Surviving Cancer: Kelly Caballero’s Story of Faith and Hope
Kelly Caballero was 32 when she decided she needed to see a doctor about the symptoms she was having. “I’d had two years of feeling fatigued and eight months where I knew something was really off in my body.”
“My husband and I went in on a Wednesday night and we were convinced it was my gall bladder. I had been trying to self diagnose, which I never recommend! Well they sent me in for an ultrasound and the nurse was chatting with us and all of a sudden, she got quiet. We could just sense that she found something.”
Five days later, Kelly was diagnosed with Stage 4 colorectal cancer.
Kelly isn’t the typical victim of colon cancer. She’s a young woman, the mother of two young kids—daughter Mia, who turned 7 while Kelly was hospitalized, and son Micah who was 5—while colon cancer almost exclusively strikes middle aged or older men. “It’s really really rare for my group,” said Kelly. “While I was in the hospital they didn’t think it could be cancer because I was just too young.”
Kelly was diagnosed with a complete colon blockage, a tumor on her liver the size of a football and cancerous lesions on her lung and lymph nodes. She was rushed into emergency surgery. “In that first surgery, they took 20 lymph nodes and all of them were infected. They considered me completely terminal.”
But while most people would curl up and cry at such a diagnosis, Kelly said that she just got into fight mode. “I said okay, I can either lose it and fall apart or I can beat this. Everyone was crying around me. My husband was crying, my parents, everybody was a wreck. And I just remember saying ‘Okay, what are my options? How are we going to fight this?’
It’s been almost two years since that initial diagnosis and Kelly is still in fighting shape. With the help of her surgical oncologist from Stanford, an aggressive chemotherapy course and an additional surgery to remove the tumorous growth on her liver, Kelly’s diagnosis went from terminal to ED (End of Disease) in less than a year.
Even her doctors have found her story inspiring: “When we talked to my surgical oncologist at Stanford, he told me that they were taking my case before the UCSF Tumor Board because I wasn’t a textbook case anymore. I wouldn’t be here if I were textbook.”
Kelly said that her battle with cancer taught her many lessons about how best to keep it together in the face of such a life changing diagnosis. She said one of the major things that got her through was her faith, “I’ve been in church all my life and I believe in God, so I realized [when I was diagnosed] that I really had to trust that He would be there to help me through this. I knew I couldn’t lose hope, I couldn’t lose faith. I had to have hope in God.”
“Don’t get me wrong, there were times I broke and cried. Sometimes I said ‘I don’t want to do this anymore! I’m tired!’ but you can’t fight cancer like that all the time. You have to finally just dry up your tears and say what do we do next? What can we do about this?”
Keeping hope alive was all about limiting negative influences, added Kelly. “A huge part of fighting this is reinforcing positives. Learning not to read a book where a woman dies of cancer, not to watch movies where someone dies of cancer. You can’t focus on those negatives. Cancer is a journey where you can’t look five months down the road and say this is where I’m going to be. It’s a rollercoaster, but you find things to be positive about. You just take it one day at a time and try to do what you can.”
Managing the stresses of the disease and treatment with young kids was another major challenge. “With kids, you have to try to maintain a positive attitude. If you walk around with your head up, it’s contagious,” said Kelly, but added that she and her husband also made some missteps with the kids. “When this was starting, we kind of hid it from them. We said Mommy has tummy bugs, we never mentioned cancer because we didn’t realize they knew what it was. I recommend sharing more with children than we did at first. Don’t paint the picture that doctors gave me “Mommy only has so long to live…” but be there, tell them this is what you’re doing, include them in prayer for you, encourage them to come to you with any questions, don’t be afraid. With cancer, you have to learn that whatever happens, you’ll take it in stride.”
Kelly added that one of the most important lessons she learned was not to compare her situation to what others were going through or had experienced before. “You have to understand that when you’re fighting cancer, everybody responds differently to treatment, everybody has different horror stories or positive experience. You can take things and learn from them, but you can’t expect it to be cookie cutter. Everyone’s situation is different.”
Kelly said that her recipe for making it through was simple: “holding on to my hope and faith, surrounding myself with family and friends, and not stressing out on the little things.”
Back in the Fight
Since her second surgery, Kelly has been undergoing maintenance treatments to try to keep her cancer at bay. With the lower doses of medicine, she has been able to return somewhat to the life that was interrupted by her diagnosis. But as recent tests indicate a resurgence of her cancer numbers, she said that she faces another difficult road: going back on an aggressive chemotherapy treatment that can help eradicate the cancer.
“We’ve had to make some decisions,” said Kelly. “It was hard, because I know what it’s like to feel good and didn’t want to go back on chemo. But you can’t fight cancer without fighting it, you can’t sit around and mope about it, you have to jump in with both feet.”
And with the help and support of her family and friends, Kelly says she’s ready to do just that.
For more on Kelly’s journey through cancer, visit her support page on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/groups/KellyCaballero/