Beth Pendergrass, right, chats with her mother, Leeanna Bagwell, visiting from Idaho, during Pendergrass’s final three-hour chemo treatment at Rust Medical Center’s Ted & Margaret Jorgensen Cancer Center Tuesday morning.
(Gary Herron/ Rio Rancho Observer)

We’re all familiar with a countdown, often observed before a rocket launch, just before midnight on New Year’s Eve and prior to a fireworks display.

Beth Pendergrass, Rio Rancho Public Schools’ chief communications, strategy and engagement officer, is battling breast cancer and has a “count-up.”

Last week was Week 64 in her 16-month skirmish with “the big C,” and she’s winning.

“There is no room for doubt in my battle against cancer,” she says.

Naturally, today’s modern medicine — including chemotherapy and radiation — were allies in her battle, as was her hematologist and oncologist at Presbyterian Rust Medical Center, Dr. Usha Venkatraj. Probably the biggest factor in calmly staring down her enemy has been her attitude.

During her final chemo treatment Tuesday, she found time as the chemicals coursed into her body to text, “Doubt is powerful. It can lead to incredible discoveries and innovation when we allow ourselves to question the status quo.

“On the flip side, it can destroy our ambitions. Like cancer, even the tiniest amount can poison the strong and most courageous.”

Consider Pendergrass, 39, among the “strong and most courageous,” but not one to be poisoned. She has a lot more to do with her life, hasn’t had time to feel sorry about herself and heads back to her RRPS desk after her three-hour chemical drip.

“I don’t know that it’s made me a better person. I think a lot of people talk about, you know, things like this that happen and it makes them reflect on their life and things that they would do differently, and when it’s all over, things that they want to do,” she explained. “For me, it was kind of nice — I never felt that way. I never felt like, ‘Oh, I wish I would have done this before this happened,’ or, ‘When this is done, I’m going to do this.'”

Courtesy photo

Down, but not out

“My whole life, I’ve just done what I wanted to do, which is good,” she said. “The one thing I want to do is take a big trip when it’s all done — go somewhere. I have a bucket list of places I’d like to visit: Pompei, Italy, Greece, Machu Picchu … any of those places.

“When it’s all done, I just want to get away.”

Her battle’s biggest drawback has been the way she receives treatment, and sometimes the queasy, lazy feeling following chemo, which includes the notorious “red devil” (Noxorubicin).

“I’m a planner and I like to put a timeline on things,” she said, feeling her treatment should have ended last December.

Her cancer returned, so she had to go through two more types of chemo and expects to soon start radiation treatment.

“So, something I’ve learned is not to put timelines on things,” she said.

Although the end of the tunnel appears in sight, Pendergrass is resigned to being patient, “not being able to plan, right, what’s next.

“I’m ready to be done; I’m ready to get back to living my life, so that’s hard because (treatment) has been extended.”

Pendergrass shrugged off any reference to being a “rock star,” even though stories about her battle and ways to stay positive — more than a year’s worth of “photo recreations” on her Facebook page — have appeared in news reports as far away as London, Australia, New Zealand, the Galapagos Islands and South America.

She also has 2,300 Instagram followers.

“It’s not a huge amount,” she said. “Their comments add a lot to mine. It’s inspirational to hear from them, too. It helps me through my journey.”

She’s not sure when the journey will end: “At least another year. I don’t know if it’s ever behind you. You’re always going to get your check-ups … There’s always the possibility it can come back.

“Me, I’m gonna keep living my life, and when all this stuff’s done, it’s going to be easier to live my life.”

Meeting new people has been a highlight.

“I love the nurses; I love my doctor,” she said.

Support has never been lacking

Pendergrass has had a lot of support from not only her co-workers — basically, the only time she’s missed work has been because of two surgeries — but also her family, friends and “the community — I mean, everyone.”

During her weekly chemo treatments, you almost have to take a number to get in to see Pendergrass, although she’s limited to two visitors at a time. She’ll work on her cellphone if no one is sitting by her.

“I’m an overachiever: I’ll be at the office at 6 in the morning and I’ll work till 6 at night if I have to,” she said. “But it’s hard because you get fatigued easily. My mind wants to do what I’ve always done, and your body doesn’t let you. But I try.”

She’s not sure co-worker Kim Vesely will be happy to see her back at work.

“This is the best quote: ‘Beth, I don’t know if I want to work for you when you get to feeling better,'” Pendergrass said. “Because I keep everyone so busy; I always have all these new ideas and these new projects.”

Her advice for anyone fighting adversity?

“People have to be brave. They have to get up every morning; they have to keep going; they have to keep a smile on their face. And I think that goes for anything in life, any challenge you have in life, not just cancer.

“You can’t let things stop you from living your life,” she said. “To me, I just tried to make the best of it … I just keep going. I don’t know any other way to do it.”