July 11 was supposed to be a busy day for Dale Hess, of Eldersburg — not a day that would turn her world upside down. Not the start of a cancer journey.
Hess remembered the day it all began to unravel. She said it was July 11, known as 7-11 day because on that date annually 7-Eleven stores give customers free Slurpees. Hess and her husband Robert own a 7-Eleven store on Liberty Road in Eldersburg.
"Everyone was working because we knew it was going to be a mob scene," Hess said. "I got up very early in the morning, but when I went to urinate it was all blood. I called my husband."
Hess said she'd had symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome and had been having some abdominal pain that she thought she was her gall bladder.
Many members of her family have needed to have their gall bladder removed. She thought she was going to be next, until she saw the blood. Her first move was making an appointment with gastroenterologist Dr. Cristian Alba, in Westminster. She got the earliest date the practice had available — July 29.
"He wanted to do a colonoscopy right away because the blood was dark. The darker the blood, the higher up it is usually so he thought it could be originating in the stomach. But he decided to do a sonogram first and that's when he saw the enlarged liver. They did a biopsy and the next day he called to say it was cancer. It was my [52nd] birthday," she said.
A week later Hess went in for the colonoscopy. Alba removed three polyps and found a cancerous tumor the size of a fist, she said. A positron emission tomography — PET —scan confirmed that the colon cancer had metastasized to her liver.
"The funny thing was, my gall bladder was fine," she said.
Because they own their own business, the Hess family has to purchase their own insurance. Hess said they tried to get insurance through the Affordable Care Act early in the year through the state site. She said after trying repeatedly and not being able to get through they decided to just wait until November to sign up.
"At the time I said, 'I hope nothing happens until then,' and now I feel like I jinxed myself," Hess said. "People think if you have a store you are rich and that's just not true. I'm driving a 10-year-old car. We don't take vacations and we don't make much money."
Hess said she has done everything by the book throughout her whole life. She graduated from Baltimore Polytechnic Institute High School and became an engineer, designing tool and die sets. She met her husband Robert in the Giant grocery store where he worked, and 30 years ago they bought a 7-Eleven store together. They had two daughters.
Hess, who has five grandchildren and another on the way, said her family was shocked when she told them her diagnosis.
"In my younger days I was a health fanatic. I was a personal trainer. I eat healthy." She sighed. "I'm trying to maintain a positive attitude but it's hard."
Hess said her enlarged liver has four separate masses growing and one is four inches long.
"We already saw a liver specialist at University of Maryland [Medical Center]," she said. "He said surgery is not an option. You need at least one part of your liver to be healthy for surgery, and mine is not. They are going to try to treat everything with chemo and then they are talking about doing radiation afterward, going in through the groin."
On Sept. 25, Hess had a port put in for chemotherapy, getting her first treatment Sept. 29.
Her family tells her to just take one day at a time. She said some days she cries a lot, but other days she holds onto hope because her family and friends tell her that she can't give up.
"We just celebrated out 30th wedding anniversary and I'm waiting for another grandbaby," she said. "There is a lot to fight for here."
Sharon Ford, of Columbia, met Hess at her 7-Eleven store about three years ago when she lived in Eldersburg. They grew close. Ford said Hess is her best friend.
"Dale has a heart of gold. She's the kind of person that would drop everything if you need her. There was a time when I was in the hospital and I needed clothes. She went out and bought me Ravens clothes, came to see me and called me several times a day. She didn't have to do any of that but she wanted to. She was there for me every time I needed a shoulder to cry on. She is an amazing all-around person," Ford said.
Hess is currently being treated by Dr. Flavio Kruter at the William E. Kahlert Regional Cancer Center in Westminster.
"I am told I have the best," she said. "I told him, 'My life is in your hands now.'"
Hess said her friend of 20 years, John Hankins, moved in with her family awhile back. He is battling lung cancer himself. Before her diagnosis, she was driving him to all his doctor appointments. Now he is driving her to her treatments.
"If they ask me to do something I jump right on it," Hankins said. "I push it to her that she is going to beat this. I try to keep her positive. She has bad days and good days. On the bad days I don't bug her too much; I leave her alone until she comes out of it again."
Hankins said he talks to her about going fishing out on Liberty Lake, a hobby they both enjoy. And they sometimes play Rummy to get her mind off things.
"She wins every game. I tell her she cheats," he said with a laugh.
"I do not!" Hess shot back.
Ford said when Hess' brother had cancer, Hess was an amazing sister — always there for him. Hess brought her mom to live with her long before she passed and was at her side through her mom's passing. She has been there for so many people, Ford said.
"Even her voice is comforting and soothing. When you are around her you can't help but feel good. Her smile lights up the room," Ford said.
"When I used to help her out in the store we would joke around like Laverne and Shirley and make customers laugh. She is like a sister to me. We have so much in common and the idea that I could lose my best friend kills me."
Ford organized a fundraiser for Hess on Sept. 23 at Fuddruckers in Columbia.
"We are still waiting to hear back on the results," Ford said. "They are supposed to give us 20 percent of the proceeds from everyone who ate there using a flyer that day. I think we had a good turnout. A lot of my friends and family came and Dale's daughter, Chelsea, was there and some of her friends."
Ford has a second fundraiser set up, to be held at Chick-fil-A in Eldersburg from 3 to 8 p.m. Oct. 14. Ten percent of proceeds from those food sales will go toward Hess' medical bills. If they have more than $2,000 in food sales, Chick-Fil-A will give them twenty percent.
"People who come just need to tell the [Chick-Fil-A employee] they are there for Spirit Night for Dale," Ford said.
Both Ford and Hankins said she is going to beat cancer.
"If anyone can beat this, I believe she can beat it," Ford said. "She is a fighter. She's always gotten through all the things that life throws at her — but this is a big one. This one is the fight for her life. I think she will prevail. On the bad days we will be there to lift her up."