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Cancer survivor facing third relapse

Dan Bischoff, OF the Record Staff
Stephanie Bernritter in South America in July of 2005. She was there in 1997 two days prior to the first time she was diagnosed with leukemia.
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Eight years after her first two victories over leukemia, Stephanie Bernritter was mountain biking, enjoying the chance to be outdoors, savoring Mother Earth.

Her victory over cancer built a unique appreciation for the simple pleasures of living.

"After five years, the doctors send you home and basically tell you to have a good life," Bernritter said. She thought she was home free, able to enjoy a full life without cancer.

Then, on that same bike ride last June in Seattle, while on a holiday, the former Park City resident saw a bruise on her foot and noticed some "minor" fatigue. Intuitively, she knew her leukemia had relapsed.

"I never once thought I would relapse, ever. It was shocking," Bernritter said. "I was devastated and I was pissed. But you have to get over it. I threw a pity party for a little while, I knew the road ahead and it’s pretty daunting."

To make the road a little less daunting, Peak Productions will sponsor a Celebration of Life fundraiser for Bernritter this Sunday at Shabu from 4 to 7 p.m. and next door at the Sidecar at 7 p.m. Shabu will feature food from local restaurants Butcher’s and Off Main, and a new Park City establishment. A live auction and "buy it now" will feature items from trips to sporting equipment.

After the auction and dinner, attendees will walk next door to hear local musicians who are coming together for the cause. Musicians will include: Kerrey Griffith and members of the Detonators, Jon Olsen and members of the Wisebirds, Trevor Nealon from A-Frame, Somier Gardiner, Junior and Dave from Transportation, and percussionist Greg Freidman.

Saturday in Salt Lake there will be a Celebration of Life "Making Strides Against Breast Cancer" walk to raise awareness for breast cancer at Pioneer Park.

"The ‘Goddess Gals,’ a group dressed in fine goddess attire, will be walking and donating proceeds to collectively support everybody who has been touched by cancer," said Pamela Dore Alford, member of Peak Productions and a Park City resident.

Included in the group are several cancer survivors including local Alford and Bernritter. The walk will be in the name of Alford’s mother, a breast cancer survivor. The events will start at 8:30 a.m. at Pioneer Park.

The event will be critical for Bernritter, a teacher at West High School in Salt Lake, to have the funds to pay for her third round of treatments. She is currently negotiating with her insurance companies on what she will pay. Some of her daily treatments cost more than $1,000 per day. Her negotiations are difficult because she attended hospitals in different states.

"With insurance companies now days you have to be (hospitalized) in the state you have insurance," Alford said, who recently recovered from breast cancer. "It devastated my savings, I had to cash in my 401’s, my savings, everything."

The fundraiser is looking for any amount of money, whether small or large, that people can give.

"Every little bit helps," Alford said. "People think that five bucks doesn’t make a difference, but it adds up. It’s just nice to have a little extra cash to help out. Especially when you’re not working. You start fussing about having food in the refrigerator. I had a $10,000 medication bill just a week after surgery. It’s frightening. Some hospitals put an interest rate on the bills you can’t pay. One of my interest rates was 18 percent. That’s more than my credit cards."

Bernritter is facing more than just financial troubles however. According to her, a person can never get used to facing impending mortality.

"I was hospitalized for a week and that’s a ‘dark moment,’ where you face your own mortality and you face what it’s like to cease to exist. A life and death experience is in the moment, it’s occurring now, it becomes real, it’s a reality," Bernritter said.

Alford, a longtime friend of Bernritter, was in disbelief when she heard the news about Bernritter’s relapse.

"It’s pretty frightening when I first heard it," Alford said. "To have to go through it again and then again? It just doesn’t seem right."

After the initial shock and "pity party" that Bernritter went through, she has been able to keep a positive outlook.

"At the end of the day, you live or you don’t," Bernritter said. "What matters is the quality of life, not the quantitative. It’s about my own life and my relationships. We can’t be defined by our fears, because fear is very debilitating. We stop evolving and forget how to grow. It doesn’t get better than what we are experiencing in the moment."

Bernritter feels that she has a lot to live for and is committed to beating her third phase of leukemia.

"I have a career that brings me a lot of meaning and purpose," Bernritter said. "We have a short time here and we are blessed. When it’s over, it’s over, to tap into our human potential is an amazing gift. It’s about learning self-forgiveness and finding strength in the ordinary. Not hinging on winning the lottery or the big moment, the big moment is now."

"A Celebration of Life" weekend will start Saturday, Oct. 14 at Salt Lake City’s Pioneer Park at "Making Strides Against Breast Cancer", a walk geared to benefit and raise awareness for breast cancer at 8:30 a.m. The celebration will continue with a benefit for Bernritter Sunday at Shabu from 4 to 7 p.m. and next door at the Sidecar at 7 p.m. Tickets are $25 for an all-day pass including food and the evening of music at Sidecar. Tickets to the Sidecar are only $10. For more information on this event or to donate and/or help, visit http://www.caringbridge.org and log in under VISIT-Stephbernritter or call 640-9095. Proceeds from the October 15th event will directly benefit Bernritter’s ongoing medical bills and other cancer support groups.


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