The Ripple Effect

By Nancy Eshelman


Hearing a cancer diagnosis is like throwing a rock in a pond. The ripples spread, touching everyone and everything in life.

For a caregiver, it can feel like a tsunami.

Jay and Johanna Fessenden have been living with Jay’s cancer diagnosis for eight years. Jay, who is 39, has undergone several surgeries. As a result, he’s become disabled and suffers seizures that must be treated immediately with medication.

For Johanna, 37, that means sticking close to home.

Fortunately, her job as executive director of Bridge of Hope Harrisburg area allows her to work from their Lemoyne home, where she also keeps an eye on the couple’s son Jayken, 5.

Vickie’s Angel Foundation helped the couple five years ago when Johanna had just given birth and Jay was recuperating from surgery. The assistance allowed Johanna to take a much-needed maternity leave to care for both Jayken and her husband.

Johanna turned to Vickie’s Angels again this spring when the Fessendens’ apartment became uninhabitable. They lived first in a hotel and then with friends, until, with help from Vickie’s Angels, they were able to rent a house. Now, for the first time, Jayken has a backyard where he can play.

Johanna is grateful for the help given her family. Mickey Minnich, Johanna said, “just radiates compassion every time you talk to him.”

Their homelessness happened around the same time Jay began experiencing neck pains. His pain led doctors to discover a rare cancer in his spinal fluid. With treatment, his spinal fluid is clear now, but Johanna suspects his brain tumor is growing because of increases in his forgetfulness and the number of his seizures.

Although Johanna admits to a life that is challenging and unpredictable, she insists that caring for her husband is a joy. “His character is incredible,” she said. “He trusts God, and he’s unwavering in that.”

Jay, she said, is compassionate and kind, but his illness scares people. As a result, he remains lonely and isolated. “We keep working out how to make his life feel valuable,” she said.

One thing Jay enjoys is helping around the house, but due to his forgetfulness, he starts a lot more projects than he finishes. Johanna said she often chuckles at sinks half-filled with dishes or partially made beds.

Johanna said despite the uncertainty around them, the couple avoids asking doctors for a prognosis. “We stay a little bit naïve about his condition because that’s how we deal with it. We don’t know; we don’t want to know,” she said.

For the Fessendens, life is best dealt with one ripple at a time.