HINCKLEY – Dairy Joy Drive-In co-owner Jan Wahlgren was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer in May, but she still bikes three blocks to get to work every day.
Wahlgren’s cancer has spread to her lymph nodes, liver and spine. However, as the co-owner of the Hinckley seasonal drive-in at 436 E. Lincoln Ave., she tries to come to work seven days a week to serve customers and do prep work. She taped letters of encouragement from two young customers to the cooler at the drive-in, and has more than a hundred cards wishing her well at her home.
“It makes you feel good. Somebody’s behind you,” Wahlgren said as she held back tears. “They’re all praying for you. It really helps.”
The community support is among the reasons Wahlgren keeps coming to work, even though she feels weaker and often has coughing spells.
Wahlgren, a nonsmoker, was on one of her usual runs in April when she began to cough and become short of breath. After primarily dismissing it, she decided to see a doctor. She was taking medication for high blood pressure, so her doctor switched her prescription and performed an X-ray and CT scan. Three weeks later, the CT showed a mass on her lungs.
“Being diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer was a big slap in the face of someone who never smoked,” said Wyn Wahlgren, Jan’s husband.
According to the American Lung Association, smoking is a main cause of small cell and non-small cell lung cancer and contributes to 80 percent and 90 percent of lung cancer deaths in women and men, respectively. Women who smoke are 13 times more likely to develop lung cancer compared to people who have never smoked, the association states.
Stage 4 is the most advanced stage of lung cancer.
Jan Wahlgren is receiving chemotherapy after finishing 14 radiation treatments. She goes to the Cancer Treatment Centers of America in Zion every three weeks to receive chemo.
While hospitalized in June, receiving oxygen and restricted to a wheelchair, Wahlgren received a letter from 8-year-old Chance Wackerlin. Chance is a regular customer at Dairy Joy who taste-tests the products each March before the restaurant opens for business.
In part, his letter read: “I hope you feel better soon so you can get back to [Dairy] Joy because there’s not much joy without you.”
Chance understands first-hand what Wahlgren is going through. He has interstitial lung disease and is required to receive oxygen round-the-clock. He said he is one of Wahlgren’s favorite customers.
“I was worried about her, and I wanted to make sure she knew I still cared for her,” Chance said. “[Her cancer diagnosis] made me feel sad, but I knew we’re still going to be friends no matter what.”
Dairy Joy employees have also rallied around their boss. Dairy Joy manager and 13-year employee Jenna Eberly said she spends more time with Jan Wahlgren than with her own family.
“Customers realize [Jan and Wyn Wahlgren] are not here. They’re asking if everything’s OK,” Eberly said. “She’s here when she can be, and she’s not quitting.”
In the meantime, Jan Wahlgren said she would rather continue working at Dairy Joy than lay on a couch and feel guilty for not working. Doctors have told her that she could live about two more years as long as she gets treatment.
Also, after 23 years of not eating ice cream, Jan Wahlgren is now regularly eating it because she heard it helped a family member cope with his cancer.
She said the letters and cards she has received from the community have motivated her to keep pushing.
“I have to get past this,” Wahlgren said. “I don’t know that I will, but that’s my goal.”