Mother of 8, battling melanoma, earns paralegal degree

May 13, 2013

From “Mother of 8, battling melanoma, earns paralegal degree” — Most days Carol Pingel concentrates on chewing the ear of the elephant rather than trying to eat the whole thing.

It’s a catchy reminder to focus on small, manageable goals. And it is something that has helped the mother of eight complete an associate degree at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College while cancer slowly kills her. She graduates with honors Thursday.

Pingel has Stage 4 melanoma. She sometimes feels too ill to get out of bed. She has worked on homework in the bathroom and she has thrown up on her laptop’s keyboard. She used a feeding tube last month. She’s had crying jags.

“But I needed to finish, “ Pingel said. “If you make a goal, it is doable. That’s such an important message I want to pass on to my kids.

“Eventually, they’re going to have to be without me, and if I can leave any lasting memory, it’s that fighting, goal-getting, reaching for your dreams, you can do it. That’s what I would like my legacy for them to be.”

In high school, Pingel — now 44 — dreamed of becoming an attorney, but said “eight kids later, decided a two-year paralegal degree was the next best thing.”

Pingel lives with her husband Jeff in Embarrass. Four of her eight kids — who range in age from 5 to 26 — live at home.

The busy mom completed a mix of online and in-class courses to earn her degree. She also interns with the Brown County District Attorney’s Office, and would like to work in a public defender’s office.

Pingel receives her diploma on Thursday night, but money is tight, and a friend helped Pingel buy her cap and gown. And another covered her fee to enter the Phi Theta Kappa International Honor Society.

Not giving up

About a year and a half ago, Pingel learned she has a melanoma that eventually will take her life. Doctors don’t know how long she has, and Pingel said her goal is to live long enough to see her youngest child, now 5, graduate from high school.

“I don’t know if that’s possible,” she said, with tears in her eyes. “But that is my goal.”

Pingel acknowledges her cancer, but she has plans for the future.

“My degree was one of the things I wanted to finish. I’m hoping to find a job, with an employer who is willing to work with my illness.”

Pingel takes 27 pills a day and she said intravenous chemotherapy treatments every other week are painful. Yet it’s the medications and treatments that are keeping her alive, she said.

“One morning I wake up fine,” she said. “The next day I wake up and I can’t move.”

Pingel has battled cancer for about half her life. She was diagnosed with cervical cancer 21 years ago, and went in and out of remission for years. About four years ago doctors found cancer cells on her cervix, ovary and uterus. She had major surgery and thought she would be free of cancer. But a routine biopsy check uncovered the melanoma — inside her body.

Melanoma is the most dangerous form of skin cancer, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. Tumors often resemble moles, and some develop from moles. Melanoma kills about 8,790 people in the U.S. each year, according to the nonprofit foundation.

The American Cancer Society estimates that about 120,000 new cases are diagnosed in the U.S. each year. More than 68,000 of those cases were invasive melanomas in 2010, the most recent information available. More than 29,000 cases were diagnosed in women.

“I think the worst part is the side affects,” Pingel said. “The chemo sores on my face and arms, the scarf or bald head, those are the things that make people start to look at you weird.”

Family togetherness

Pingel’s oldest son, 26-year-old Joseph Reese serves in the Wisconsin National Guard and is stationed in Afghanistan. Her daughter, Sunshinnia, 22, will graduate with honors from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire three days after Pingel receives her diploma.

Daughter Rhondalay, 20, is a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and will be home for the summer.

Her other children include 10-year-old Laurel, described as a hugger by Pingel, and 13-year-old Jeffrey, a protector. Five-year-old Johnathon has autism, and 23-year-old daughter Chandra Reese has two daughters of her own.

Pingel said her children have been a big help, including 15-year-old Teddilyn, who helps manage the household. The family often eats spaghetti or macaroni and cheese as easy meals.

“If it’s a good day, I’m up early getting ready for my internship and school, “ Pingel said. “Later, I help the kids with homework, everything from geometry to kindergarten assignments. At 7 p.m., when the kids go to bed, I take my night medications and hopefully I’m in bed by midnight.”

Completing college became important when she realized her cancer had no cure, Pingel said.

“There were certain things I wanted to do in life,” Pingel said. “I got a bronze medal in ballroom dancing. I got a motorcycle license. Now I will have my degree.”

The Pingel family doesn’t splurge much, but spends time playing board games and watching movies. Carol Pingel has long loved ballroom dancing and met Jeff more than two decades ago on a dance floor. Now she watches as her children ballroom dance.

“I gave it up two years ago when my heart started acting up,” Pingel said. “But dancing has always been a part of me, and now it’s being passed on.”

And she hasn’t checked off all the items on her bucket list. She’s looking to find a paying job, and would love to see the Grand Canyon.

“I don’t care about New York or Disney World, but I’ve always wanted to see the Grand Canyon,” she said. “I’m sure it’s beautiful.”

Sharon Chacon, a behavioral science teacher at NWTC, said she shared a part of Pingel’s story with one of her classes during preparation for an exam.

“I wanted to help them keep from getting too upset over one test in the greater scheme of things,” Chacon said. She told Pingel that after the class discussed her story, “The mood shifted. Students that had stopped trying, began trying again. There was more laughter and helping.”

Pingel takes it all in stride.

“I just want everyone to know, everybody gets dealt a hand in life,” she said. “This is the one I’ve been dealt.

“When life gives you a bald head, grab a scarf and move on.”


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