Herald JournalHoward Lake-Waverly Herald, Oct. 14, 2002

Kim Zabel uses courage every day, after fourth cancer diagnosis

By Lynda Jensen

If courage is defined as being steadfast in the face of danger, then Kim Zabel of rural Howard Lake is the picture of courage every day ­ but you wouldn't know it.

The unassuming mother of three seems to be like any other active and healthy person, but she keeps a horrifying secret.

Zabel, 40, has been diagnosed with cancer at least four times ­ first with breast cancer, lymph nodes, brain cancer, and then cancer in her spine.

But the cancer didn't win either time, since she stands today as a survivor of all these kinds of cancer.

Her breast cancer is in remission, the lymph nodes and brain tumors were removed, and the spinal cancer is being held in check with regular weekly doses of chemotherapy, she said.

All this happened at the early age of 32, and without any record of cancer in her family.

Typically, medical experts do not necessarily look for breast cancer in women younger than 40, and encourage regular mammograms after the age of 40 or 45.

By the grace of God, Zabel has gotten through it all, she said. "It's the guy up above," she said.

She wants other women to know that being young is no guarantee of health ­ and that she never thought it would happen to her. "Do your self breast exams," she stressed.

Death will have to take a rain check for her, she said. "I have too many things yet I want to do."

"I'm not going to roll over and die," she said. ". . . And I'm not ready to dig a hole."

Saving her own life,

time and again

Most medical experts encourage all women 20 years or older to perform regular self breast exams.

The self exam should be done by all women ­ despite recent findings in a Chinese study that indicated these tests had little impact on mortality rates of cancer victims, according to the Sustan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation.

The first time that Zabel considered doing a breast self examination, she did so; and found a lump about the size of a golf ball in her breast.

It was cancer, despite the assurances by both her doctor and a mammogram examination ­ the latter of which reported the lump as a large calcium deposit.

When lumps are that large, they aren't cancer, she was told.

Nevertheless, the lump was biopsied, revealing its true nature.

"My family doctor sat and cried," Zabel said. She knew something was wrong because of the expression on her husband Joe's face when she was wheeled out of surgery from the biopsy, she said.

"My children thought I was going to die," she said. The youngest at the time was Kevin, who was told his mother had cancer at the age of five.

By now, cancer is a household word for the Zabel children, Kevin, 12, Heather, 15, and Katie, 17. The Zabels also had another daughter who was born prematurely and died shortly upon birth.

Following surgery and six months of chemo, Zabel was in remission and it looked like she was out of the woods.

But it wasn't so.

Zabel once again saved her own life by discovering cancer, this time in her lymph nodes.

She was scratching her neck when she found another lump, she said.

A third time she was diagnosed with cancer, she discovered it by simply sitting down, she said. It became painful because the cancer started at the base of her spine.

In fact, she noticed the pain on the way to the hospital during her other treatments, she said.

The cancer is in her bones, she said. Currently she is taking medication that relieves the pain, and will keep the cancer in check. It has reached halfway up her spine, she said.

Made of tough stuff

Many people would break under the pressure of being diagnosed with cancer three times, plus the physical hardship of chemo, but Zabel seemed to almost take it in stride.

In fact, the chemo doesn't seem to affect her as much as others, since it only truly made her sick the first time she had it, when the dosage was first adjusted.

But, this wasn't the end of cancer for the Zabel family.

Once again this spring, chronic headaches caused Kim Zabel to check herself into the hospital, this time with a diagnosis of two tumors in her brain.

She was planning her son's 12th birthday and couldn't stop feeling sick. "I didn't want to spoil the party," she said.

Days after the party, she could not put off the pain any longer. "I'm ready to go to the hospital," she told her husband.

The cranial surgery, an all-day procedure to remove the tumors, was the worst part of her experiences so far, she said.

It was a drawn-out affair that caused her to be waiting continually in different stages of pre- and post-operative surgery, she said. She hated sitting idle, just waiting, she said.

"Nothing went the way it was supposed to," she said. During the off time, she would beat her husband in cards.

The surgery required Zabel to wear head gear that must be literally screwed into her skull, and then fastened to a surgery bed, so that her head would not move during the procedure.

In fact, when she has radiation, which is when lasers are used to destroy cancer cells, she had to submit to giant electronic medical machines rumbling around her head, she said. "It has horrible."

The surgery also made her miss her son's sixth grade graduation, which disappointed her very much.

Each time she is diagnosed, her family falls apart, she said. This time, she told her husband "Joe, I've been through this three times. Do you think number four is going to stop me?"

She is reluctant to take much pain medication, since she does not want to become addicted to prescriptions, she said.

Despite her medical trials, she has continued to crotchet craft items for the Howard Lake Expo each year; although this has been difficult for her recently, since she finds it hard to sit.

Zabel is a native of Howard Lake, having graduated from Howard Lake-Waverly High School in 1981. Her parents are Merv and Judy Jensen of rural Waverly.

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