KANSAS CITY -- Sara Ratzenberger stood up to cancer, fought hard and valiantly, and lost. Her husband, John, is determined to help others win that battle.
Sara died of lung cancer on Nov. 8, just a little more than three years after they were married. She never smoked, was a runner and lived a healthy life. She was 33 years old.
The diagnosis of stage 4 non-small-cell lung cancer came just before the Ratzenbergers' first wedding anniversary.
"We were just getting ready to plan to have a family," John said.
Her fight would last nearly 2 1/2 years.
John Ratzenberger was in mourning when he learned about the Stand Up To Cancer auction of special baseball items and experiences on MLB.com. He was especially drawn to a story about Orioles public relations director Monica Barlow, who was diagnosed with the same disease that claimed his wife. Barlow was saved as the result of lung cancer research, a clinical drug that did not exist until recently.
Ratzenberger, a lifelong Royals fan who lives in Topeka, Kan., decided to bid on the auction's behind-the-scenes tour of the press box and broadcast booths at Kauffman Stadium next season. He won with a bid of $1,050.
"I was hoping someone would outbid me," Ratzenberger said. "That's one of those auctions you don't mind losing."
The auction by Major League Baseball and its 30 clubs raised $152,700 for Stand Up To Cancer.
Ratzenberger does fundraising and development for Sheltered Living, Inc., which provides community living opportunities for adults with developmental disabilities. He and Sara worked together at the non-profit agency in Topeka.
Ratzenberger said that after their marriage in 2009 at Nags Head, N.C., Sara developed a cough that gradually worsened. Doctors were puzzled. Finally, on July 23, 2010, she underwent surgery to remove a lemon-sized mass from her right lung. It was determined to be cancerous and aggressive. When Sara awakened after surgery, John gave her the bad news.
"I told her, 'Honey, it's cancer.' And her first words were, 'Well, that's not fair!' And she kept a sense of humor about it," Ratzenberger said. "We did all the research we could and we got on clinical trial after clinical trial and even did standard chemotherapy treatments. She tried six different chemotherapy regimens, and none of them worked."
As the cancer spread, Sara kept a journal, became an advocate for lung cancer awareness and wrote a blog for LUNGevity, a foundation dedicated to finding a cure.
"She fought very, very hard for a long time. And she helped a lot of people at the same time, too," Ratzenberger said. "She did care pages and an online blog for people to read. She wanted people to learn. She said she didn't want this to be for nothing. We struggled for a long time with 'why her, why us?'"
John's sister, Amy May of Seattle, initiated an annual 5K run/walk for LUNGevity, called Breathe Deep Seattle.
"Even Stand Up To Cancer does fantastic research for lung cancer and we're very appreciative of that. We've raised, since her diagnosis, through our families combined, probably close to $140,000," Ratzenberger said, noting most of that was generated by the Seattle events.
Ratzenberger grew up in Lansing, Kan., not far from Kansas City, and the family often spent weekends at Kauffman Stadium cheering for the Royals. After he and Sara, originally from Wichita, were married, they lived for a short time in Kansas City and often went to games.
"I just remember teaching her all the Royals players and memorizing numbers and names and all that stuff," John said.
Sara became a big fan and, during her illness, it was arranged for her to throw out the first pitch at a game on May 30, 2011.
"When she threw out the first pitch on that day, she was actually in treatment on this hard chemo that attacks your entire body," Ratzenberger said. "I remember it very well, because she had just had surgery a little bit before to relieve pressure around her heart.
"She did whatever she could to practice, just to throw it 15 or 20 feet. She didn't want to just barely toss it to me, she wanted to do it right. We practiced just a few times, but it was hard on her, she had lost so much weight, she'd had the surgery, she just had no energy. ... It was a very difficult time."
It's been a difficult time, too, for Sara's parents, Ron and Mary Ann Youngers, and John's folks, John and Annette Ratzenberger. Like Sara, they're up for a fight.
"We support organizations like Stand Up To Cancer financially because they provide hope to people in these situations," John said. "And you know that there is passion and desire from their end as well. So it's encouraging when others get involved and donate, hopefully to eradicate this disgusting disease."