Karolyn Gazella is an author, publisher, medical journalist, philanthropist and ovarian cancer survivor. She lost her mother to liver cancer, her sister is a two time breast cancer survivor and her aunts and cousins were stricken with this horrible disease.
Five to Thrive: Your Cutting-Edge Cancer Prevention Plan by Lise Alschuler, ND and Karolyn A. Gazella will be included in the guest gift bags at the Writers Unite to Fight Cancer (WUFC) Arizona Centennial Cancer Research Fundraiser at the Arizona Biltmore on February 2nd, 2012 from 6:30 – 9:30 pm; a donation from the author’s sponsor, Kyowa. Money raised at this event will benefit two Arizona-based cancer research programs. One is a project that is being researched at the Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine in cooperation withArizona State University under the direction of Robert Waters PhD. The other project is being researched at the University of Arizona Cancer Center natural products program directed by Dr. Leslie Gunatilaka.
My sister had her routine annual physical. When she walked into my office after her appointment, I could see she was crying. Her doctor found a lump in her breast and it would require a biopsy. We were scared. We had just attended the funeral of an aunt who died a painful death due to metastatic breast cancer. Other aunts had died of cancer, as well as our maternal grandmother. To us, cancer equaled death.
Let’s not panic, I thought. But it was hard not to. My mom took the news especially hard. The thought of losing a child was more than she could manage.
At the young age of 35, in July 1994, Kathi entered the operating room not knowing what to expect. The surgeon came out to deliver the news to us. He said the word cancer and my mom’s knees buckled. I quickly stretched my arm around her to keep her standing. I’m not sure what was worse, hearing that word, or seeing my mom’s reaction to it.
Nearly every day after the diagnosis, while my sister recovered at home, my mom would come into my office each morning, sit in the chair across my desk, and cry. She was so afraid. It was heartbreaking to witness the devastating reaction of this strong, spiritual, selfless woman. She could not bear the thought of possibly losing her oldest daughter to the same illness that took her mom, sisters, and sister-in-law (who was also a dear friend). Her morning tears seemed to purge her system for a short time allowing her to make it through the day. She never cried in front of Kathi because she didn’t want to negatively affect Kathi’s recovery.
Kathi had a lumpectomy followed by radiation. She was so strong. I think her two young boys motivated her to fight hard. She was determined to win this battle. And she did.
A few months after Kathi’s cancer, mom developed flu-like symptoms and her back pain was worse. We attributed the back pain to a serious horseback riding accident she had several years prior. But the flu-like symptoms were oddly persistent. I remember her being ill at Thanksgiving and then a few weeks later she was still not feeling well at our company holiday party. She was not the type to see a doctor without a lot of prodding. But when she developed jaundice (yellowing of the skin), she could no longer avoid our persistence. We had hoped it was something simple, maybe gallstones. I wish that would have been the case.
She was admitted to the hospital immediately. They found a huge tumor in her bile duct and five different tumors in her liver. A liver biopsy confirmed that the cancer originated in the pancreas. My brother Dan and I were in her hospital room when the oncologist delivered the news. Advanced pancreatic cancer. He told us there was no hope. Without a tear in her eye, she calmly asked how long. When he said three months at the most, the shock and disbelief welled inside me like hot lava. I wanted to scream. I saw the color run from my brother’s face. I began to quietly cry at her bedside and she comforted me. This would be her way as she transitioned from this life.
Just five days before Christmas, I eased my mom into my car and took her home to die. Three weeks from the date of her diagnosis, on January 6, 1995, my mom died at home with my sister at her side. Recalling that time is painful; however, I also remember the deep spiritual connection she made with us during that short period. Every moment was cherished and it has become the most incredible gift I have ever been given. As she embraced her dying, she taught us more about living than we could ever have imagined.
Mom’s health deteriorated quickly. My sister and I took turns staying with her. Wonderful Hospice nurses helped us care for her so she could die at home. Mom left this life as she lived it-with grace, dignity, and unconditional kindness and love. She was an incredible role model for me and she continues to influence my life.
The physical toll mom’s death took on us was overwhelming. We were tired and emotionally devastated by our loss. Soon after mom died, I began experiencing severe pain in my lower abdomen. Fueled by fear and denial, I ignored the pain until it would cause me to double over. I finally went to see the doctor.
Less than three months after my mom’s death, two days after my 33rd birthday, I was operated on for ovarian cancer. In less than eight months, my family experienced three cancers, one taking the life of our mom, our cornerstone.
My tumor was 5 cm. It had completely enveloped the left ovary and was growing down my uterus. I had a complete hysterectomy-removal of both ovaries and the uterus. Because it was on the outside of the ovary, my local doctors were recommending a potent chemotherapy regimen. I went to the University of Wisconsin-Madison to get some advice. I decided to delay chemotherapy and simply continue to monitor my CA125 blood work. I agreed that I would start chemotherapy if I could not get my blood work in the normal range.
I changed my diet, began exercising, used a variety of anti-stress techniques, focused on the mind as well as the body, and took lots of dietary supplements. I was able to lower my CA125 and within a year, it was in the normal range. I avoided chemotherapy entirely. On March 28, 2008, I celebrated the fact that I have been cancer free for 13 years.
Kathi’s cancer came back less than three years after she beat the first one. And, yes, she beat it again. She’s a two-time winner and continues to inspire me with her strength.
The extensive cancer that hangs on our family tree has piqued the curiosity of University researchers. Our extended family of cousins on my mom’s side chose to do genetic testing with Creighton University. Not surprisingly, they discovered that we have the “cancer gene.”
Cancer has dramatically changed my life. In many unsuspecting ways, it has made my personal journey more fulfilling. Although conventional medicine would say that mom “lost” her battle with cancer, I think differently. She gave us significant emotional and spiritual tools we could use to fight our cancers. She created a living template for us to use and pass on for generations to come. The gifts she gave us are far more powerful than any cancer gene imaginable.
I live my life differently thanks to cancer. I am humbled to join my sister and the millions of other cancer “thrivers” who are alive and well today.