by Ruth Nicolaus

Two Phillips Co. residents battle cancer, benefit from Phillipsburg rodeo fund


PHILLIPSBURG, KAN. (January 2018) – Charlene Ross and Charlie Stephens share a special bond.


Ross, a Long Island, Kan. resident, and Stephens, a four-year-old girl from Almena, both shared the same disease: leukemia.


Ross, who is retired as a para-educator at Northern Valley School in Almena, was diagnosed with acute myopic leukemia in April 2016. After three rounds of chemotherapy, the disease was in remission and she was given a stem cell transplant in July of 2017 at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha.


She spent more than 100 days in Omaha, her husband Keith with her. Although Medicare and secondary insurance paid the bills, nearly $500,000, the couple had the expense of fuel, food and housing.


The Rosses were recipients of funds raised by the Phillipsburg Rodeo Association and given through Hope in the Heartland, a fund for cancer patients in the area. Each year, on the Thursday night of rodeo, the rodeo hosts a Tough Enough to Wear Pink night, where funds are raised; local sponsors, including Prairie Horizon Agri-Energy, McClain Seed Sales, Rodgers and Associates, Kansas Crop Care/Nebraskaland Aviation and Farmers State Bank also contribute to the fundraiser.


The funds were a godsend, Ross said. “We were so blessed to get the money.”


Eleven miles southwest of Long Island, in Almena, lives a little girl, sixty-plus years younger than Ross, who is fighting the same fight.


Charlie Stephens was diagnosed with pre-B acute lymphoblastic leukemia in September of 2015, when she was two years old. Within 29 days, and after two rounds of chemo, she was in remission. Her parents, Jason and Michelle, were told their daughter had a 95 percent chance of beating the disease.


As part of routine checkups, Charlie has spinal taps every three months, to make sure cancer cells didn’t return. In January of this year, the unthinkable happened: the spinal tap showed cancer cells.


So she began another round of chemo, and on July 6, 2017, had a bone marrow transplant. Because a perfect match could not be found, her mother was the donor. The transplant has not grafted yet, but doctors say it takes from ten to 28 days to graft.


Charlie will be in the hospital 30 days following the transplant, and an additional 60 to 100 days after that, she’ll stay in Omaha, for lab work and to monitor her progress. She and her mother will stay at an extended stay hotel close to the hospital.


That leaves Jason and Charlie’s older brother Mason, who is eight, at home in Almena, and cuts the Stephens’ income. The Stephens have been recipients of Hope in the Heartland funds as well. “Now that we are a one-income family, (the Hope funds) help with everyday bills, along with food and gas, since we are in Omaha and the boys are at home,” Michelle said.


For the Rosses, cancer is nothing new. Keith and Charlene’s daughter, Staci Montgomery, had breast cancer, and Keith has had colon and prostate cancer.


The family, which also includes daughters Monica Cole and Melissa McClain, both of Long Island, and son Doug Ross, who lives in Texas, love coming to the rodeo.  Keith does not usually wear pink, but “he wears pink (to the rodeo) and we’re proud as we can be to support the Phillipsburg rodeo,” Charlene said.


Charlene Ross and Charlie Stephens are connected beyond the disease they share. When Charlene heard about Charlie’s diagnosis, she visited with Michelle about her journey. Mason is in Charlene’s granddaughter’s class in school. Charlene told Charlie that her grandkids called her “Grandma Charlie,” and the two hit it off. “We’ve adopted (Charlene) as family,” Michelle said. “The connection of the name and the same fight, it makes it that much more special.”


Charlene is appreciative of her second chance at life, knowing that ten years ago, medical technology wasn’t as advanced and she might not have survived leukemia. “We live a very blessed life,” she said. “The Lord has gotten me through, taking my hand and leading me through.” She is not back to full health; her energy level hasn’t fully returned, but she looks forward to doing things again, like traveling with her husband, who is on the national rural electric cooperative board.


Fans at the August 2, 2018 performance of Kansas Biggest Rodeo are asked to wear pink to show awareness and recognition of cancer. For every fan wearing pink to that night of rodeo, the Phillipsburg Rodeo Association donates one dollar to cancer research and local cancer patients, and voluntary donations will be collected that night.


For more information on Kansas Biggest Rodeo and its Tough Enough to Wear Pink campaign, visit the website at or call 785.543.2448.

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