Cancer advocate who helped others now in need
Joanie Hencler has been raising awareness and funds for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society for the last three years. In that time, she and her sister Julie Hencler have raised at least $20,000 for the cause by taking part in various events, including 100-mile bike races.
But now Joanie needs help. Ironically, she has a rare form of blood cancer herself and her friends and family are rallying to lend a hand. She is undergoing six treatments of chemotherapy at Rhode Island Hospital in Providence, and will soon start radiation at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. Her medical bills are growing each day, and she anticipates they will get even bigger in the near future.
To help raise funds, her loved ones are holding a Spaghetti Dinner at the Knights of Columbus on Jan. 26, beginning at 4 p.m. The event will feature dinner, spagetti with meatballs, Italian bread, dessert and a cash bar. Andy Hencler, Joanie’s father, is a local Shriner, and will be preparing the food along with his Shrine buddies.
More than 25 local businesses have donated gift certificates and other products for raffle items. A silent auction will determine the winners. R-FX-DJs, as well as local band Jeff Byrd and the Dirty Finch, will provide entertainment.
Joanie, who grew up in Warwick, graduated from Pilgrim in 1996. She is now living in Johnston and working for Falvey Insurance Group in Quonset. She said she is humbled and honored by the outpouring of support.
“I can’t believe people are going out of their way,” she said. “They are all supporting me and praying for me. It’s unbelievable.”
Considering Joanie’s generous spirit, her best friend, Katie Paliotta, said it is the least they can do. The two have been friends since elementary school.
“Joanie has always been there for everybody, and she’s just such a good person,” said Paliotta, a Cranston resident. “She not only devotes her money, she devotes her time. The fact that she goes out of her way for people, never asks for anything in return and has never looked for recognition for things shows that she’s a humble person. It’s inspiring.”
Julie feels the same. She added that their work with the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society prepared them for battling the disease, and may have helped save Joanie’s life.
In fact, Joanie and Julie had just completed a 100-mile bike ride around the time Joanie found a lump in September. Joanie thought she had a small cyst, so she participated in the ride but, just to be safe, she decided to visit a doctor immediately. She received an official diagnosis in October.
“It was surreal, because we were raising money for it and we said, ‘There’s no way that it’s that,’” Julie said. “But, at the same time, seeing other people go through it was almost a good thing because she went and got checked.”
However, the diagnosis was no walk in the park. Doctors had trouble pin-pointing the problem. She had characteristics of classic Hodgkins and Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. They had to send the biopsy to Dana-Farber and they confirmed the rare diagnosis.
“The doctor said they’ve probably seen two cases in the past 12 years with the same exact type of lymphoma,” said Joanie’s mother, Janet.
Joanie began chemo Dec. 17.
“I’m feeling pretty good,” Joanie said. “I thought I was going to feel a lot sicker, but so far, so good.”
For Janet and Andy, watching their daughter fight the disease is heart wrenching. When Joanie found the lump, they prayed it was just a swollen gland or cyst.
“As parents, no matter what age your child is, you wish with all your heart that this was happening to you instead of them,” Janet said. “You wish you could trade places with them and not have to watch them go through this.”
Still, doctors have told them that, while the disease is rare, it is “highly curable.” As a family, they are focusing on staying positive.
“We’ve seen so many people that have gone through it who are good now and have been cancer-free for so many years,” Julie said. “We know she’s going to be OK, we just have to get through it. There’s no sense being mad about it.”
While she’s coping well, there are a few frustrations that Joanie deals with. As an athlete, she can’t participate in many sports, including skiing and her all-time favorite, soccer. She’s waiting for her treatment to end so she can begin living again.
“I’m definitely restricted on the things I can do,” Joanie said. “I signed up to play indoor soccer and I can’t do that. I can’t play any contact sports. I’m just looking forward to summer.”
She also can’t go out and enjoy a cocktail – alcohol is not recommended.
Another concern is having children. Doctors have said she will have a 50-50 chance of becoming pregnant because chemotherapy often affects fertility. She tried freezing her eggs, but the procedure wasn’t successful.
“I think I cried more about that than the actual diagnosis,” Joanie said.
But she is again looking on the bright side of life. She’s thrilled that she’s nominated for the Rhode Island College Sports Hall of Fame for the several records she broke at the college, including most goals and most assists.
Now, it’s Joanie that needs the assistance. The women that know her best say she deserves every bit of it.
“Joan is a wonderful daughter – every parent’s dream,” Janet said. “More than that, she is a wonderful person. She knows how to be a true friend to others.”
To purchase tickets or to make a donation, visit www.joaniefund.org. Tickets are $20 each.