WEST ADDISON — By definition a survivor is one who endures adverse or unusual circumstances. That is a description that Helen Kahrs, 78, of West Addison, fits perfectly.
First diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2005, and then hit by a second cancer diagnosis five years later, today Kahrs can happily say that she is a true survivor after years of battling cancer.
Kahrs said the symptoms of her cancer went away as quickly as they had come. While traveling to Germany seven years ago, Kahrs experienced some bleeding in the airport before her flight. She did not think much of it, but when she came back to the United States, she went to her doctor to get a few tests. At age 71, Kahrs was told she had ovarian cancer.
The diagnosis came as a complete shock, especially since a year earlier she had a clean biopsy.
“You don’t think it is going to happen to you even though cancer is all around you,” Kahrs said of learning of her cancer.
And Kahrs was no stranger to cancer. One of seven children in her family, all but one of the Kahrs siblings had been diagnosed with cancer at one point in their lives. Among the seven, a sister 10 years younger had a mastectomy at an early age, while another died of lung cancer. Unfortunately, Kahrs proved to be like her siblings and was unable to escape a cancer diagnosis.
To combat the disease, Kahrs was treated with chemotherapy that lasted five months. For Kahrs, chemotherapy was the most difficult part of her battle with cancer, especially when it resulted in her losing her hair.
“Chemotherapy was definitely the hardest part,” she said. “There’s so much medication to take and so many blood tests. It’s debilitating. Halfway through treatment I couldn’t stop crying it was so terrible. But losing my hair was the most traumatizing. I was in crisis at that point.”
Kahrs was able to make it through the turbulent five months with the support of her loving family and friends. In addition to her husband, Ed, one of her sisters who is a nurse came to live with Kahrs during her treatment to help keep her spirits up. Kahrs said that in one of her particularly dark days, her nephew and his wife sent her a dozen red roses, which was just the pick-me-up she needed.
“I thought, ‘OK, I can do this.’”
After the chemotherapy, Kahrs was cleared of her cancer.
But in 2010, she received some more bad news. She was diagnosed with breast cancer.
At 76, Kahrs knew she would have to relive the whole process, this time undergoing radiation therapy.
She opted for a mastectomy and was treated with radiation in Burlington five days a week for six weeks. But this time, Kahrs had even more support. After her second surgery, she joined a support group based out of the hospital for women battling different cancers. She credits this group of women with helping her get through her second fight with cancer.
“At first, I didn’t want to talk about it or tell my story, but (in the group) you don’t even have to say anything,” she said. “Just going makes you feel so much better.”
The oldest member of the group, Kahrs became friends with women in their 30s — women whose cancers were much worse than her own. While Kahrs was undergoing radiation only at the time, some of the support group members were having chemotherapy and radiation treatments at the same time. Joining the group gave Kahrs the additional support and motivation to deal with cancer the second time around.
“You can talk to your friends and family about it, but I could cry and laugh with these women because they understood what I was going through,” said Kahrs.
Today, Kahrs is healthy and has regular check ups with an oncologist once every three months. Other doctor visits are now only once a year. Seven years after her initial diagnosis, she said that while she does not think of her cancer daily, there are still small daily reminders.
“I don’t think about it every day because I don’t like to dwell on it,” she said. “I do notice the changes in the way I look, but I know of many women that went through much more than me.”
While Helen Kahrs’s battle is now over, she does have advice for women undergoing current treatment. She wishes she had joined the support group when she was first diagnosed with ovarian cancer and additionally believes she should have asked more questions before starting chemotherapy.
“Ask more questions,” Kahrs advises. “There were things I couldn’t ask or didn’t think to ask. Knowledge is always a good thing.”