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A Cheerful Heart is Good Medicine

  March 15, 2023

“When Melanie was first fighting, I remember feeling that the gift of health was something that I never wanted to take advantage of again. That really inspired me to make the right choices every day, and to take care of myself emotionally and physically,” says Jenn Schatz.

“The silver lining is that I really try to find beauty in the everyday moment and appreciate the little things. Always try to find the one good thing, even in the hard times. Experience all that life has to offer.”

Jenn considers Melanie to be a major influence on her appreciation of life.

“My sister never gave up and faced life head-on. She played the best hand of cards she could with what she got dealt,” she says.

Melanie and her husband John lived in Spruce Grove, AB. They had raised a son, Lucas and had been happily married for 25 years. Her unwavering faith in her church and community would carry her throughout her journey.

In February of 2008, Melanie and her family were visiting a sick relative in Vancouver, BC. During her trip, she suffered a grand mal seizure.

She was taken to Royal Columbia Hospital in New Westminster, BC. Because she was over the age of 30, she had a standard MRI scan. During the procedure, a large tumour was found on the left frontal lobe.

“My brother, mom and I flew down. On the 28th, Dr. Chan completed a three-hour surgery. He was optimistic that he had removed the whole tumour, and Melanie was able to come home a week later,” Jenn states.

That April, the family learned her tumour was stage-four glioblastoma, and braced themselves for being told Melanie wouldn’t see her next birthday.

“The prognosis was not good news,” remembers Jenn.

Melanie started chemotherapy and radiation following her diagnosis. She regularly had MRI scans and a total of four craniotomies.

“After a time, it does impact you– your mood, behaviour, personality, and quality of life. That is a lot for a person to endure in a short span of time,” expresses Jenn.

For Melanie, her moments of sorrow, pain and anguish became important moments to reflect.

“She would sit and take stock of the situation, then pick herself up and carry on,” Jenn says.

She admires her sister’s resilience and selflessness.

“I remember during that first year, she was still out volunteering and helping wherever she could; we were all so worried about her being immunocompromised and vulnerable, but she was so committed to helping others. She didn’t let that stop her.” Jenn remembers lovingly.

“She was very optimistic and caring.”

Melanie homeschooled her son, which gave her the opportunity to travel and spend time with her family.

“She was remarkable. Within ten years after she was first diagnosed, she went to Antigua and worked with her church group in schools. You can see her beaming, just glowing in the middle of her journey,” Jenn proudly expresses.

In 2010, a second, inoperable brain tumour was found and confirmed during an appointment.

Because she had responded well to treatment the first time around, her medical team decided to administer chemotherapy again.

“That was tough news. We were really devastated knowing they wouldn’t be able to operate because of the location of the tumour and the complications that would follow,” says Jenn.

In 2011, she was cleared of any anomalies. The next five years would bring her stability and normalcy, and Melanie was involved in what she loved doing most.

Unfortunately, another grade four glioblastoma multiforme was found in 2016, after a routine MRI. This would be the third brain tumour. With this surgery, however, she developed a severe infection which resulted in her bone plate being removed.

After the infection, she suffered some changes to her physical appearance.

“That was a real challenge for her. She would often try to make light of her situation, once posting on Facebook, ‘I’m like Humpty Dumpty, who had a great fall. I don’t stitch together very well at all. But thanks to the surgeons at the University of Alberta, I’ve got a new look again.’ We’re all worried, and there she is putting out these posts. I remember her saying once, ‘I need to get on there because so many people are worried, but when they see that I’m okay, they’ll be okay,’” expresses Jenn.

“Hope was big for her attitude, and so was making the most of the moments she did have. She would often say, ‘no one knows what’s coming,’ and she was right.”

The next year, Melanie wrote down Proverbs 22:17 “A cheerful heart is good medicine”, and Isaiah 40:31 “Those who have hope will renew their strength”.

In June of 2018, she saw her neurologist and had her fourth and final surgery.

Since she was first diagnosed, Melanie completed four separate rounds of chemotherapy. She had to decide at that point about continuing this form of treatment.

“Melanie said to us, ‘I just want to say that my life has been filled with so many blessings in the shape of family, friends, and experiences. I feel so very fortunate. Sure, I’d love more time. The truth is, we all have an expiry date and I leave it up to the Lord to decide mine. So, thank you to every one of you for your prayers, encouragement, and love.’ But she was tired and noticed that this was taking a toll on her loved ones, too,” reflects Jenn proudly.

After meeting with her physicians and learning that her time was limited, Melanie, John and Lucas made the decision to book one more family trip. She loved Disney and was able to experience the magic of it again, along with a trip to New York, and time in Ontario, including attending her Uncle Kevin’s fiftieth birthday.

Melanie loved to organize trips and kept a binder full of travel itineraries and maps.

“It’s beautiful she got to do those things, and when you reflect on her life realizing she really was a true source of strength, it’s remarkable!” exclaims Jenn.

Melanie’s mindset, drive, sense of humour, and belief in that things were going to work as they should have “convinced us of hope,” according to Jenn.

Melanie was very transparent and authentic about what was happening throughout her journey.

“She often shared her experiences, to try and normalize having a scar and a half-shaved head, for example. What defined her was her ability to make the most out of the moments and experiences she had with people who mattered the most during that time,” Jenn remembers.

“Those are the things I think we will all remember about her; her big smile, and her willingness to help anyone and everyone. We all have different roles in this life, and she brought people together. She even planned her funeral, right down to searching for some songs. She’s going to keep this show together.”

Melanie passed away on October 1st, 2018.

