Iowa River Hospice arranges unique celebration of life for Marshalltown woman with cancer

CONTRIBUTED PHOTO — Sandy Messer, left, of Marshalltown, pictured with her sister Judy Roads, right, has been battling cancer for the last two years and is currently receiving in-home hospice care. On March 23, a Celebration of Life was arranged by Iowa River Hospice at Mama DiGrado’s so that her family members could share their love with Messer while she is still alive.

Sandy (Roy) Messer of Marshalltown was surprised to find out she had stage four cancer in her kidney two years ago. She started treatments in Ames, which, initially at least, seemed to be working, but last fall, things took a turn for the worse as the disease spread to other areas of her body.

At the end of October, her family was told she had six months. Her husband Larry, their two children and five grandchildren and Sandy’s five living siblings struggled with the news, but they knew they wanted to get together to celebrate her birthday on Nov. 6 and reunited in Marshalltown over Thanksgiving. Doctors asked if they could try radiation treatments after the cancer spread to Messer’s brain in January, but near the end of February, they were informed of a blood clot in her lung.

She ended up at a hospital in Cedar Rapids where a filter was installed in hopes of keeping the blood clot from getting to her brain, and on March 1, the latest scan showed “mixed results.” The difficult decision was then made to stop treatments and call in hospice.

Messer, who grew up on a farm near Clemons before moving to Marshalltown and attending school here, has been receiving in-home care through Iowa River Hospice ever since, and both she and her loved ones are doing their best to simply enjoy the time they have left with each other. Her sister Judy Roads, who resides in Haverhill, said the service has been exceptional.

“Everything’s so clear as far as ‘Now hospice is here for you.’ If something happens, you don’t worry about calling 911, you worry about calling hospice, and we will arrange everything for you,” Roads said.

In the spirit of showering her with love while she’s still alive, Roads pondered a heavy question.

“Why do we spend so much money on funerals? Why not celebrate her now?” she asked. “Who is that funeral for? It’s not for the individual that’s there… I’ve never been in a situation like this, and you always hear from people ‘If I could’ve just said goodbye. If I could’ve just made sure he or she knew what they meant to me.’ The whole time I’m thinking, I’m thinking it’s God’s choice, and he put that into my head.”

Jennifer Ford from Iowa River Hospice suggested having a party for Messer while she is still alive, and they ended up doing just that at Mama DiGrado’s on Saturday, March 23.

“Recognizing the significance of family gatherings and the often-overlooked desire to celebrate life while one is still present, the hospice’s social worker department embarked on a mission to grant Sandy her wish. Instead of waiting for the somber occasion of a funeral, they proposed hosting a party for Sandy to revel in the love of her family and friends,” Ford said. “The initiative received an overwhelmingly positive response from Sandy and her family, who eagerly embraced the opportunity to create lasting memories together. With the generous support of Mama DiGrado’s, who graciously provided their party room, and Hammer’s Bakery in Union, which donated a delicious sheet cake, the stage was set for a poignant gathering.”

Roads asked her sister who she would want there, and she simply responded “my family.” There were 50 people in attendance, including all of her grandchildren, and everyone was able to celebrate the woman who loved horses and 4-H and possessed an infectious smile and a photographic memory.

“Mama DiGrado’s was absolutely wonderful. Oh my goodness, and they said ‘We’re gonna put out some pizzas.’ We did not expect that. Hospice brought a beautiful yellow cake with yellow roses on it,” Roads said. “Oh my goodness, how much that meant to Sandy.”

Mama DiGrado’s Owner Rolly Danner said the restaurant team was happy to host the event and play a small part in providing comfort to Messer during a difficult time.

“Our prayers are with the family, and we were glad we could help with their event,” he said.

As she was picking out balloons, Roads made clear that she didn’t want anything that said “Get well soon” — they just wanted Messer to know how much she was loved and celebrated. She still calls her sister every day and admits some are better than others depending on how severe Sandy’s headaches are.

She only has one request for her funeral — that the classic Christian country song “One Day at a Time” is played — because that’s the way Messer and her family are taking life. And they fully intend to enjoy every second they have left together.

“Why not do a celebration of how special she is to all of us now and not wait until she was gone in our lives?” Roads asked. “We don’t always know what tomorrow brings. None of us do, but in this case, we had a good idea, so why not celebrate her while we still have her with us?”


Contact Robert Maharry at 641-753-6611 ext. 255 or



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