time and don’t ever give up fighting.