MIDDLEBURY CENTER — Cancer brings out the connections between people: doctor and patient, husband and wife, family and friends, anyone on this blue marble called Earth.
Cancer survivor Terry-Ann Kohler strengthened those connections and found meaning in the journey. She’ll talk about her cancer journey and lessons learned along the way, at the Tioga County PA Relay For Life, being held from 3-9 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 27, on The Green in Wellsboro.
Kohler learned of her cancer diagnoses in Jan. 7, 2020, in the middle of her retirement tea following a 43-year career as a nurse.
“The day after I retired, I think I cried the most that day,” she said.
Kohler was familiar with cancer during her career, even leading a cancer support group for 12 years.
“Cancer is the most non-discriminatory disease there is,” Kohler said. “It doesn’t care if you’re young or old, rich or poor, black or yellow or orange, a good person. None of us get a free pass from cancer. Statistically, one in eight women will contract breast cancer in their lifetime.”
Leading up to her retirement in the weeks before Christmas 2019, Kohler was trying to complete several medical tests, including a mammogram. Ninety minutes after that mammogram, she got a call saying the test results were abnormal and she needed an ultrasound. The radiology staff had spotted a spiculated (jagged edge) lesion in her breast.
“I went to Dr. Google as any self-respecting nurse would do and learned it had a high association with malignancy,” Kohler said.
An ultrasound between Christmas and New Year turned up nothing abnormal, not even the original lesion. The technicians asked radiologist Enrico Doganiero whether to wait and have Kohler rechecked in six months. He said no and referred her to the Breast Center in Williamsport for a stereotactic biopsy to guide a needle to the suspected lesion.
Her diagnosis came days later: invasive infiltrating ductal carcinoma.
The lesion measured 6mm and had already grown outside the milk duct where it formed.
Surgery was scheduled in February as concerns about COVID-19 began to rise. Doctors removed the lesion and checked axillary lymph nodes nearby. The nodes were clear.
Afterwards, a 28-day/five day a week radiation therapy began in March. Less than a week into her radiation treatment, the state entered a shutdown.
Kohler’s husband, Donny, drove her Monday to Friday to her treatment in Williamsport, waiting in the parking lot until she completed treatment, then drove her home. Kohler is also taking an aroma tase inhibitor for the next five years to suppress production of estrogen and progesterone, which feed tumors like hers.
“That statistically gives me the best odds of not having my cancer recur,” she said.
Kohler has spoken at Relay for Life in the past, reading the names of 30-plus friends, family and acquaintances whose live had been impacted by cancer. She’ll speak again this year, although she’s still working on what exactly the message will be.
“The big thing for me is, from the point of my diagnosis, I have become a survivor,” Kohler said. “And it’s not just me who survived this thing. It’s my husband who survived with me. My family, my friends.”
On her last day of radiation treatment, Kohler and her husband were driving past her mother’s home on their way to their house. As they neared her mother’s they saw many cars, then people holding big handmade signs, cheering for her.
“I said to Donny, ‘What’s going on?’ He turned to me and said, ‘Don’t you know?’” she said. “I got out of the car crying. You realize the people in your life love you. The hardest thing for me to hand over was my own vulnerability to cancer.”
Treatment had a physical effect on Kohler. She tires more easily, has muscle aches. But she’s also more attentive to her body, resting if necessary.
“I thought I would ace my radiation therapy, but at the end of the third week or beginning of the fourth, I became completely exhausted,” she recalled. “Everybody’s experience is different. I can only imagine how ill people become from chemo.”
It’s also had an impact in other ways.
“I’ve become very outspoken about screening, and all the things you need to do as you age,” she said, adding, “Knowing your family history is important.”
She works diligently at finding peace and calm to keep anxiety at bay by walking, journaling, meditating, watching the hummingbirds, and finding her blessings.
“Dr. [Naeem] Tahir is this amazingly calm person who says to me, ‘Relax. You need to relax,’” she said. “I am blessed we have a health care system like the one that took care of me. I belong to a wonderful network of people who supported my journey.”
Friends, family and other survivors also offer suggestions and she’s learned “The best thing any of us can do is take the best care of ourselves possible: eat healthy, exercise, get your screening.”
Kohler feels humbled to serve as honorary chair of Relay and hopes her story will inspire and help others.
“If you can put a face to it and say you can still smile, life does go on and it’s not the worst thing that happened to me,” she said.