Dawnelle Conlisk shares a snack and some laughs with her daughter Mary at the The Relay for Life of Whidbey Island event Friday, June 2, 2017, at North Whidbey Middle School in Oak Harbor. Conlisk has been dealing with cancer for 22 years. Photo by Ron Newberry/Whidbey News-Times

Dawnelle Conlisk shares a snack and some laughs with her daughter Mary at the The Relay for Life of Whidbey Island event Friday, June 2, 2017, at North Whidbey Middle School in Oak Harbor. Conlisk has been dealing with cancer for 22 years. Photo by Ron Newberry/Whidbey News-Times

Coupeville cancer survivor focuses on living life to fullest

She started her speech with an apology.

Dawnelle Conlisk was sorry about her whispery voice.

Six weeks earlier, Conlisk underwent surgery that she knew would paralyze her vocal cord.

And this, she explained, was why her voice was so quiet as she delivered an address to start the Relay for Life of Whidbey Island event at North Whidbey Middle School in Oak Harbor last week.

As Conlisk, a mother of two from Coupeville, continued to share the details about her 22-year journey with cancer, it was clear no matter how softly she spoke that the hundreds in attendance were gripped by her story.

She was six months pregnant and only 21-years-old when she was told she had thyroid cancer. To compound matters, her husband, a submariner in the Navy, was on deployment.

He was coming back from the sea the next day and Conlisk got a message to the captain.

“The sub wasn’t even attached to the pier fully,” Conlisk said during her speech. “The captain walked right up to Ken and told him to go home. The look on his face as I had to explain right there on the pier that I had cancer and they wanted to operate tomorrow … I will never forget that moment.”

So much has transpired since that heart-wrenching day in 1995 and so many things that Dawnelle Conlisk is grateful for.

“My goal in life from the time I was little was to be a mommy,” Conlisk said during her speech.

That goal was realized — twice — along with many other family milestones. She and her husband have two children, Mary, 21; and Danny, 16.

The cancer fight has been ongoing involving numerous surgeries to remove masses. The surgery she had that impacted her voice was her eighth neck surgery, and she’ll have another this month to place an implant in her neck to help her not aspirate anymore and, ideally, give her her voice back.

Cancer has made the Conlisks look at life differently and embrace it as a precious gift not to be taken for granted.

There was a time for 12 years when levels taken during tests showed that cancer was somewhere in her body but couldn’t be located. She gave her body a break, had their second child and continued to have bi-annual checkups while living their lives.

“In 2013, they were able to locate the cancer again,” Conlisk said during her speech. “I have had a surgery again on my neck in 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017.”

She identified her cancer as advanced metastatic Stage IV papillary thyroid cancer.

She understands these terms well. She is the department coordinator for WhidbeyHealth Cancer Care.

She said there is cancer in her neck, lungs, soft tissue and on her muscles.

“What do all these words mean to me? Seriously, it’s just a long sentence,” she said. “You see, none of us will get out of life alive. One hundred percent of us will die at some point. The difference is because of my disease at such a young age I have lived life to the fullest every step of the way.

“I may have fat, but I am not fat. I have toenails, but I am not toenails. I have cancer, but I am not cancer. I refuse to stop living.”

Conlisk’s inspiring speech was followed by the traditional survivors’ lap June 2, the first steps taken during the 18-hour, overnight event that raised money and awareness for the American Cancer Society.

The evening featured a new foot-powered car race involving freshly painted cardboard cars to bring attention to the American Cancer Society’s Road to Recovery program. They wanted to show that there is a need for more volunteers to drive patients to and from treatments.

“I didn’t know it was a race,” said Julie Engstrom, a cancer survivor who was in the driver’s seat of the organizing committee team’s car.

The Heroes Helping Heroes team sped to first-place honors in the car race, while the IDEX team car captured the hearts of judges and won the car show.

Matthew Woodcock of the Whidbey Vision Care team was crowned Mr. Relay.

Relay for Life tries to keep things upbeat. The event is designed to celebrate those who’ve survived cancer, remember those lost and inspire those still in the fight — all while raising money for the cause.

With $93,000 raised so far, organizers expect the Whidbey Island event to reach its goal of $100,000 by the time contributions end in August.

“It’s a really positive atmosphere,” said Karla Sharkey, co-chair of this year’s event.

“That’s really important.”

Conlisk could attest to that.

“I don’t sweat the small stuff I can’t control because it doesn’t gain me anything,” she said after her speech.

She’s looking forward to getting her voice back.

When her son, a sophomore at Coupeville High School, finished fifth in the 400 meters at the Class 1B, 2B, 1A state track and field championships in Cheney last month, she couldn’t scream as loudly as she wanted.

“It was still fun,” she said.

