GOSHEN — One year ago, Cassandra Vaughn-Peters found out that cancer had taken hold in her body. It was not the first time.
She had become cancer-free six years ago after a bout with breast cancer, but in the summer of 2018, Vaughn-Peters was coughing more than usual.
“You’re always afraid of it coming back. Just because it’s such a terrible thing,” she said.
Vaughn-Peters had been told that if someone can make it five years without a recurrence, they’re well on their way to a life in good health. The new diagnosis came one month before the five-year mark.
An X-ray scan of her lungs led to the discovery of two spots with cancer in her spine. Later, cancer was found in her lungs as well. She had radiation therapy for the cancer in her spine and was put on oral chemotherapy, mostly pills, for treating her lungs.
Doctors are hopeful that the treatment will work, but there are no promises.
“Hopefully I’ll be around to at least see my daughter graduate from high school,” Vaughn-Peters said.
Her daughter is 10, and she’s a big inspiration to her mother.
“I think she’s the reason that I fight so hard to try to get better,” Vaughn-Peters said.
When she was told the cancer was back, even though she had a suspicion, it was hard to believe. It felt like her life was flashing before her eyes.
“You just think about time. How much time? Am I going to be around to see her graduate or go to prom or get married or have a baby?” she said.
In the midst of all those questions, Vaughn-Peters is also getting to live out her dreams. On June 15, she married Middlebury police officer Jason Peters. The recent bride has lived in Goshen her entire life but has now moved to Shipshewana to live with her husband.
The two began dating seven months ago, after her new diagnosis.
“He, basically, knew my situation, and he knew what he was going to have to deal with, with my physical limitations and medical conditions,” she said. “And he chose to stick with me anyway.”
He has a better understanding than most of the challenges of having a close family member suffering from cancer. His father died from cancer in July 2018.
In their brought-together family, they have three children. Having this illness to fight is bringing them all closer together, Vaughn-Peters said.
“You don’t get caught up in the small stuff. You really learn to appreciate all the time that you have and make the most of the memories that you can,” she said.
One of those memories will be created later this year. The family is going on a paid-for vacation at Lake Tahoe, California. That’s the top item on Vaughn-Peters’ bucket list.
The trip, which is happening in September, will become reality through a charity called Little Pink Houses of Hope, that gives week-long vacations to cancer patients and their families.
“Hopefully that week you don’t have to think about anything or worry about anything. Worry about what the next scan is going to tell you or where the money is going to come for this hospital bill,” she said.
Little Pink Houses of Hope makes sure families have food and activities provided during their trip, and other families who are going through similar experiences will be at the same resort, creating a community of understanding.
This year, Little Pink Houses of Hope is sending cancer patients and survivors and their families to 20 different locations. For Vaughn-Peters, it was a happy coincidence that one of them was Lake Tahoe.
“When I saw that one there, that was the one that I applied to, because that has always been a dream of mine,” she said.
A few weeks after the wedding, Vaughn-Peters found out her family had been chosen to go to Lake Tahoe. She waited until she got home to tell her husband and fell into his arms, sobbing, because she couldn’t believe the dream was coming true, she said.
“With the number of cancer patients nowadays, they probably get a lot on entries. So I was really shocked when I got the letter that we were chosen,” she said.
There’s still one hurdle, though. Little Pink Houses of Hope asks their guests to cover their own travel expenses.
With medical bills, that’s not easy for the Vaughn-Peters family. But with the help of friends, they hope to raise $2,500. A friend has arranged a fundraising event at Wings Etc. on Ireland Road in South Bend on Thursday, when 15% of proceeds from sales with a fundraising coupon goes to the family.
Another friend suggested creating a GoFundMe page that is now up as Cassandra’s Fly Away from Cancer.
When Vaughn-Peters found out her family would be going to Lake Tahoe, she had already used up her vacation time for the year at Synergy RV Transport in Goshen, since she had taken time off around her wedding and for doctor’s appointments.
But her employer doesn’t want her to miss out on the Lake Tahoe trip because of that, so they are letting her move around her hours to take another week away from work.
“This is a small company. It’s a family-based company and we’re all very close,” Vaughn-Peters said. “I have a lot of really good friends here who support me.”
Vaughn-Peters works full time, though she said she qualifies for full disability benefits. As long as she is physically capable, she isn’t going to stop.
“Because I feel like if I stop, then I’ve conceded defeat, and I’m just going to give up,” she said. “I just want my life to remain as normal as possible right now.”
Follow Rasmus S. Jorgensen on Twitter @ReadRasmus