“It was devastating,” Kathy Owens, speech coach and speech communications professor at UMHB, said of her cancer diagnosis. “I will never forget that moment in the doctor’s office. That was truly one of those turning points in my life, and it was kind of hard to believe it was happening.”
Kathy received her diagnosis of Stage II squamous cell rectal cancer on Jan. 4, which is such a rare form of cancer doctors hesitated to give a diagnosis. Kerry Owens, Kathy’s husband, who is also a speech communications professor at UMHB, said the
diagnosis was difficult and took a while to pin down.
Owens would eventually undergo chemo and radiation in the spring, surgery in the summer and another series of chemo treatments in the fall.
“We really didn’t know what it was because the doctor wouldn’t commit one way or the other as to whether or not it was malignant. So, we had to wait a week to find out for sure. There’s not much of a reaction when you hear that; you’re just kind of numb,” Kerry said.
An eight centimeter tumor was discovered during Kathy’s first baseline colonoscopy, which was performed to provide a reference point for future exams.
Unfortunately, her results were anything but average. According to the World Journal of Gastrointestinal Surgery, there have been fewer than 150 cases since 1919. Due to the lack of studies performed with squamous cell rectal cancer, doctors were reluctant to diagnose.
“We were frustrated with the doctor at first because it felt like he was holding back information; like he just wouldn’t tell us anything. Then we found out it’s actually an incredibly rare form of cancer….[the doctor] was as lost as we were. This is truly one of those bad luck cancers,” Kathy said.
Despite the unsure nature of their diagnosis journey, the couple found waiting to be the most difficult part.
“Cancer could be a death sentence or something you recover from. The time we had to go through to find out if this was treatable or terminal was the worst part of it all,” Kerry said.
Another obstacle the couple faced with such a rare cancer was the lack of an estimated recovery time.
“The other scary thing about it being a very rare form of cancer is that there is no prognosis. They haven’t been able to do any long term studies to know what the outcome will be,” Kathy said. “We had lots and lots of questions but the doctors just didn’t have answers for them because most of us have never seen it before.”
Kathy said even though the cancer diagnosis was devastating, she was oddly comforted by being diagnosed with a ‘bad luck cancer.’
“It’s not my fault, which was actually kind of comforting because you wonder ‘oh if I had a better diet, if I had done this,’ but this is truly one of those bad luck cancers.”
The comfort in diagnosis was thin, but the support the Owens family received from their family and the community was overwhelming.
“I want to emphasize just how wonderful my support group has been, from Kerry, to my department, to the administration, to HR. The support has been there, and it has been heartwarming.”
Kathy wasn’t the only one who recognized the outpouring of support.
“I just want to thank everyone at UMHB for their prayers and support…We had a great deal of help from the community and from the campus,” Kerry said.
One of Kathy’s students was especially kind last spring during the worst part of her treatment.
“Katie Stringer put together a whole care package for me of things I love…and use when searching for scripts. It was just wonderful. It showed me how much she knew me.”
Kathy said Stringer became her adopted daughter. They developed an incredibly strong bond while she was in Kathy’s program and she really considers Katie one of her greatest successes.
I was there when she got the call to go in to the doctor’s office,” Stringer said. “As I left, I looked at [Kathy] and said, ‘I love you mom’.”
Along with her students, Kathy’s children, 12-year-old Allie and 20-year-old Charlie also did what they could to be there for their mom during her treatment.
“[Charlie] offered to quit school and get a job to help pay for medical bills so we didn’t have to pay for Baylor while paying for all this,” Kathy said. “We told him the most important thing right now is that you make the most out of your life. So, he stayed and pledged his fraternity. But I really appreciated his attitude of doing whatever he had to to make the family finances work.”
Her son’s sacrifice still fills her eyes with proud tears.
Allie offered help in different ways while her mother was sick.
“[Allie] actually helped change my dressings on my wounds this summer…I was trying to hide my wounds from her because I didn’t want to traumatize her. But I have this distinct memory of her sitting on my bed while my mother is packing my wounds and she’s eating a peanut butter sandwich and talking as if nothing out of the ordinary was going on.”
Kathy’s recovery process has inspired the seventh grader to look to a medical career, possibly in space.
Even though Kathy’s exhaustion put the majority of the housework on her husband and children, Kerry said it was nothing compared to what his wife endured.
“Doing the extra dishes and the laundry and that kind of stuff was a minor inconvenience. She has been quite a trooper through all of this. She has handled this amazingly well,” Kerry said.
Kathy praised her husband’s willingness to do what was needed while she was so tired.
“Kerry, bless his heart, taught eight classes in the spring because he ended up taking some of my classes as well as running the speech team…The spring semester killed him and he was such a good sport about it. I tell you, there are times I know I married the right man. He would take care of everything up here [at UMHB] and then he would come home and rub my feet or fix my dinner or whatever it was I needed that night.”
With Kathy still in the process of recovery, teaching classes and managing the speech team is exhausting. However, she looks forward to the next chapter in her life.
“I wanted to go on a cruise my whole life, but could never talk Kerry into it. So, I’m using the emotional blackmail of ‘I had cancer’ and we’re going to take a celebration of life cruise December of 2018.”
Kerry said this difficult time reinforced his belief that nothing in this life is guaranteed and you have to try to find happiness in the moment you’re in.
“Even as bad as this has been, we’ve been able to find happiness in our relationship, and our children and our jobs.”
At what was supposed to be Kathy’s last treatment Tuesday, she was advised by her doctor to continue four more treatments.