’There is always a way to move forward’: Struggles with loss shape future of Mabel-Canton student

Tobias Mann – Winona Daily News
This story first appeared on the Winona Daily News

Mabel-Canton High School senior Hannah Snell has lived life in fear of losing her loved ones. During her sophomore year, she was confronted with the possibility of losing her mother to breast cancer. Her mother survived, but Hannah’s life was changed forever. She is the Winona Daily News Above and Beyond recipient for Mabel-Canton High school.

Hannah Snell is no stranger to loss.
From an early age, she became all too familiar with death. As a first grader living in northern Iowa, she lost her grandfather — her best friend at the time — to a heart attack. The lost would have been traumatic enough for any 8-year-old, but his funeral was only the first of many she would attend in the years to come.

In second grade, Hannah said goodbye to her great-grandmother, and the next year lost her aunt to cancer.

Yet after a childhood punctuated by funerals and wakes, the 17-year-old Mabel-Canton High School Above and Beyond recipient says loss isn’t something you ever get used to.

By the time Hannah had reached high school, her life had largely returned to normal. She’d joined the student council, become an avid volleyball and softball player and even dipped her toes into choir and band.

But always at the back of her mind, the specter of death lurked. And in 2016 shortly after the start of Hannah’s sophomore year that specter came knocking.

During a trip to the orthodontist, Hannah’s mother, Paula, discovered a lump in her armpit.

After two biopsies and a false-negative, her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer — and the prognosis wasn’t good. The cancer had already spread to her lymph nodes.

Hannah remembered the doctor coming into the room and asking her parents whether or not they wanted her there for the results of the biopsy.

Tears welled in Hannah’s eyes, her face turning crimson, as she remembered her father breaking down in the doctor’s office.

“I’ve only seen my father cry three times in my life,” she said, her trembling voice short. “He’s the strongest person I know.”

While Hannah tried to stay strong and put on a happy face for her mother, her mind was racing, fueled by waves of fear and anxiety.

“I lost my aunt to cancer, I didn’t want to lose my mom,” she said. “It was hard to imagine my mom going through something so terrible.”

In the months that followed, Hannah helped her mother through surgery and chemotherapy.

“It was overwhelming,” Paula said. “We just took one day at a time.”

For Paula, failure wasn’t an option, and cancer or not, she wasn’t going to stop being a mother.

“She tried to make life normal for us,” Hannah said. “She never missed a game.”

But with her mother weak from treatment, there was nothing normal about Hannah’s life. In a way, her mother had become a different person.

“She was always tired and wiped out,” Hannah said.

It didn’t take long before this started taking a toll on the teen.

“I wanted my mom back,” she said. “The happy person that was my mom wasn’t there anymore.”

With her dad busy running the farm, Hannah and her brothers were left to fend for themselves while her mother recovered.

“The recovery time was the hardest,” Hannah said.

Instead of hanging out of with friends, Hannah was picking up the slack, taking care of her little brothers, making dinner, cleaning the house and making sure her family had clean clothes to wear every day — anything to keep busy and show her mother that she was okay.

But Hannah wasn’t okay. She recalled inventing chores to keep her mind off of her mother’s illness.

“I felt like for my mom’s sake, we had to stay busy,” she said. “If I was busy, she would know I was doing okay.”

In school, she dedicated herself to academics, school board and athletics.

“Always in the back of my mind, the thought: I could lose my mom,” Hannah said.

After nearly a year of treatment, the doctors announced that Hannah’s mother was cancer free and within a few months life started to return to normal.

Paula said the experience wasn’t all bad, it had brought her closer to her daughter and her family.

“If it wasn’t for the support of my family it would have been a lot more difficult,” she said.

But even with the specter of death banished for now, Hannah’s world view has been forever changed.

“There are a lot of bad things that happen to good people,” she said. “The world is a tough place, but there is always a way forward.”

And Hannah wants to help others take their first step forward with a career in radiation therapy or nuclear medicine. She plans to take the first step toward that career at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse this fall.

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