Melanie and Jenn’s aunt Yvonne was also recently diagnosed with glioblastoma and sadly passed away in March of 2023.

“Yvonne was close with Melanie and worked as a nurse at Henry Ford Hospital for years. She would be the one I would call when I couldn’t figure things out,” Jenn expresses.

When Melanie was first diagnosed in 2008, Jenn had gone back to school.

“School was a challenge for me when I was younger. Around the time Mel was diagnosed, I returned to school. As a single mom with 3 young kids, it wasn’t always easy. Melanie really motivated me to keep going when things got hard”, she shares.

Jenn now works as an elementary school principal in southwestern Ontario.

Throughout Melanie’s journey, Jenn tirelessly sought out ways to support and understand what her sister was going through. After trying to research glioblastomas, she discovered Brain Tumour Foundation of Canada’s website.

“I looked for some reputable places where I could access information, and I went through the journey while she was going through hers,” she states.

After her sister’s cancer diagnosis, Jenn started running. Melanie’s commitment to fighting for her health inspired her to make the right choice to invest in her own health.

“This was a big outlet for me, and good stress relief too. I started to enjoy running. Watching what my sister was going through in that Vancouver hospital, I realized I needed to get my life together. Anything could happen to us at any time,” advocates Jenn.

She gains inspiration from Melanie, to be the strongest and healthiest version of herself that she can be.

“I never played on a sports team and I’m not athletic, but after taking some classes at a local gym, fitness became part of my regular routine,” she states.

Jenn completed her first half-marathon ten years ago. She made the decision to run several subsequent half-marathons and got involved in weightlifting and cycling exercises.

“Last year, I decided I wanted to do one more run, ten years after my first. It was a goal I had; it wasn’t pretty, but I got it done.”

Jenn started to receive emails, asking her if she wanted to start a GoFundMe for charity.

“When I saw this was an option, I said right away I’m doing this for Melanie!”

Jenn believes that Melanie would support the cause. She set her original goal at $200 and had to raise it after receiving immense support!

She completed the Detroit Half Marathon, seeing it as an opportunity for a GoFundMe to support Brain Tumour Foundation of Canada. She raised over $1300!

“It was so cool and powerful. The universe is something else because there is a Guns ‘N’ Roses song ‘Sweet Child of Mine’. It always reminds me of her, and she loved it when we were young. It came on the radio when we were driving up to her funeral,” Jenn expresses.

There were other times the song would play.

“I just had my music on a random playlist, and that song played when I crossed the finish line! I thought that was an inspiring moment!”

Through both music and moments, Jenn can feel her sister’s presence.

“I’ll be sitting on the beach, and I can feel her. I can sense her in the air, seeing a butterfly and the smell of tulips. It makes me feel closer to her. It’s those simple moments in life when I experience things, making me feel that joy that I feel closest to her. She was about living in those joyful moments,” she says gratefully.

Jenn lives in Southwestern, ON with her husband and family. When she is not exercising, she enjoys spending time with friends, boating, and paddleboarding on Lake Erie. Her son plays football, and the family travels to watch his games around Southwestern Ontario.

“I love watching football, it’s a big thing for us as a family,” Jenn proudly says.

“Melanie and I both have a mix of being incredibly stubborn and having perseverance. For her, she had her faith. For me, it was the universe having a way of letting things work out.”

Jenn describes the journey as scary but uplifting.

“I remember saying to someone probably five years post-diagnosis, that this had some highs and lows… but your eyes are closed, and you never know what is coming next,” she speaks.

“It’s the unknown of seeing someone you love deal with such an overwhelming process, but you must buckle up and trust the process. Hold on tight and enjoy the feeling of wind coming through your hair.”

Melanie’s husband proved to be a supportive and compassionate partner, and, according to Jenn, “deserves a medal”. Jenn is appreciative of the level of care her sister received during her illness.

Although there were times of remission and the prognosis was not good, Melanie’s hope wasn’t about longer life, but having the best life she could with the time she had.

“For me, it’s very much the same. Do I want a long life? Absolutely. I want to grow old and watch all my grandkids running around,” Jenn smiles.

“What’s more important to me is that we’re all living our best lives, and knowing every day we had the opportunity to be the best version of ourselves.”

Jenn thinks of Melanie every day. She is grateful for the time they had together, while sad for what they didn’t have.

“We started the story thinking we wouldn’t see her next birthday, but in fact, we’d get to see 10 more. We never took that for granted. I live in a weird space between those two feelings,” she expresses.

For Jenn, Melanie’s openness about her experience inspired her to share her story.

“I want it to be about education, hope and support. For me as a family member, it was about the research and support, and knowing that there are people behind the numbers,” she says.

“There are people that beat the odds; there are people that don’t beat the odds but do beautiful things with the time that they do have.”

Jenn Schatz continues to support the work being done in raising awareness, fundraising, or in any other capacity that she can. Scientific research and medicine gave her and her family ten years with Melanie.

Her nephew would not have had those years with his mother, from the age of eight until 18.

“Gains have been made, but there’s a long way to go because unfortunately, we’ve known too many people affected with a brain tumour. It’s important work,” says Jenn.

She participates in the Brain Tumour Walk because the event brings people together that have had shared experiences.

“There are common threads that lead us all together. Whether it is someone you have never met who has either had or presently has a brain tumour or supported someone on their journey. Social media has helped people share, and we all wear our Hats for Hope proudly in this home,” she expresses.

“There is power and support that comes out of being able to be in that space and share those moments. There’s a lot of power in the collective sharing of experiences and hope in grief.”

On behalf of Brain Tumour Foundation of Canada and the brain tumour community,

Thank you, Jenn Schatz!