What Jeff Wonders thought was a hernia turned out to be a more serious issue in late 2016.
The 56-year-old Streator resident noticed a little hardness around his belly button and after a number of doctor appointments it was later diagnosed as a form of appendix cancer.
Worse yet, this would be Jeff’s second battle with cancer after being diagnosed with testicular cancer just less than 30 years ago.
“I was shocked,” Jeff said. “You kind of think, ‘Why me?’ ”
He remains in strong spirits and speaks candidly about the struggle despite not having a clear, treatable plan. The cancer has become too advanced for surgery but he may be approved for trial testing in the future.
The health concerns have weighed heavily on his family but his wife, Julia, also keeps her spirits high.
“I’m doing OK,” she responds. “I’m just worried about him.”
“She’s been burning it at both ends as I’m not a lot of help with a lot of things,” Jeff added.
Jeff was diagnosed with pseudomyxoma peritonei, a rarer form of cancer neither of them were familiar with at first.
And they weren’t alone.
“You’d be surprised by the doctors and nurses I run into where they’ll say, ‘I have to look that up, I don’t know that one,’ ” Jeff said.
The Appendix Cancer Pseudomyxoma Peritonei Research Foundation describes the disease as causing a small growth in the appendix that bursts through the wall of the appendix and spreads mucus-producing tumor cells. As the cells accumulate, the abdominal area swells and digestive functions become impaired, leading to death.
Jeff has undergone 18 rounds of chemo and has been put on temporary disability from his job at the Sheridan Correctional Center. It has stopped him from engaging in personal projects such as the restoration of Naramor Cemetery, northwest of Streator.
Jeff has worked with John Kettman, of La Salle, since 2012 and recalled the weeds being 2 feet higher than their heads.
They worked together to find graves buried underground and do follow-up research to determine the heritage and present-day family members.
“We’ve had people from around the country that have ancestors actually buried there wanted to know about it," Jeff said. "It brightens their day to know we’re finding these and taking care of them for them.”
He's been unable to help much with the physical work at the cemetery but has watched it slowly return to its former glory as a cemetery.
Jeff has found new hobbies, however, and takes pride in having restored his faith in a higher power.
He’s become a regular attendee at Central Church of Christ and said new perspectives and understanding can be found in their regular Bible study sessions.
The family continues to move forward and Jeff is supported emotionally by friends and family, including his daughters, 13-year-old Maddy and 10-year-old Lilly.
“They know what’s going on and I think they’re taking it pretty well,” Jeff said.
Julia said some days are more of a struggle than others as she maintains a routine for the family.
“It’s just difficult looking after the girls and looking after him and working two jobs,” she said.
“She’s got three kids now, basically,” Jeff said with a laugh.
The family said they’ve been blessed with community support both in donations and meals as well as volunteers helping to prepare a fundraising benefit this Saturday.
“We’ve gotten a lot of stuff donated and some people I don’t even know donated,” Julia said.
“It’s crazy. People talk a lot of crap about (Streator) and you see a lot of negative (conversations on social media) but it’s crazy how positive it is,” she added.
She said it’s Jeff’s optimism that keeps her going every day.
“The fact that he keeps fighting to stay here makes it so I keep fighting to take care of everything,” Julia said.
A benefit is planned for Jeff Wonders at 5 p.m. Saturday at the Moose Lodge, East 1725th Road, with Mojofilter expected to perform from 7 to 11 p.m.
Admission is $10 and the benefit will feature a variety of food and a silent auction.
For more information, contact Joe Richard at 630-408-2072.