Couple battles 2 life-threatening diseases
BISMARCK -- Two people are battling incurable diseases under one roof. Kathy Hertz, 57, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in July 2010. The disease was discovered when, after two months of bloating and feeling full prematurely, Kathy went online ...
BISMARCK -- Two people are battling incurable diseases under one roof.
Kathy Hertz, 57, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in July 2010. The disease was discovered when, after two months of bloating and feeling full prematurely, Kathy went online looking for answers. After a little bit of searching, she found an ailment that fit her symptoms and went to the hospital.
"I went into the walk-in clinic and basically told them I had ovarian cancer," Kathy said.
She referred herself to Mayo Clinic for a debulking surgery that removed the visible portions of her cancer, then returned to Bismarck to begin chemo and recovery. Unfortunately, Kathy's body resisted the chemo and, at the end of eight cycles, the cancer reappeared. Hopes for full recovery vanished as her case was upgraded from stage 3C to stage 4 -- a terminal diagnosis.
The realization that she would not recover was hard to handle and medical professionals could offer little comfort.
"I was told to 'Get your affairs in order and enjoy the days you can enjoy,'" Kathy said.
But getting her affairs in order is not so simple. Not only does she have to work on caring for her own health, but she also is the caregiver for her husband, Don Hertz, who was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in 2002, six months after they were married.
"It was always my health we were concerned about, and she was the caregiver and the strength of the family," Don said. "We're probably worried more about the other person than ourselves."
In addition to bloating and premature fullness, symptoms of ovarian cancer also include difficulty eating, pelvic/abdominal pain and digestive difficulties persisting more than two weeks. The vague nature of the warning signs make them easy to overlook, but doing so can have fatal consequences. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, ovarian cancer causes more deaths than any other female reproductive cancer.
"The reason (it's so deadly) is because most cases of ovarian cancer are not diagnosed until they're fairly advanced," Bismarck gynecologist Shari Orser said.
That was the case for Kathy, whose late diagnosis was a contributing factor to her cancer's recurrence. Kathy continues to assist Don in whatever way she can, although he's still mostly self-functioning,
Helping each other
Parkinson's is a progressive, incurable disease that robs the brain of its ability to communicate with the body's muscles, and certain tasks are difficult for Don to complete. Despite their challenges, the two are making the best of their time together, using their own good days to assist the other.
"When one of us feels good, we try to take care of the other," Kathy said. "Whoever's strongest in the morning gets the other the coffee."
While it's obvious the two count on each other for support and comfort, the implications of Kathy's diagnosis cannot be overlooked. In the future, Don will require even more assistance, and Kathy will not be around to help and support him -- a troubling prospect for any spouse.
"I'm afraid about what life will be like without someone who's been such a big part of my life," Don said.
What will happen next isn't clear, but for now, the two rely on the strong support they have received from family and friends. Kathy has a Caring Bridge site where she can update her loved ones on her status and they can leave her notes and supportive messages. Kathy's stepdaughter, Suzi Brucker, and Brucker's daughter, Victoria, even got tattoos as a form of encouragement.
"I felt so helpless," Brucker said. "I felt like I had to do something, and with this, I felt like I was."
Despite all the positive reassurances Kathy has received, she shuns the optimistic approach that some cancer patients take with their diagnosis. Instead, she tries to remain realistic, almost pessimistic, about her situation.
"I'm very practical about it," Kathy said. "I know I'm going to die ... I'm not doing the hope thing."
Kathy may not be saving hope for herself, but she certainly is working to lend inspiration to those around her.
"I've never done huge things," Kathy said. "And I've never saved the world, but I'm going to show everyone how to die well."