The Unbreakable Evelyn T. Keener
By Leighann Sturgin
A charismatic, resilient, native Chicagoan, Evelyn T. Keener is a 49-year-old gifted writer, poet, and speaker now living in Atlanta. In 1976, at the tender age of eight years, her world was rocked when she noticed blood in the toilet after a bowel movement. Frightened, she screamed for her mother. Although her mother looked scared, she wasn’t shocked. She knew Evelyn’s biological father had familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP).
Today, Evelyn T. Keener is a ovarian cancer survivor who also lives daily with short bowel syndrome and Gardner’s syndrome. In a recent endoscopy, pre-cancerous cells were found in Evelyn’s duodenum, and she is currently under preventative care for duodenal cancer.
Evelyn lives life with purpose. Her motto: “You are not built to break.” On the Rise asked her about living that motto.
You were raised by your mother and stepfather. What did you know about your biological father’s FAP?
It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I knew and understood what the familial in familial adenomatous polyposis meant. My father and his family did not know about pre-screening or that he had a genetic disease. He did not have the benefit I did and at the age of 10 was diagnosed after presenting symptoms of rectal bleeding. He had a full colectomy and a permanent colostomy.
How did your FAP diagnosis change your life?
As an eight-year-old, things were happening that I didn’t understand. I did not have a voice to the things that were happening to me. As an adult it’s an understanding of my own mortality and that I have to live every day with purpose.
How did it change your family?
For my mother, she had to put me first before her husband and my sister. I’m sure that was hard for her to balance. For my sister, she went from being my sister to my protector and second mother. It’s a role she still embraces to this day. For my husband, it’s understanding the reality that this is a life-long condition and that this could be fatal.
After your colectomy you had a temporary ileostomy. How hard was this to deal with as an eight year old?
I don’t really remember everything now. My mother says I was in the hospital for a couple months after the surgery, and by the time I came home I was comfortable with it and I handled it very well. What I do remember is my mother and sister helping me a lot. At school my sister, who was 11 at the time, would come to my classroom and make sure I was emptying it. However, having it made me feel weak at times.
Were you able to resume a “normal” childhood after your temporary ileostomy was reversed?
Yes. I had a full childhood. I played and jumped rope … anything that anyone else did, but I always felt like people were looking at me like I was different. I felt like people were thinking, “We have to watch that one. She’s the sick one.”
How did you learn about your ovarian cancer?
I always had ovarian cysts. Two months after my wedding, I experienced debilitating pain in my lower abdomen. I made an appointment with my doctor, but decided to go to the ER instead. Once there, they did scans and tests and found tumors on my ovary. I was diagnosed with stage 0 ovarian cancer. It was caught early. I had a hysterectomy.
You say you’ve had 10 to 12 major surgeries in your lifetime, too many to list. Did these surgeries go smoothly or did you experience complications?
Prior to surgery, they always sit you down to discuss the possible complications. Whenever they would tell me something that only happens in one percent (or whatever low percentage) of people, I know that’s going to happen to me. I am always going to be in the one percent with complications happening to me, and you can bank on it. I realized after my fourth surgery, which was the reversal of my second ileostomy that this was going to be the norm for me. I wasn’t the typical surgical candidate.
How did you handle all these complications mentally?
Every surgery with complications I sunk into a little bit of depression initially, but I always come back to “you are not built to break” and I keep moving on. My faith has played a huge role in my life. When I would sink into those small bouts of depression, God always let me know he was still with me. Every time I was at my lowest point, God would show up.
You’re an accomplished writer. Tell me about your books.
I’m a self-published author. My first book is a 30-day devotional entitled Live
Believe Dream. The second book, Awaken the Butterfly, is a book of poetry with some devotionals. Both books have sold out of their first editions. The second editions came out in December 2016 with my third book, which is a 365-day devotional.
You’ve said you have to live life with purpose. What is your purpose?
People are my purpose. I love people. My trials have been for the purpose of helping other people. My ministry is my history. I was born to serve others. I may bend. I may lean. But I am not built to break.