Photo by Scott Bruhn/Nebraska Communications

Mother's Cancer Battle Changes Gymnast's Approach

By Brian Rosenthal

Sandra Chung lived a full, healthy life. She was outgoing. She worked three jobs – not because she had to, but because she wanted to.

Two of those jobs involved coaching gymnastics.

So when doctors diagnosed her with pancreatic cancer and told her she had four weeks to live, her initial thought was extreme doubt.

“She was like, ‘No, you’re wrong,’ ” said Kelli Chung, the youngest of Sandra’s four children, and a third-year member of the Nebraska women’s gymnastics team. “They were like, ‘No, this is terminal.’ She said, ‘No, I don’t think it is.’ ”

More than three years later, Sandra Chung was visiting Lincoln, attending Nebraska gymnastics meets. The summer of 2016, she traveled with Kelli from their home in Torrance, California, to help her bring her car to campus. She spent part of that semester here.

This, of course, came after Sandra had undergone a “gruesome” surgery, in Kelli’s words, and undergone numerous rounds of chemotherapy. Yet throughout the struggle, she insisted her family not think of the situation as “she has cancer,” that life goes on.

“There was never a time in the hospital she was sad,” Kelli said. “All through the rounds of chemo, she was making jokes of the residents and the doctors. I think it’s just the way you view it.”

Sandra Chung died in December of 2016, some four years after her diagnosis of four weeks to live.

“She lived a good life,” Kelli said. “It was never this negative vibe. She did what she had to. She put up a good fight.”

Undoubtedly, her mother will on Kelli’s mind Saturday night at 7, when the Nebraska women’s gymnastics teams hosts Pittsburgh in its annual Pink Meet at the Devaney Sports Center, where fans are invited to wear pink in support of breast cancer awareness. Pink rally towels will be given to the first 500 fans.

“I think it means spreading awareness,” Kelli Chung said of the event. “I know there’s so many people affected by cancer to know that there’s so many people around you who are going through the same thing. It just builds support, and I think that’s most important, to know there’s people with you, supporting you.”

Jodie Orel, the mother of sophomore gymnast Catelyn Orel (pictured below), is a breast cancer survivor and will be recognized before the meet. She’s been in remission for 2 ½ years.

Kelli has talked with her teammate about their mothers’ battles, how they have accepted the diagnoses and, most importantly, and how their perspectives on cancer have changed.

“It doesn’t have to be this negative stigma that everyone has,” Kelli said. “If you can work on just changing the way you think about it, your perspective, having a positive attitude, your overall well-being just changes completely. That’s exactly what I saw with my mom, when she was diagnosed and how she dealt with it.”

An Academic All-Big Ten athlete, Kelli redshirted in 2015-16 because of a preseason elbow injury and didn’t compete last season while recovering. Although she’s yet to compete as a Husker, she’s a valued member of the team, waiting for her first chance – perhaps on uneven bars, where she feels she’s getting stronger and getting her numbers in order.

Even without competing, Kelli feels the family atmosphere of the gymnastics team – none more than when her mother died.

“Her passing, it was definitely hard,” Kelli said. “But knowing I was coming back to a supportive group who was there to help and comfort me, definitely, definitely helped.”

Reach Brian at brosenthal@huskers.com or follow him on Twitter @GBRosenthal.

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