Selfish and determined.
Those are the words that Rhonda Ulmer has uttered frequently over the last few years as cancer has ravaged her body.
Her daughter, Tania, wrote a poem in which she described herself with those two words. Selfish, for wanting her Mom to get better. Determined to see it happen.
For a short time this year, it seemed like the Severn resident was winning the battle. After a surgery in July—her fourth—Ulmer seemed to be on the mend, and attended a special ceremony at the White House where she was honored for her volunteer work.
But the cancer, aggressive and invasive, came back again. It has cost her a kidney, her appendix, and portions of her intestines. And Ulmer has not glossed over the truth of her situation.
“I am,” she said, “in the fight of my life.”
‘Something Was Wrong’
During a recent interview with Patch, Ulmer stroked her hand along the cheek of her thin face. Her cheekbones protruded slightly underneath her bookish eyeglasses. But ironically, it was an unexpected weight gain that caused her to discover she had cancer.
Ulmer, 37, saw her doctor frequently in 2008 and 2009. She knew she didn’t feel well, but her discomfort was hard to describe. She appeared to be gaining some weight in the belly, but doctors simply told her to exercise and eat healthier. But the “belly fat” was only getting worse, and her doctor eventually ordered a battery of tests.
The diagnosis: Liposarcoma, a rare form of cancer that attacks the soft tissues of the body. Within four days, Ulmer had drastic surgery to remove a tumor that had surrounded a kidney, a portion of her liver, her appendix and her diaphragm. The tumor weighed nearly 14 pounds.
It didn’t help that research related to Liposarcoma is relatively limited. Only 11,280 people will be diagnosed with soft tissue cancer in 2012, according to the American Cancer Society. Nearly 4,000 will die from it.
Ulmer had another surgery in January requiring the removal of her small intestine. A third surgery in July cost her part of her large intestine. At that point, she thought that maybe—just maybe—she was out of the woods.
A Trip to the White House
After being battered by surgeries, Ulmer finally got some good news over the summer. The White House invited her to take part in a special day to honor Americorps workers, and she was named along with 12 others as a “Champion for Change” for her volunteer work in the community.
Ulmer, a single mother of three, had immersed herself in the PTA at Van Bokkelen Elementary School, and earned praise for boosting test scores there.
As part of Americorps, she also worked with Community Action Agency and other groups to form an education initiative for low-income parents in the community. “University for Parents” has since been used as a model to help parents with basic needs so they can be more engaged in their children’s success in school.
“I did what I could do as a parent to help,” she said. “I thought, ‘if you can’t provide for your basic needs, how can you afford to help them in schools?’”
“You Can Only Have So Many Surgeries”
Just weeks after her White House visit, Ulmer found herself in the emergency room. She got an X-Ray. Her cancer was back for a fourth time.
“It’s just gotten more and more aggressive, more and more invasive,” she said. “It’s almost like the tumor said ‘so what? You took me out on the left side, I’ll just go to the right side.’”
Ulmer’s treatment options have grown limited. Surgeries are now all but out of the question. Chemotherapy and radiation are considered ineffective against her form of cancer.
“I feel like I am at the end of the road, here,” she said.
Ulmer is now turning to alternative treatments. There’s a theory that the body may respond well to an “alkaline” diet that is heavy on fruits and vegetables. Another treatment would involve oxygen therapy. None of the treatments are cheap or covered by insurance, so Ulmer is seeking donations to help pay for them. She has set up a website at giveforward.com/supportrhondasfight, and has raised $1,500 thus far.
“I’ve got to be strong for my kids,” she said. “But cancer just takes so much from you. Actually, let me re-phrase ... it tries to take so much from you. I have to keep fighting. I just want like anything to not only beat the odds but be able to see my children graduate from high school, to be able to see them graduate from college.”