Battling Cancer as a University Student

In support of Kernel’s Optimism Project, we’re publishing real student stories of struggle, trials and optimism through it all.

I recently discovered that I might be unmindful.

I think a lot of us might be. We don’t appreciate how many wonderful things happen to us each and every day. We take for granted things like sleeping in our own bed, driving around town with our best friends, and learning to make dinner for ourselves. We don’t really mean to, but we take for granted all the mundane things that make life just a little bit better. And sometimes it only takes one conversation to make you see that you’ve been looking at life all wrong.

“I’m incredibly blessed to understand how fragile life is and to not take things for granted.”

A little over a year ago, Gayle Katzenback was your average 18-year-old girl. Like so many other 18-year-olds, Gayle was already taking on the next big phase in her life; university. Fast forward one year later, Gayle was told that she had just six months to live.

Her strength in face of this devastating news is a testament to the human spirit, but it is how she handled everything in between that really drew me to her story.

If you know Gayle, you know that she is passionate, empathetic, and unapologetically herself. It’s why her friends and family love her. Before a couple weeks ago, I probably hadn’t spoken more than a few sentences to Gayle, but as I listened to her tell her story, I quickly learned all those things for myself.

“I’m incredibly blessed to understand how fragile life is and to not take things for granted.” She told me. It is with that spirit that she tackled all the obstacles that were laid out in front of her.

Only a few days after returning home to Sault Ste. Marie for Christmas, Gayle and her family received the news that she had a rare form of cancer called Ewing’s Sarcoma.

In May of 2015, Gayle started experiencing mysterious and extremely painful headaches. There were times when the pain was so excruciating she could barely get out of bed, still, doctors in both her hometown of Sault Ste. Marie and her new home in Ottawa, told her that she had nothing to worry about. After months of immobilizing pain and futile trips to the emergency room, Gayle’s parents—who had been living in Texas at the time—made her an appointment with a neurologist in Austin. It was there that an MRI revealed a tumour constricting the blood flow on the right side of her carotid artery. Though her doctors believed that the tumour was benign, they scheduled a biopsy for early December, just to be safe. Only a few days after returning home to Sault Ste. Marie for Christmas, Gayle and her family received the news that she had a rare form of cancer called Ewing’s Sarcoma.

“It was almost relieving because I finally figured out what was causing me so much grief… at the same time no one wants to hear that they have cancer, especially when you’re this age and you have so much that you want to do,” she explained.

On Christmas Eve 2015, Gayle had her first round of chemotherapy. For the next eight months she lived in Texas with her family while she underwent treatment.

Undergoing treatment in the U.S. meant that she had to leave her first year of University behind, trading in her school bag for an IV bag. Being hundreds of miles away from home meant that she had to miss out on a lot; time with her friends, the experience of living on her own, and celebrating her 19th birthday. As discouraging as it was to be so far away from her friends, Gayle expressed how grateful she was to those closest to her, especially her step-mom, for the constant love and support they showed her. Even people she barely knew were sending her their best wishes at every turn.

When one of her close friends decided to start an online fundraiser to help her family out with medical bills, Gayle decided instead to give all the money raised to families that she had met at the children’s hospital where she was being treated.

Over the past year and a half, Gayle has been through more hardship than any young woman should ever see. Yet, in the midst of her own struggles, Gayle somehow found it in herself to give to others.

When one of her close friends decided to start an online fundraiser to help her family out with medical bills, Gayle decided instead to give all the money raised to families that she had met at the children’s hospital where she was being treated. She told me about parents who didn’t have health insurance to pay for treatment, and parents who had to quit their jobs to take care of their kids. In the months that she spent in this hospital, Gayle became extremely close with these families, and she knew that some of them needed this money so much more than she did.

“There was this one family in particular, a little boy named Caiden who has neuroblastoma,” she said. “I think he just turned one, and he’s spent his entire life so far getting treated for this horrible disease and he is literally the happiest child I have ever met… He always had the biggest smile on his face.”

Spending time with Caiden and his family helped Gayle get through some of the most difficult days.

At the beginning of August 2016, Gayle had completed all of her treatments and was able to go home with the knowledge that her scans had come back clean. “I felt like, ‘I beat cancer, I can beat anything.’” She told me.

“I was given six months to live. And that was even more surreal than hearing you have cancer… Having a timeframe is indescribable.”

Two months later, Gayle and her family returned to Texas, where her check-up scans revealed some concerning spots on her liver and lungs. “So I had to go back in December,” she explained. “And that’s when they found that I had innumerable tumours on my liver, a tumour on my C3 vertebrae in my neck, one on a lymph node on the front of my neck near my clavicle and on my lung. So, my cancer had come back with a vengeance. I was given six months to live. And that was even more surreal than hearing you have cancer… Having a timeframe is indescribable.”

Coming to accept a prognosis like this would be, like Gayle says, indescribable, but she assured me that her fight is nowhere near over. Gayle and her family have abandoned traditional treatments in favour of a personalized, intensive regimen of vitamins and supplements. Life may have thrown Gayle a series of curve balls, but she has handled them all with an inspiring amount of hope and determination.

“It was a huge reality check, because I think a lot of the time you don’t think anything bad’s going to happen to you. And I know people say that all the time… but it’s so true. You take for granted the people around you because you just assume that they’re always going to be there,” she revealed. “And I think in a good way, it really strengthened a lot of my [relationships] with my family members and my friends.”

On some of the most arduous days, when many of us would have thought it best to just give up, there was something that helped Gayle to keep on fighting: “I just hope that even if I don’t have that much time left, that my life has impacted so many lives for the better. I’m optimistic because each day I’m here is a gift and that means I should give it my best effort… I’m incredibly blessed to still be fighting.”

I knew in that moment that no words could have been more true. The opportunity to get to know Gayle and to learn from her is a gift I don’t know that I can repay. Thank you Gayle, for allowing me to share your story, and for reminding us all that every moment is worth living.

 

Spread Optimism at WE Day in NYC.

What’s got you feeling inspired? We’re looking for inspiring stories of optimism and it could be what wins you the VIP trip of a lifetime. Sign up through our contest page and share your story.

Here’s what’s included in the grand prize:
. 3 flights to NYC for 4 days (the 3rd flight is for a chaperone, if needed).
. 2 hotel rooms for 3 days (the 2nd room will be for that chaperone, if needed).
. $800 of spending money per person.
. VIP preferred tickets to WE Day on April 6th.

Tiann Nantais

Tiann Nantais

Tiann is a Political Science student at the University of Guelph. She enjoys boring her friends with political news and is surprisingly smooth on the dance floor.