Learning to move on

Lennie Hodges had been married to Shelli for seven and a half years, and the Gardnerville Ranchos couple had two young daughters as well as a teenage daughter, when his wife found a lump in her breast.

Shelli Hodges died of breast cancer at age 44 a year and a half later, on June 30.

Now Lennie, who turned 50 on Aug. 17 which coincidentally is also Shelli's birthday, is taking care of his daughters Bailey, 6, and Mattie, 4, and learning how to cope on his own. He hopes sharing his story would better prepare others in similar situations, although he admits there is no easy way.

"It's tough because each situation would be different," said Hodges, sitting in the living room of his home on Aug. 16. "I had to take care of the kids, the house. I was doing everything. It's not much different than what the last year and a half has been.

"There's no way you can prepare for it. The only thing you can do is try to keep a level head and go through it."

The illness

A month after Shelli discovered the lump, she was told she actually had two tumors and was diagnosed with a very aggressive breast cancer, invasive ductal carcinoma.

Hodges said his family has probably been in shock since Shelli's aunt Ellie O'Toole died of cancer six years ago, and Shelli's mother Sharri Holman also had breast cancer, underwent surgery the same week Shelli discovered her tumor in February 2005, and died in August 2005.

"The family's just kind of overwhelmed with cancer," said Hodges.

Shelli considered traditional chemotherapy and radiation, then decided to undergo what were considered alternative treatments, in Reno three to five days a week.

"I did a lot of research about breast cancer, as well as peritoneal cancer, and my mom and I prayed a lot and had a lot of people praying for us as well," Shelli said in an e-mail in April. "We both felt led by the Lord to forego traditional treatment. For three months, I took supplements and changed my diet, but one of my tumors grew really large. My mom was slowly deteriorating, as she never quite recovered from the surgery.

"I started doing immune boosting with vitamins and minerals to get my immune system up for the low-dose chemo I started in July," Shelli said. "With this type of chemo, I never lost my hair, I was able to continue working, I usually felt better after the treatments and the cancer never spread, although it was an aggressive type. After about eight treatments, my large tumor was half the size, and after 15, it was no longer cancerous. We are still working on the small tumor which the chemo didn't dissolve."

Shelli continued her treatments, but in February Lennie noticed her slowing down. He said she remained pretty active until the end of May, then spent most of June in the hospital.

"On Memorial Day weekend she couldn't breathe," he said. "I took her to ER. She had fluid on her lungs. Over the weeks they took about 15 liters of fluid out of her lungs."

In early June, Shelli came home for a couple of days to visit with her oldest daughter, Danielle Tierney, 19, who is an intern at a church in Nashville, and wants to be a worship leader. As soon as her daughter left, Shelli went back to the hospital.

"When she went in the hospital she went downhill real quick," said Hodges. "The doctors said in June there was nothing they could do. The cancer had spread into her lungs and into her spine.

In hindsight, Hodges said, "I knew it was inevitable when she started getting worse. I knew things didn't look good."

Lennie said the hardest part was dealing with Shelli's pain.

"That was the problem. We couldn't get the pain under control. Nothing prepares you to see somebody in that much pain.

"The new Carson-Tahoe Hospital was very nice. I can't complain about anything. That was as important as anything in making it more bearable."


Shelli Hodges belonged to a crafters group A Touch of Class. She enjoyed making crafts and had made lots of Christmas ornaments and figurines, but the one thing she was known the most for was chocolate- and caramel-covered stick pretzels loaded with nuts and sprinkles.

"She made everything," said Hodges, "but the pretzels seemed to take off."

A Touch of Class members got together with Shelli in May to make Shelli's pretzel recipe in hopes of raising money to help the Hodges pay for cancer treatments which cost $200,000. Little did they know their friend and fellow crafter wouldn't be around a month and a half later.

"She was planning on doing more pretzels for Father's Day, but she was sick, she was in the hospital," said Hodges.

A Touch of Class crafters are planning on making some of Shelli's pretzels to sell in her memory at their annual show on Oct. 20-22, with the proceeds going toward her medical bills.

"She's so young," said A Touch of Class founder Sue Bennett. "She was such a talented crafter. She came up with unique things every year. We always looked forward to seeing what she had. We are really going to miss Shelli."

Learning to move on

Lennie Hodges, who was a minister for 25 years until he and Shelli were married, has sought counseling through the church for himself and his girls. He is preparing to put his house on the market and move back to his hometown in Fresno, Calif.

"We've got business and family down there, my mom's down there," said Hodges, acknowledging that some of Shelli's family members, including her grandparents Tim and Peck Nagel and stepfather Pastor Gene Holman, live in Gardnerville.

"We'll be visiting back and forth," he said.

Hodges, who is semi-retired and owns property that provides their income, is trying to pursue his insurance company to see if there is any way they can pay for some of the bills, although up until now they have refused since Shelli opted for "alternative" treatment. The family has opened an account for donations, Shelli's Medical Fund at Bank of America, account no. 0050-1035-4903.

Throughout the ordeal, Hodges' daughters are what have kept him going.

"They go from when they get up until they go to sleep," said Hodges. "They keep me going. They're both doing real well. They were used to Shelli being gone a lot the last year or so. There's not much adjusting as far as their care is concerned. They do miss her.

"The youngest one informed me Friday she's ready for a new mommy," he said, chuckling in disbelief. "Out of the mouth of a 4-year-old."

n Jo Rafferty can be reached at jrafferty@recordcourier.com or 782-5121, ext. 210.


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