Lessons Learned

by Janet Klostermann

Many of you know me as “Janklo”, the mom of Lauren, who died at age 28 of signet ring cell colon cancer. But I also have prior experience with a close family member who was diagnosed with cancer. In 1984, when I was 23 years old with a 3-week old baby (Lauren), my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. Now 1984 version of medical treatment is like the dark ages compared to today’s treatments. I still remember the day of my mom’s big surgery. It lasted over eight hours and she had a very hard time coming out of the anesthesia. It was just my dad and I in the waiting room. My two younger brothers were in high school and college at the time. The surgeon came out and said that there was no way my mom would survive more than a couple of months as the tumor was the size of a grapefruit and he knew he did not get all the cancer out.
As it turns out, neither the surgeon, my dad nor I told my mom this news.

About ten years we were having a conversation and I mentioned to my mom that she was not supposed to have survived more than a couple of months at the time of her initial surgery. Apparently my dad thought I would have told her and I thought he would do it. When my mom heard this information, she said that if someone had told her she had two months left to live, she would have gone home, taken to her bed and stayed there. Instead, she came home and changed her whole way of living. She started eating healthier foods and started walking every morning, working her way up to five miles a day. Cancer Lesson #1: Never ever give up, no matter what the prognosis and cancer Lesson #2: Attitude is everything.

My mother lived 16 more years with her cancer. She got to meet all eight of her grandchildren, she got to celebrate her 30th wedding anniversary with her father and she got to experience a lot of wonderful things in life. Cancer Lesson #3: Experience all life has to offer.

Fast forward to 26 years later. . . I received a call from my super independent, smart, witty, driven oldest daughter, Lauren. She had been having issues with nausea, pain and vomiting for several months and after removing her gallbladder, doctors had ordered a colonoscopy. She had just received a call from the GI doctor telling her she had cancer. She lived ten hours away from us and was single, although she did live with her boyfriend. The doctor called her when was driving home from work and gave her this information over the phone “you have cancer, but it probably did not originate in the colon, it is most likely from the breast, the stomach, the pancreas. It is signet ring cell, very rare. My office has already set you up with appointments with a surgeon, an oncologist, for a mammogram, a CT and a PET scan”. All the worst news in the world, delivered via one phone call. Thankfully, further testing revealed all those things to be wrong. The cancer was only in the colon and originated there. Cancer Lesson #4: Don’t panic when given your diagnosis.

Of course any of you who are “moms” know that my first reaction was to do whatever I could to “fix” this situation. That was not possible, but I tried my best. My husband and I went to Dallas for Lauren’s initial colectomy surgery. I saw a lot of things and learned a lot of things on that 2 week trip, things I’d really rather not have seen or heard about. But now we knew what we were dealing with in terms of our enemy – Stage 3C SRC colon cancer. The next 2 ½ years were filled with ups and downs, CEA tests, scans, new doctors, more surgery, trips to Texas, chemotherapy, therapists, phone calls, loss of the boyfriend, loss of her job, loss of more internal organs, loss of her hair, even loss of her independence when Lauren moved in with us for her second round of chemotherapy. There were good things too. Two new jobs with fabulous employers who were super supportive, our younger daughter’s wedding and accompanying festivities, new friends we all made. I still never gave up hope and I learned so much, mainly from other people right here on The Colon Club. Cancer Lesson #5: Be your own advocate.

When we’d reached the absolute end and the doctors told us there was nothing more to do, there were still more lessons to be learned. I had to learn to let her go and make it easy for her. I also had to make it easy for my husband and my other daughter by taking on all the legal stuff, the paperwork, the sorting out of her stuff all myself. But, the people of The Colon Club are the ones that really, really helped me get through that part too! Cancer Lesson #6: When the time comes, don’t be afraid to let go.