Avon calling

Credit: Southtown Star - Chicago,IL,USAFebruary 3, 2008,
By Michael Drakulich, Staff Writer
At 97 years old, Helen Fesser says she's had everything. By that she means she's had both knees replaced (one of them twice), cataract surgeries for both eyes, arthritis in her spine and a bout with colon cancer.

Picture Credit: Jason Han/SouthtownStar

Helen Fesser, 97, says a key to living long and being upbeat is staying active.

Then add her diagnosis of mouth cancer 30 years ago, after which she had to have part of her jaw removed. She can't bite or chew very well, so her diet consists of liquids or very soft food.
She's had the kind of misfortune that may have tested Job's resolve, so few would blame her if she were a bit cynical.

That's hardly the case. The Evergreen Park resident refuses to be anything less than upbeat and says the key to staying that way is simple: remain active.

"I don't think about everything that's happened to me. I'm getting old, I know that. But I'm older than I'd ever thought I'd be. I feel pretty good. I just keep busy," Fesser said.
She has plenty to occupy her time. She loves working jigsaw and crossword puzzles. She has three pet cockatiels that require attention and care. And she even manages to work in some light exercises to stay healthy.

But the one constant that has helped her through all of her most difficult times is her job as an Avon saleswoman. It's a job she's loved for 48 years and continues to do today.

She remembers clearly the day she started: Jan. 15, 1960. Her daughter was graduating from eighth grade that year, and Fesser wanted to be able to get her some new clothes. She thought selling Avon's beauty products would be a good way to make a little money.

She enjoyed the work, particularly because of the interaction with customers it afforded. Fesser said it was a wonderful job.

Then in 1978, she faced perhaps her most daunting challenge.

She thought she had a problem with a tooth, so she made what she thought would be a routine dentist appointment. The dentist couldn't determine the cause of pain and swelling in the right side of her mouth, so she was referred to an oral surgeon.

Fesser said the surgeon initially thought it was a stone in her saliva gland, much like a kidney or a gall stone.

But further tests revealed she had a malignant mass on the floor of her mouth.

Treatment originally went well, and the tumor disappeared after a course of radiation therapy. But about two years later, a portion of her jaw bone became necrotic, or dead, because of the radiation.

Her doctors tried to treat the problem. But they soon realized the dead portion of her jaw, about a third of it, would have to be removed.

Dr. S. Javed Shirazi, Fesser's radiation oncologist at Little Company of Mary Hospital in Evergreen Park, said his patient's positive outlook, despite all she has suffered, is nothing less than remarkable.

"After seeing her for 30 years, she never complains. Her attitude has always been, 'Thank God I'm alive.' And she has been such a beautiful, warm and friendly person. I've seen her quite a bit out of the office, and she always comes to talk to me and give me a big hug," Shirazi said.

He said she lets nothing deter her and adapts well to adverse conditions. Doctors offered to put a kind of prosthetic mandible in place so she could chew better. But she said no. It wasn't because of fear or not wanting to go through another surgery. Shirazi said she told him she had learned to get along without the missing part of her jaw and didn't need it.

Fesser said there is no big secret to her attitude. "I just look at life as a good thing and just keep going," she said.
Despite the fun she has had over the last 48 years as an Avon lady, Fesser said it may be time to give up her sales job.

She said it was much more manageable when she was selling perfume and other beauty products for women. But now she says the company has expanded its offerings so much it's hard for her to keep up.

And Fesser said she can't get around like she used to. She's been left to do most of her business by phone, which takes her away from the personal interaction with customers she enjoyed.
If she does give up Avon, she says she'll continue all her other activities.

That means staying active and staying positive.
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