Re-Posted with permission from Being 808.
Kathy Koerte, of Kapaa, has been cancer-free for nearly 13 years. She counts each day as a gift — and a chance to give people hope and a powerful message as a colon cancer survivor. She says she counts it as her mission in life to let people know about routine colon cancer screening, which can catch the cancer early — when it’s highly treatable.
“I’m so very happy to be here. I feel very fortunate,” she said. “I was diagnosed at a time in my life when I was trying to be healthy, eating right, exercising daily, and had quit smoking years before being diagnosed. It just goes to show you no one is truly safe from cancer, but we can prevent it with screening and can receive support through treatment.” For her efforts to help others, Kathy was named of two 2015 “Heroes of Hope” in Hawaii by the American Cancer Society.
“You have cancer”
We caught up with Kathy recently to learn more about her work to raise awareness about colon cancer, and her own health journey. She was 57 when she went in for what was supposed to be a routine colonoscopy. As she was waiting in recovery, the doctor told her that they’d found something and would need to have testing done to see if it was cancer. He told her not to worry until the lab results came back.
“You have cancer,” he told her. “It looks like stage I colon cancer. Thousands would love to hear stage I when they’re first diagnosed.”When the results did come in, the news wasn’t good. Kathy was shocked; it took a while for her diagnosis to sink in. There was a three-week wait between her diagnosis and scheduled surgery and she remembers walking around feeling anxious and not being able to eat or sleep well. She remembers thinking, “The cancer is in me right now, I hope it’s not growing. I’m shopping with the cancer. I’m doing things with this cancer in me.”
“Oh no, this isn’t good”
After Kathy’s surgery, both her gastroenterologist and surgeon called her and she said, “Oh no, this isn’t good, both of you are talking to me.” She was right to be concerned: The cancer turned out to be stage III. It had traveled beyond the walls of the colon and was also in her lymph nodes. Even all these years later, it’s hard for Kathy to explain the feeling of disbelief she had after she learned she had an advanced disease she had only seen others suffer from. She was given the phone number to the American Cancer Society (1-800-227-2345) once she started treatment at Wilcox Hospital.
She recalls, “It took me three days to call. I was so scared at first, but it was as if an angel picked up the phone to talk with me when I called. I later visited (her local office) and was given printed materials. I was told they knew what I was going through, what I would be facing. I needed that personal touch; it’s overwhelming the barrage of tests given.” Kathy had a second surgery to put in an open port for her chemotherapy that she went on to have for six months. She lost her hair, a lot of weight and would feel weak in between the week-long chemo treatments that happened every month.
In 2004, Kathy participated in her first “life changing” American Cancer Society Relay For Life. The event is an evening or overnight community fundraising walk. Members of each team take turns walking around a track, while the crowd cheers them on (and celebrates with food, games and activities).
“When it gets dark, you’ll see lit luminaries with pictures of those who lost their battle, those still taking the journey, even pets that were lost to cancer,” Kathy said. “It’s emotional reading the names, looking at the bags. Year-after-year I go to honor those who have passed and those still fighting. It’s also a celebration of life. Everyone is invited. You’ll see cancer survivors walk with loved ones. You’ll see people you know and others you don’t. It’s incredibly moving.”
“Cancer is everyone’s problem”
Kathy says we should all be doing more to raise awareness about preventive care, which can catch problems early. She also yearns for the day when no one will hear the words, “You have cancer.” We’ll never get there, she says, without more people getting recommended health screenings. “It’s not someone else’s problem. It’s not embarrassing to have a colonoscopy, it’s may be out of your comfort zone, but it’s such a valuable tool to prevent colon cancer,” she said. “Cancer is everyone’s problem. There’s no way to get around cancer, you have to fight and go through it. “For me, I just had to get the treatment done. There is too much to live for and it’s instinct to want to live. I’m so fortunate it worked. The first challenge was just accepting the diagnosis. During treatment, it was hard to go out to just the local market with a baseball hat and no hair, feeling weak. If you see someone you know like that simply say, ‘Nice to see you.’ Kathy said while she was undergoing treatment, she met a man who said he was ashamed to be diagnosed, and asked her if she had cancer, too. “I told him, ‘Yes, I had colon cancer and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. It’s not like you ordered a six-pack of cancer. It’s happening to you, you didn’t pick this.”
Denise Lau is a content specialist at HMSA and blogs about mommyhood with her #808moms series. She has her hands full with a precocious, artistic daughter and active son. Her goal is to be healthy and fit while her kids become successful, well-rounded adults. Follow her on Twitter.