Naperville cancer patient's welcome parade proves 'no place like home'
Justin Wegner's cancer treatments took him to Texas for 73 long days, away from his friends, his support network and his childhood home in Naperville.
So when he returned Wednesday evening with his parents, Cathy and Ed Wegner, all he was looking forward to was a hot shower and his own bed.
But when the Wegners pulled onto their street, they knew they were receiving a welcome much more personal, moving and special than the basic amenities of home.
"It was definitely the last thing I was expecting -- 55-plus people standing in my driveway as I pulled up," said Justin, a 20-year-old Naperville Central High School graduate.
His mom stepped out of the car crying as the family returned from Justin's treatment at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. He had surgery on his abdomen Dec. 8 followed by weeks of radiation to treat a rare type of soft cell sarcoma called a desmoplastic small round cell tumor.
The condition, found in only 200 people, causes masses in the abdomen and other organs that affect digestion and cause pain, nausea and vomiting. It's been reported mostly in white boys or young men between 10 and 30, and Justin's doctors diagnosed it last June.
His surgery removed more than 200 cancerous tumors from his abdomen and radiation targeted leftover cancerous cells.
Despite visitors including his best friend Mark Nowak, his aunt and uncle, family friends and college friends from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, where he played baseball his freshman year, Justin said being away from home affected him deeply.
"I feel a lot better today just being home," he said Thursday.
His parents also were floored by the reception from neighbors, coaches, teachers, classmates and friends with banners and signs, all of them cheering and applauding the family's return.
"It was a shock seeing all those people," his mother said. "There's no place like home."
Along Williamsburg Drive in Hobson West, the trees were decorated too, adorned with yellow and purple ribbons for a dual purpose -- yellow to match the color that designates sarcomas and purple for the main color of the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater Warhawks.
After an emotional night thanks to the Naperville welcoming brigade, organized by supporters of the #JWEGSTRONG Foundation that friends formed to help the Wegner family through Justin's cancer journey, Justin slept in and made simple plans.
He'll head to Lurie Children's Hospital in Chicago on Feb. 24 to check in with his team of doctors and prepare for nine months of "maintenance" chemotherapy treatments, in which he will get an infusion and take a pill each day for a week every three weeks.
He hopes to begin playing baseball again soon, although he knows the road back will begin simply with walking, then jogging, then maybe doing the stair-stepper machine at the gym before beginning to throw a baseball and swing a bat.
"We're trying to keep him eating and getting stronger," Justin's father said, "not losing weight and getting ready for the next phase."