Lately, I have been especially inspired by all the strong women in my life, including those whose deeds I have been privileged to chronicle in my newspaper stories. I have written about some of the strongest, smartest, accomplished, barrier-breaking, deepest and most bad-ass women around. A minister of an inner-city congregation and soup kitchen who provides pastoral care to some of Kingston’s worst off. An Olympic bobsledder. Lawmakers and elected officials in every level of government. A woman who runs a homeless shelter for schizophrenics. A judge who forged a new family court parenting program. Women arm-wrestlers. A female soldier in search of her feminine side, and Kingston’s first female plumber.
In my 10-plus years of journalism, I’ve covered women who seemingly can do it all: successful business owners, accomplished professional musicians, writers or artists, world travelers and linguists, scholars. Survivors of cancer, abuse or poverty and women working in men’s career fields always awe, inspire and humble me. How many of these epic ladies pull it all off with kids? Or even as a single mom? So many. This week and next, the Kingston Times will profile some of the community’s top women achievers, giving their stories the attention they deserve, but don’t always get in a patriarchal world.
Stacey VanAllen-Hommel is one of those achievers, helping the community in a high-stress job while hanging tough in the fight of her life. In February, VanAllen-Hommel, 44, a senior dispatcher for the Town of Ulster Police department and food server for the Frank Guido restaurants, had a splitting pain in her side which drove her straight through the doors of Northern Dutchess Hospital’s emergency room. After examination and imaging, the doctors told VanAllen-Hommel that she had a cyst on her ovary, and instantly referred her to see a specialist. Much to her surprise, when she called the referred specialist, she discovered it was the Women’s Cancer Center in Albany.
“And then it just went from there like one-two-three she was like, ‘I will see you next week for your surgery’,” said VanAllen-Hommel. “She was really good because I told her, ‘No holds barred, do what you gotta do’ I don’t really think I had a choice anyway,” and scheduled a full hysterectomy.
VanAllen-Hommel was told she had a growth on one ovary the size of a cantaloupe, and the other ovary had a growth the size of a grapefruit. Surgery confirmed it was, in fact, cancer — very aggressive one, her doctor said. One tumor grew an extra centimeter in two short weeks between her emergency room trip and the surgery. In fact, VanAllen-Hommel added, the cancer had swiftly advanced right up to Stage III in under eight months because she had been fine in her prior yearly check-up.
Getting tough, quickly
This mom of four and grandmother of one said upon hearing the c-word, she cried for about five minutes and then got tough. VanAllen-Hommel won’t hesitate to tell you she’s an edgy “bitch,” and considers that word a compliment. Her tough-girl exterior covers a sensitive core and spirited nature. She is well-composed with a diversity of recreational interests; she enjoys dancing and socializing with friends just as much as gardening, collecting and refinishing antiques, or working on local history of her Weishaupt family.
Several days after her hospital discharge VanAllen-Hommel was sitting around, dwelling on her plight, and then spontaneously made this Facebook status: “Cancer is RUDE, OBNOXIOUS & MEAN! But so am I!! So watch out cancer! You have one hell of a fight on your hands!” VanAllen-Hommel said that her friends gushed at the post with encouragement. “After that I had so many friends tell me that status was perfect for me and that cancer was not going to take over me,” she said. “I am known to be a bitch. Someone said to me maybe I won’t be a bitch anymore, and I said, no I will be a bigger one now.”
VanAllen-Hommel said that the network of friends and family who emerged from the woodwork with support and well-wishes gave her endless strength and hope, in order to keep it movin’ along.
These days, VanAllen-Hommel is deep in the throes of chemotherapy treatments at St. Peter’s Hospital in Albany. She has lost her hair and 20 pounds she would have rather kept. She feels sick a lot and is logging a lot of days in bed. For many folks in chemo, this can be the stuff that makes or breaks a person’s spirit. VanAllen-Hommel has followed through with her tough-chick attitude, and though she has bad days, she also forces herself out the door to the store or even out to lunch with friends to lift her spirits. She said even though her kids are confused and concerned about seeing their mom walk out the door feeling so poorly, moving ahead and enjoying life has been the key to fighting her cancer off.
One of her best friends, Cheri Bigando-Olson of Kingston has been one such source of lunch dates and emotional support. The women have been friends for 20 years, and Bigando-Olson described VanAllen-Hommel as “very happy and fun-loving.” Bigando-Olson said VanAllen-Hommel takes the stoic route, of smiling through the pain and preferring to suffer in silence. “She doesn’t express much, she keeps that hidden,” said Bigando-Olson. “And I think more people should know what a hard time she’s going through. She doesn’t ask for help. She keeps her problems to herself and she just moves on.”
Bigando said VanAllen-Hommel has her days, but rises above them. “She has her days where she goes on like life is normal and other days she breaks down — she is human,” she said. “She faces it with strength. She tried to go on as normal as you can, and to me that’s strength. You can sit in your house all day and be depressed, but she has so many friends and family that she tries to go on.”
VanAllen-Hommel’s friends pitched in and bought her a very realistic-looking wig from Columbia Beauty Supply which identically matches her former hair. VanAllen-Hommel said losing her hair was extremely difficult for her, since she had extreme pride in her long, thick blonde locks. But continuing to move ahead, some days in her new wig, others in coordinated bandanas or hats, has been essential medicine.
“I try to see my friends and coworkers at Frank Guido’s restaurants all the time, and they are amazed that I even have cancer because my appearance is that I look good, and don’t even look sick,” she said. “And that’s because I am fighting it.
VanAllen-Hommel’s kids, mother, father and brothers have been super supportive, she said, each in their own way. She cited her boyfriend and coworker Jeff Tomaseski as being her keystone. “He’s been there from the beginning,” she explained that Tomaseski has walked every step of the journey with her, helping take care of VanAllen-Hommel, bringing her to her doctor appointments and surgery.
VanAllen-Hommel said if she had anything to offer a woman just diagnosed, it would be this: “She needs to be positive and needs to fight it because that’s what it’s all about. I put in my head mentally that it’s not going to get me down. The people who don’t do that are the people who are down and out more than I am.”
There is a benefit for VanAllen-Hommel set for Wednesday, June 19 on the Teal cruise ship. For more information, call Bigando-Olson at (845) 590-3577.
Stacey VanAllen-Hommel: Stubborn, supportive, independent
Carrie Jones Ross: Why would one say you are a “strong woman”?
Stacey VanAllen-Hommel: ‘Cause I am a stubborn bitch! I am strong-headed, and confident. I’m putting up a fight to deal with cancer and it takes courage and strength to do it in today’s world.
CJR: How have you managed to be successful in a man’s world?
VanAllen-Hommel: I am an independent person. I have learned to do many things on my own. I will attempt to fix something or do something prior to asking for help.
CJR: How do you think you got that way? What from your upbringing or background helped to form your strength?
VanAllen-Hommel: My upbringing. I feel this all came natural, just from family surroundings. I was always willing to learn new things and do things while growing up. Like using tools and asking if I could help with projects going on around me.
CJR: What are some words you would use to characterize yourself as a “strong woman,” both positive and negative?
VanAllen-Hommel: Confident, Stubborn, bitch, independent, encouraging, nurturing.
CJR: What are some words others might use to describe that trait?
VanAllen-Hommel: Supportive, caring, compassionate, pushy, don’t give up, aggressive.
CJR: How do men react or treat you differently?
VanAllen-Hommel: Some men are threatened by it. I had a former employer who always seemed to feel threatened by me, because I was a female in a male work environment. He was never delegating things to me that I could actually do.