Cancer survivor Dawnelle Conlisk of Coupeville gives the main address during the opening ceremonies of the Relay for Life of Whidbey Island Friday, June 2, 2017, at North Whidbey Middle School in Oak Harbor. Photo by Ron Newberry/Whidbey News-Times

Cancer survivor Dawnelle Conlisk of Coupeville gives the main address during the opening ceremonies of the Relay for Life of Whidbey Island Friday, June 2, 2017, at North Whidbey Middle School in Oak Harbor. Photo by Ron Newberry/Whidbey News-Times

Ron Ernst, left, shakes the hand of a fellow cancer survivor during the Relay for Life of Whidbey Island event Friday, June 2, 2017, at North Whidbey Middle School in Oak Harbor. Photo by Ron Newberry/Whidbey News-Times

Ron Ernst, left, shakes the hand of a fellow cancer survivor during the Relay for Life of Whidbey Island event Friday, June 2, 2017, at North Whidbey Middle School in Oak Harbor. Photo by Ron Newberry/Whidbey News-Times

Dawnelle Conlisk shares a snack and some laughs with her daughter Mary at the The Relay for Life of Whidbey Island event Friday, June 2, 2017, at North Whidbey Middle School in Oak Harbor. Conlisk has been dealing with cancer for 22 years. Photo by Ron Newberry/Whidbey News-Times

Dawnelle Conlisk shares a snack and some laughs with her daughter Mary at the The Relay for Life of Whidbey Island event Friday, June 2, 2017, at North Whidbey Middle School in Oak Harbor. Conlisk has been dealing with cancer for 22 years. Photo by Ron Newberry/Whidbey News-Times

More in Life

Frances Schultz, holding a picture of her younger self, recently turned 100 years old. Her daughter, Connie Van Dyke, right, said her mother’s photo looks like one of actress Barbara Stanwyck. Photo by Emily Gilbert/Whidbey News-Times
At 100, Oak Harbor woman reflects on busy life

Frances Schultz turned 100 years old on March 30.

Joel Atienza’s uniform’s USAF/USSF patches prior to transfer. Photo provided
Oak Harbor 2010 grad selected for U.S. Space Force

Joel Atienza’s advice to Space Force hopefuls? “Remember, ‘The sky is not the limit.’”

The Oystercatcher’s owner and chef, Tyler Hansen, prepares a dozen 3 Sisters beef bolognese lasagnas to go on the shelves at 3 Sisters Market. Photo by Emily Gilbert/Whidbey News-Times
Chef liaises with other business owners

A Coupeville chef has expanded his partnership with local business owners to… Continue reading

Photo by Kira Erickson/South Whidbey Record
Third grader Laszlo McDowell gets up close and personal with a gray whale skull.
Students learn about being ‘whale-wise’

South Whidbey Elementary School students got a taste of what it would be like to live as gray whales.

Tim Leonard, owner of the Machine Shop in Langley, hangs a purple neon star he made on the wall of his arcade. Photo by Kira Erickson/Whidbey News Group
Neon art show colorizes Machine Shop’s reopening

A cacophony of happy buzzers and bells and a riot of glowing… Continue reading

Color Guard Capt. Mike Hutchins, at left, and John Kraft present the Sons of the American Revolution Bronze Good Citizenship Medal to Bobbi Lornson, center. (Photo by Teresa Addison)
Oak Harbor woman awarded ‘Good Citizenship’ medal

Bobbi Lornson, past president of the Oak Harbor Lions Club president and volunteer, was recently recognized for her contributions to the community.

Rockin’ A Hard Place | All aboard for my big, post-jab Rock adventure

All aboard for my big, post-jab Rock adventure!

Rishi Sharma checks levels in his camera before interviewing WWII combat veteran Frank Burns of Freeland last Saturday. Sharma travels the country interviewing WWII combat veterans for his oral history project and nonprofit, Heroes of the Second World War. Photo by Emily Gilbert/Whidbey News-Times
Recording for posterity tales of WWII vets across the U.S.

Rishi Sharma has met more than 1,100 World War II combat veterans to document their stories.

Viggo Cerrato, 6, pets a young Shamo rooster named Baby Boy. Cascadia Heritage Farm is currently in the midst of a project to “invigorate” a rare breed of chicken. Photo by Kira Erickson/Whidbey News Group
Farm promoting genetic diversity, a flock at a time

North Whidbey’s Cascadia Heritage Farm focuses on preserving critically endangered breeds.

An Anna’s Hummingbird feeds from a red-flowering currant on Whidbey Island. Photo by Martha Ellis
Native plant habitat a wild bird’s best friend

Spring couldn’t come soon enough this year, not for just the birds, but for the nature enthusiasts.

Teaser
Jason Blair, owner of Red Fish, Blue Fish, nets an angelfish.
Finny business: ‘Fish Nerd’ opening new shop

The store is coming to Greenbank Farm this spring.