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COUPLE FOUGHT CANCER TOGETHER

When comedian Julia Sweeney -- androgynous "Pat" of "Saturday Night Live" -- got cancer, along with her brother, they would cheerily answer the phone: "house of cancer!"

Rochelle Wendling, a Town of Boston animal care provider, got the dark double-whammy joke.

As she and her husband said their wedding vows in 1986, little did they realize they'd also be both living in that house.

"You have to have a sense of humor about it or you're not going to survive," Rochelle Wendling explains. "We laugh. We admit it's gallows humor, but you've got to laugh. We crack jokes about Chernobyl and Love Canal. It's too odd for reality. You leap over that hurdle and move on."

That upbeat attitude, combined with courage and determination, helped to land them titles as Roswell Park Cancer Institute's Stars of Hope.

Wendling, 41, was diagnosed with breast cancer three years ago. Not long after, she was shocked to learn that her husband had come down with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

At first, Rochelle Wendling's biopsy revealed supposed good news. But she refused to shift into denial about the lump she found in her breast.

"I have a lot of cancer in my family -- mother, father, grandparents, aunts and uncles," she explained, adding that she "wanted to be thorough. So I went to Roswell Park for a second opinion." Further tests showed that she actually had stage II breast cancer.

"I wasn't too surprised," Wendling remembers. She underwent a mastectomy, followed by chemotherapy.

"After it was all over, I felt better than I had in ten years," she recalls.

As she wrapped up her treatment, Brian Wendling, a machine operator for the Town of Boston, felt bad pain in his neck and back.

His health insurance company representatives refused to pay for a key diagnostic test until he went for physical therapy, thinking it might be a pulled muscle.

"I had pulled a muscle before. I never experienced pain like that," recounts Brian Wendling, 38. Busy with his wife's needs, he tried to ignore the warning signs as long as he could stand it, and while on vacation, he was rushed to the emergency room late one night. Doctors would find a collapsed vertebra in his neck, deteriorated by cancer. He risked paralysis, even death.

"I literally had to hold my head up with my hands to alleviate the pain," he said.

After surgery to replace the vertebra, a biopsy revealed cancer of the lymphatic system.

Everyone gets their turn "in the box," but after she got cancer, Rochelle Wendling concedes that her husband's subsequent diagnosis, at first on an emotional level, "didn't seem fair."

Wendling insisted that her husband be treated at Roswell Park, where he received radiation and chemotherapy. He will have a bone marrow transplant next month, fortunate that his sister is a perfect donor match.

The Wendlings came up with their own way of supporting each other during their struggles. If one has a tough day, the other lifts their deflated spirits, even when it takes a "kick in the pants."

Neither asks: What if cancer returns?

"Time's too short to waste on that," Rochelle Wendling points out.

Each strives to start every morning with a positive frame of mind.

Here's their message of hope:

If you have symptoms, get information and don't fear getting a second opinion. Find the treatment best for you.

"It's probably the biggest fight of your life," Rochelle Wendling added, "so decide early you're going to win. Don't give up." This couple didn't.

And now, Julia Sweeney wisecracks aside, they are living in a new house.

As they fought illness, they tabled plans -- including building their dream home. But they moved forward, and construction was just completed on their house in Boston. They moved in this summer.

Now with a fine home to recover in, Brian Wendling comments: "We're glad we did it."

Have an idea about a local person whose life would make a good profile or a neighborhood issue worth exploring? Write to: Louise Continelli, The Buffalo News, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, NY 14240, or e-mail lcontinelli@buffnews.com