Conversation with a Survivor (Kelly Guenther)

Conversation with a Survivor (Kelly Guenther)

Kelly Guenther is a Seattle resident in his early 40s who was diagnosed with rectal cancer in 2003. Here are some of his thoughts on being a survivor.

Q: How has cancer changed your life?
A: In what ways hasn't cancer changed my life? My diagnosis around the time of my first wedding anniversary was not expected. Healthwise, I felt great. We were stunned.

The next year was a rough road: Chemo, radiation, surgeries, sickness and weakness. But to me it seems akin to getting a Masters in Philosophy. What matters in life? What is your life truly all about?

The things that emerged for me are that it is important to be doing work I love. I might have a shortened life span, so why waste my time? My marriage and relationships with family and friends also really stood out for what they really are - the most important things in my life. Work took a solid back seat in a hurry. (Your clients simply don't show up at your bedside too often ... and the few that did moved into the friend column rather quickly.)

Physically, I dropped 55 pounds and at times was reduced to crawling because of the sickness the radiation and chemo brought on. I was also saddled with an ileostomy bag and dealt with a host of ostomy issues such as skin burns, leaking bags at night ... you name it. Never have I been more intimate with my body and felt more un-sexy. I realized what a system my body is and how much I depend on it working for survival.

My abdomen is riddled with ugly scars and messy tissue. What remains of my belly button is a slit that's an inch over from its original position. Before my diagnosis all of these would have been a concern for me. Now they're simply badges of survival and I am very unconscious of them.

I used to push my body through pretty grueling endurance races and triathlons. Now, I'm easier on it. And the endurance races I do now are mostly for the Lance Armstrong Foundation. There has to be a great cause behind pushing my body very hard - something that either raises money to provide a cure for a disease or programs for survivors.

I'm also consciously less muscular now and fastidiously eat more healthy, more organic and more green. Keeping my body more lean and healthy overall is much more of a priority in the wake of cancer.

Mentally, I've become much tougher. I can say no to clients, which wasn't really a skill I possessed before cancer, and can feel strong enough to just not get myself into a position - personally or business-wise - that I don't want to be in. My negotiating skills have increased, as have my hourly rates. And I do attribute much of this to getting as sick as I did - to looking over the abyss, making it back and leading my life more willfully.

Spiritually, the only things that truly give me peace deep down inside are giving back and spending time with our two boys. I survived when others in my support group didn't and we had children when I was expected to be sterile.

I try and fail to master meditation - business deadlines and needs always creep into my thoughts. But I am successfully steering more of my business life into giving some things back to other cancer patients and have recently hired a business partner to help me carve out even more time with the boys.

Q: Do you think these positive changes would have occurred if you had never experienced cancer?
A: I've always been a fairly optimistic person and that has brought positive things in my life. But things happened in that first year after cancer treatment - the clients I attracted, spiritual and emotional clarity - that I have to attribute to what I went through. I am better for having had the disease.

Q: What personal victories have you achieved since your cancer diagnosis?
A: I've about tripled the growth of my business and been able to travel the world for clients. We've had two amazing boys we weren't supposed to be able to have, and I've been fortunate enough to create some business situations that could really help me give back to cancer patients and other survivors.

I was able to create a TV pilot that a PBS affiliate is very interested in that's full of cancer information. The show is all about cancer but it's not negative, or moody, or melancholy. It's simply chock full of information about breakthroughs, treatments and research - and cancer survivors and people whose families have been directly affected by cancer host it. The show is a great blend of my TV reporting, investigative producing and video directing backgrounds. And it's aimed at informing.

My cancer odyssey also deeply affected my wife and led to another opportunity for me. She quit a position working for a large technology organization to work for HealthTalk.com, which is all about getting information about chronic diseases out to patients.

HealthTalk.com hired me to be a regular host of their webcast cancer programs. This allows me to interview cancer experts from around the country and interact with patients fighting the disease, their family members and survivors. It's all about getting good information out there and it's nice to be able to draw on my own experiences occasionally to help draw out the discussion or pin down the experts on certain points.

Q: Do you think/worry about recurrence. If so, how do you deal with this?
A: I do worry about recurrence. In that first year after treatment it was a constant monkey on my back, but has gradually lessened. A newer fear isn't so much a recurrence of the disease but survivorship complications. I've had two intestinal blockages that are directly related to the surgeries and treatment I received.  The last bout forced me to get nutrition via IV for 5 months and drop 30+ pounds. Not easy to do with a two-year-old and a then-seven-months-pregnant wife. It was, in fact, harder than the original cancer fight. My wife and I agree it may have been one of the toughest periods in our entire lives.

Yet even when I was at my weakest, we knew I would eventually get better and the health issue wouldn't have the likelihood of killing me like cancer. In three-and-a-half months I'll be celebrating five years of being disease-free ... and we see that as a big milestone for our family.

Q: Is there anything other people could have done during or after your cancer treatment that would have been helpful?
A: During cancer treatment, I think people shouldn't have been as polite or fearful of asking me tough questions. I'm a very open guy, always have been with friends and my clients, yet I saw "politeness" creep in and actually create a barrier with some friends and some clients. And I think that's all related to the fact that cancer can be a fatal disease, so we're cautious. We're afraid of asking the wrong questions.

But the cancer fight, in my mind, isn't all about the disease. It's all about life, and friends and your business and how to keep everything as robust as possible. It's about personally winning and the disease losing. I think fear of the outcome of the fight possibly being fatal actually allows the disease to win in some ways. It gives cancer some respect.

I don't respect cancer. I respect life. People shouldn't let cancer cow them or their relationships with a cancer patient in any way.

After cancer treatment, I think what would have been helpful is people knowing that surviving cancer isn't a free meal ticket. There are complications. There are sometimes secondary cancers. The likelihood is that down the line, even after a full life, you may still die from some form of cancer.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that the issues survivors face after having beaten the disease can sometimes be daunting, and more attention should be focused on that so the public better understands it.

Q: How are your views on life and living different now, as a cancer survivor?
A: I don't take a lot for granted. I try to really find time each day to appreciate it for what it's worth - whether it's a slow meal in the midst of a hectic day or a walk with the dog where I really am aware of everything around me as we stroll along. Even the way the air smells on a given day. I am so much more aware.

I also am nuts about being a father. I often think that maybe I will have a shortened life span so I just suck up my time with the kids, really let a surprise little hug from one of them affect me deeply (you know, where you tingle inside?), and try to slow down with them each morning and each night.

Willfulness is another thing that's become much more acute in me. I will or push myself to take on or create situations that will help me reach my goals. For instance, doing overseas video work for clients was a longtime goal. Shortly after treatment - within six months, I think - I headed off on my first trip. Willing myself to create situations for my business and my family has become easier and more fine-tuned.

Lastly, I am tighter with my family. I have forgotten or forgiven many past issues with those in my closest circle because it doesn't matter in the scheme of life and death. They're your blood. They're your support system. Love 'em while you got 'em.

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