42% of all cancer cases in the US are linked to preventable risk factors, according to a new study. Buzz60
Cancer: It’s an insidious illness that takes lives, destroys families and brings people to their knees. But when it came for Kathy Graef, cancer messed with the wrong woman.
Graef’s story is one of astonishing resilience in the face of a seemingly incurable form of the disease that robbed her of her hair, her career, and almost her life. Braving nearly a decade of failed clinical trials, endless chemotherapy and massive setbacks, Graef received a morbid prognosis, yet never believed she wouldn’t win her fight, and faced every day with a smile.
“I was living the dream,” says Oradell’s Graef of her life in 2004, as a happy 46-year-old math teacher and sports coach at Old Tappan’s Northern Valley Regional High School. Graef, now 60, was also a competitive racer who’d completed hundreds of races, including marathons and Ironman competitions that called for her to swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles and then run 26.2 miles. “I was extremely fit and felt really healthy,” she says. So when she discovered a small lump on her pelvis, she wasn’t terribly worried, but had it checked to be safe.
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Her doctor initially said it was nothing. But six months later a different doctor suggested a biopsy. “The morning I went back for the results, my husband’s father passed away, so I went in alone,” she recalls. “My doctor said, ‘I’m sorry to tell you that you have non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. It’s a serious form, and likely incurable.’ Suddenly, everything just seemed to go dark, and it was like the life got sucked out of me.”
At Manhattan’s Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, Graef was told of Dr. Andre Goy, a Texas-based oncologist joining the staff of Hackensack University Medical Center. She soon became one of Goy’s first Hackensack patients. “He had an absolute disregard for any thought that I wouldn’t make it,” says Graef of Goy. “He saw someone with the will and strength to fight this, so we really went at this disease.”
Over the next eight years, Graef endured many failed clinical trials and debilitating treatments that made her weak and nauseous. “It was discouraging because all around me people were getting better,” she recalls. “But even with feeling weak and losing my hair, I never stopped teaching. I loved my students and I’d do anything for them.”
Graef felt her battle could provide a profound lesson for her students. “I sat with them and explained that unfortunately, in their lifetime, they or someone they know will probably be diagnosed with cancer, and I want to be the person who provides them with the vision of being able to fight it and win,” she says. “I needed them to believe that someone could beat this.”
Fighting for her life
In September 2011, after nearly 200 rounds of treatments, a number of Graef’s lymph nodes had swollen, making it difficult to walk and breathe. “Dr. Goy said my bone marrow was compromised and my only option was a bone marrow transplant,” she says. She immediately told him no. Graef had researched the procedure and was terrified. “But when I went home, I realized I had to give it a shot. It was like the bottom of the ninth with two outs. I couldn’t give up now.”
A perfect donor was quickly located and Graef began intensive chemotherapy ahead of the February 2012 transplant, which was performed by Hackensack’s Dr. Michelle Donato. “The transplant went smoothly. Dr. Donato really held my hand during my most vulnerable time,” Graef recalls. “I was back home doing well when suddenly, in June, I had severe stomach pains.” Those pains were the onset of graft-versus-host-disease (GVHD), which caused her remaining cells to fight off the donor cells, causing a severe burning sensation through her digestive tract.
“I was in isolation in the hospital and I couldn’t eat for weeks. I knew by everyone’s faces that I was in big trouble,” she says. “But there was still never a moment where I felt like I wouldn’t make it through.”
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Graef spent five weeks in the hospital and returned for continuous blood cleansing treatments for the next two years. Finally, in March of 2014, her cancer and GVHD were gone.
Though her decade-long battle was physically and mentally draining, Graef never lost the will to fight – or to race. “Since my diagnosis, I’ve done three Ironmans, six marathons and a few triathlons,” she says, as though sitting still was never an option. “If my doctors said not to run, I didn’t. But otherwise, I exercised every day.”
Graef credits much of her fortitude to exercise. “My doctors would be the first to say that being so physically fit is the reason I’m still here today,” she says. “And mentally, exercise was hugely empowering for me.”
Graef no longer races to win, having reevaluated her priorities after all she’s endured. “The gift of cancer is that it made me a profoundly better person,” she says. “A lot of what used to seem so important to me is not significant anymore, like where I place in a competition.”
Now, the devoted animal lover dedicates her time to making a positive impact on the world. “I had to retire from teaching, but I do tons of work with therapy dogs, taking them to hospitals and veterans’ homes. I tutor kids and I coach other cancer patients going through transplant,” she says. “Everything I do now is to be purposeful and pay back for the life I’ve been given.”
That life, she explains, is one she feels deeply grateful to have. “I’ve had a lot of loss, but if you look at the big picture, I’m so blessed,” she says with a smile. “When you’ve been in the place that I was in and then you’re not, every day that you get to breathe and make a difference in this world is a great day.”
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Publish date : 2018-02-28 11:00:52
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