Survivor Series: Tonya Hill-Rios

Survivor Series: Tonya Hill-Rios
By: Kellyn Vale Last Updated: May 25, 2020

“I never would have thought to help others in this way if I hadn’t gone through it myself,” said Tonya Hill-Rios, a Portage resident and cancer survivor. “It’s been more eye-opening to me than anything else in my life.”

When Hill-Rios was diagnosed with esophagus cancer in 2014, the shock of her diagnosis hit hard, but she immediately embarked on a treatment regimen.

“One day I just could not swallow,” Hill-Rios said. “Luckily, I caught it quickly and was able to go through chemo and radiation effectively. They removed my esophagus, and after my treatment, I was all clear. I was certainly one of the lucky ones.”

While getting treatment early and finding the right medical path for her diagnosis was crucial, Hill-Rios attributes a good portion of her recovery to her positive mental approach.

“Getting the right medicine is only half the battle,” Hill-Rios said. “If you go into it thinking and expecting the worst, you’ve set yourself up to head in that direction. If you go in thinking, ‘I’m gonna beat this’, and find ways to laugh in spite of it, that is the cure!”

The initial shock and devastation of the diagnosis quickly faded into optimism and adaptability, as she embraced the reality of her circumstance with an eye for finding the lessons within the struggle.

“Cancer is harsh, but you learn a lot from it,” Hills-Rios said. “You learn to live one day at a time and embrace every moment as it comes. You learn there are more people out there that care for you than you ever thought possible. You learn to live every day like it’s your last, and never miss an opportunity to tell someone you love them.”

As a survivor herself, Hills-Rios knows that one of the most important factors in life after diagnosis is staying informed and reaching out for help.

“You’ve got to learn how to be innovative and adapt if things don’t work as planned,” Hills-Rios said. “Don’t be afraid to ask anything because there are no stupid questions, especially when it comes to cancer. There are resources all around us ready to help: The American Cancer Society is on call 24/7, online support groups are always open, if you don’t have a computer the local libraries are excellent at helping you find resources. Even reach out to survivors like me and others who have been through it. I’ve never met a survivor who was bitter or unwilling to help and give resources.”

From diagnoses to treatment to recovery, many cancer survivors draw strength from their families throughout their journey. This was especially true for Hill-Rios, who was in no short supply of loved ones.

“I have eight beautiful children and seven beautiful grandchildren,” Hill-Rios said. “If I was having a particularly bad day there was always a baby I could visit to bring a smile to my face. My now 16-year-old, Rachel, was also a big help to me. If I was too sick or in the hospital, she would basically take on the responsibility of ‘mom’ whenever my husband was at work or staying with me at the hospital – making dinner, helping the other kids with homework; she was just a rock.”

Post recovery, Hill-Rios is a full-time crafter, putting her passion for projects toward supporting Relay For Life, donating all proceeds her creations generate to their cause. Looking at her countless boxes and bags filled with unique creations, it’s hard to believe Hill-Rios wasn’t a lifelong crafter growing up. Her inspiration to create emerged when she had an opportunity to bring some fun to her son’s fifth-grade classroom.

“It was my son’s last class party, and I wanted to make something nice for the kids,” Hill-Rios said. “I ended up crafting these little mason jars with the kids’ names engraved on them. My skills and projects started to snowball from there as I branched out into different mediums. Now I have thousands and thousands of creations, and to think it all started with a jar!”

Her works spans wreaths, picture frames, key chains, and apparel, though it seems one category transcends the rest.

“Jewelry is probably my favorite thing to make,” Hill-Rios said. “I think everyone deserves something pretty for themselves, and if my products can bring one person a smile while also helping others who have been diagnosed, then it becomes that much more meaningful.”

Hills-Rios encourages community members to donate what they can to help combat cancer.

“My philosophy is that you don’t have to give money to make an impact,” Hill-Rios said. “Donate your time, donate your support, donate your talents. That’s why I do what I do, making my crafts and giving support through them. Ultimately, they do provide funds when I donate the proceeds to Relay For Life, but more importantly, they spread smiles and become symbols of support. They let people know they are not alone in their fight.”

Hill-Rios may be a full-time crafter, but she is also a part-time student pursuing a business degree with big plans in mind.

“My end-goal is to open my own brick and mortar business, not only for me but for other people in the area who might not have the money to support their own store,” Hill-Rios said. “I’ve met so many wonderful people at vendor fairs who would love their own space, but just can’t swing it. I would like to open a store, rent out spaces within for local vendors, and continue to promote my own products and their underlying cause.”

Hill-Rios’ fight did not end with her recovery, and she continues to pursue her dreams and support cancer patients and their resources one craft at a time. Anyone looking to support her efforts with either a purchase of their own or by providing an extra set of hands to bring her crafts to life, Hill-Rios is always open to sharing her skills. To contact Hill-Rios, visit her company Facebook page at Tonya &LEILA or send her an email at triosjrios@gmail.com.