When Tisha and Mitch Berens married in August, they had no idea that one of the bonds they had would enter their relationship so soon and in such a devastating way.
Tisha is a breast cancer survivor. Mitch is a melanoma survivor. Having that in common was part of their attraction. The couple met online. She lived in Abilene, where she worked for a crop service company and was a substitute teacher. He is a patrol sergeant for the Hays Police Department, where he’s worked for 25 years.
It was 19 years ago when Mitch was diagnosed with malignant melanoma. It had spread from his knee to his lymph nodes. Surgeries removed skin on his leg and midsection, and he underwent chemotherapy and radiation at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.
Several months ago, Mitch started feeling unwell.
Tisha convinced him to go to the doctor, and after blood work and scans, the news was devastating: the cancer had returned.
“It had spread to his lymph nodes and his brain. He had over 30 tumors in his body,” Tisha said Wednesday afternoon at Breathe Coffee House. Mitch was not up to meeting with visitors at the coffee house, still exhausted from a 2-and-a-half-hour radiation surgery on Dec. 5 and a weekend trip to Denver for an Operation Christmas Child event.
Later on Wednesday, the Berens learned the pathology results of Mitch’s biopsy the week before, which she reported on their journal on the website Caring Bridge.
The pathology report confirmed the metastatic melanoma, and also gave doctors the genetic makeup of his tumors.
“That tells us how they’ll treat this,” Tisha said.
Mitch will receive immunotherapy through Hays Medical Center’s Dreiling/Schmidt Cancer Center — two pills twice a month for the rest of his life. Each pill costs $10,000.
The Berens have insurance that will cover that and other costs of his treatment, Tisha said, but there are expenses such as deductible and co-pay. In addition, Mitch has gone on short-term disability from HPD and is receiving about 60% to 70% of his pay. Tisha is working as a substitute teacher and is looking for a full-time job.
And that’s where the community has stepped up.
A benefit chili feed will be from 5 to 7 p.m. Saturday at the Downtown Pavilion near 10th and Main, with proceeds going to the couple. The Fraternal Order of Police Hays Lodge has been taking donations of money and items for raffles, the proceeds of which will all go to the couple, as well. Items donated include Traeger grills, a Yeti cooler, guns, yard decor and even cookies from Renee Seltmann.
“We don’t know her, she doesn’t know us. We saw on Facebook she made a plate of cookies, it looks like a vegetable tray. She auctioned that off on Facebook and got $50,” Tisha said. Seltmann matched the price for a $100 donation.
In addition, people have donated meals, and Mitch’s fellow officers have offered support. His entire patrol shift visited him one day recently. The five officers brought him a donation they had all contributed to — $522.
Mitch’s badge number is 522.
The support from the community has been overwhelming for the couple, but it’s been helpful as well, Mitch said at his home later Wednesday.
“It’s just nice. I know we live in a great community here, but when you get into something like this and you see the community come out and support you, it’s really amazing,” he said.
“He’s served the community for 25 years, and just to see them give back is … I’ve never seen anything like it,” Tisha said.
Mitch said he plans to attend the chili feed and hopes to see the Frostfest parade downtown on Saturday.
Fundraisers are in the works after the first of the year, with support group Your Voice Through Cancer.
The outpouring of support is not a surprise to Hays Police Chief Don Scheibler.
“We live in a great community with great people. So when these types of events happen, this community always seems to take care of its own people. I am grateful for the response,” he said.
Scheibler said Mitch is an outstanding officer in the department and provides leadership.
“He leads the shift and he provides guidance to his younger officers. He’s a good mentor,” Scheibler said.
“We look forward to him getting back to work,” he said.
Mitch said he’s eager to return to the department, as well. Having to step down was difficult for him, Tisha said, but he knew it had to be done, even before they knew the diagnosis.
“Before we knew it was cancer, he walked into his office and talked to the chief and said ‘I’m just not feeling myself, I’m not feeling well. I don’t feel like if I had to get into a gun fight I could do it, and I think I’m going to have to step down,’ ” she said.
“I caught him the other day, standing in his closet looking at his uniforms and he was just crying,” Tisha said.
“He put his heart and soul into it. Into everything he does,” she said.
But even through the tears, the couple has found joy.
“Last night, Mitch and I looked at each other and said we’ve never been happier,” she said.
“You just have to give each day 100 percent. We just live life to the fullest, and he has the most amazing, positive attitude,” she said.