Spencer’s Story

From My Son: Spencer
Kathleen Barnard ~ A true inspiration.

Two out, bottom of the 9th, down by 2 and it is time to step up to the plate!

 

Sound familiar? For those of us who have ever stepped foot on a baseball or softball diamond, this phrase is most likely symbolic of a situation that we have either experienced or frequently thought about, the courageous comeback!

 

Although the story that I want to share with you could very well parallel the last inning of a ball game, the individual facing adversity in this context left those around her with more than just a last inning victory, her strength and determination in the face of a critical illness left those around her with a lifetime worth of inspiration and I am proud to say that this person is my mom.

 

As an outdoor enthusiast it is very rare that you will ever find Kathleen indoors. In the winter, she is on the ski hill and throughout the summer she can often be found on the golf course or the baseball diamond. In May of 2003, she realized that there was actually a consequence to her passion for life and her love for the outdoors. Shortly after returning from the World Master’s Games in Australia for softball her General Practitioner had confirmed that she had stage 3 malignant melanoma, which what we soon learned is the most aggressive and most deadly form of skin cancer. From the minute she was diagnosed, there was only one solution to this disease, fight it! After visiting a highly recognized oncologist in North Vancouver, she was prescribed a treatment called interferon, a drug commonly used to combat melanomathrough a very intense 12 month treatment regiment. The interferon was self administered, a few nights per week injecting herself with this solution. For those of us who shake at the thought of an annual flu shot can empathize with having to do it 4 nights per week. If this wasn’t enough, this intense form of treatment was of course accompanied by hair loss, weight loss, nausea, and every other flu-like symptom imaginable. Although the side effects seemed dreadful at best, the worst of all was her inability to do what she loved best and that was to pick up her glove and play catch or grab her skis and head up the mountain. Her life had changed, and through this all not once did we hear her feeling sorry for herself. She battled through this treatment with so much courage and she knew from the beginning that she would not give up. The 12 months had passed and we received news that the she was clear of the disease, so we had a huge party to celebrate the fact that as far as we knew it was all over.

 

In May of 2005, she received a call from her oncologist to inform her that the disease had returned. A tumor was found on her lung, which meant the disease had spread to its most aggressive stage, and was categorized as Stage 4 malignant melanoma. After returning to our normal way of life, we were instantly reminded that this disease was real and that another battle lie ahead. However, Kathleen’s only objective and vision was to fight it! She was placed on a form of chemotherapy in an attempt to slow the growth of the tumor while we explored her other options. We were at such a stage of destitution that we actually found comfort in knowing that there was a small chance that she could have the entire lung removed. Her scan results continued to reveal that the melanoma was spreading further. By July of 2005, the tumor in her lung had grown significantly (to the size of an orange) and this disease was also found in her liver, bones, kidney and ribs. It was metastasizing faster than we could have ever imagined. Through all of this, she continued to coach her girl’s softball team, she still hosted all of our family dinners, and she was still able to give us all strength to convince us that everything would be alright.

 

After extensive research on the internet and some help from our local oncologist, we were able to find a Dr. in Edmonton who was administering a new form of immunotherapy used to combat this disease called Interleukin and this drug had shown efficacy in approximately 16% of clinical trial subjects. The protocol was to travel to Edmonton every second week to have the Interleukin administered. She was hospitalized in intensive care and she received the drug through intravenous every 8 hours. We took turns traveling back with her and we all had to watch her persevere through this treatment. She now had to deal with intense weight gain, an incredible rash, nausea, extremely low blood pressure and being monitored 24/7 by a team of nurses. All the while being bed ridden, far away from her family and friends. However, she looked at this experience as yet another battle or another challenge. In fact, her goal was to be able to handle more doses than the person before her. Like challenges she had faced in the past, it was just another competition. She had decided from the beginning to fight and that is exactly what she continued to do.

 

To help her battle through this treatment, she decided to put the names of loved ones on each bag of Interleukin to give her strength. On the second round of treatment, we put her favorite holiday destinations on each bag to also give her hope that this would all one day be over. She endured 4 cycles of this drug, each beating her up further and further. She again fought it and after a month of recovery we had received the word that every cancer patient and related family hopes to hear, and that was ‘remission’. It was an absolute miracle, the tumor in her lung disappeared as did all of the tumors throughout the rest of her body. Her determination and decision to battle was rewarded greatly and we were again able to return to our normal way of life.

 

When most people would have taken the time to fully engage in the life that they had been without for such a long time, Kathleen decided to give back immediately. After going through this battle with little information, few treatment options, and limited support she decided to create a foundation that would provide all of the above to individuals impacted by this disease – The Save Your Skin Foundation. With the assistance of her family, friends, and volunteers in the community she launched the foundation with an unbelievable amount of energy and drive. She approached this foundation with so much passion, so much enthusiasm, and an incredible vision of supporting those who have been touched by this disease. The primary objectives of this foundation are to promote public awareness of the disease, to provide financial aid to those impacted by it, and to provide funding towards researching alternative treatments for melanoma. I can speak first hand when I say that she was more driven than ever to make this a success.

 

To add testament to her drive and determination, in May of 2007 she was painfully reminded that not only was she trying to help others impacted by this disease, but she too was a melanoma victim. After a few months of incredible gastrointestinal pain, CT Scan results had shown that the melanoma had returned. It was again Stage 4 metastasized malignant melanoma and the tumor was discovered in her small intestine. She was hospitalized immediately while doctors discussed a strategy to alleviate pressure from the tumor and their discussion led them to believe that surgery was the best option. It was an invasive surgery, and again she faced it with such strength and courage. I remember being terrified, so scared and I only felt comfort when she spoke to me before her surgery and assured me that everything would be just fine. As we had done consistently throughout the past 4 years, we all looked to her for strength and for a sense of hope that this was just another challenge that she would once again conquer. Faced with this setback, she did not forget about her vision to advance the Save Your Skin Foundation and she was more determined than ever to make sure that others out there would have support through this disease. Only 1 day after the surgery she was once again engaged in coordinating the foundation, making sure that the foundation’s launch party was a success. In fact, I remember very clearly when I went to the hospital to visit her after the surgery, she was covered in tubes and bandages and she was on the hospital bed phone making sure that balloons were going to be ready for the Lynn Valley Days Parade. She was relentless in making sure that this foundation was a success, not so she could share her story with others, but to make sure that other families had options if they were ever in the same position that we were. Even when she was going through her next phase of chemotherapy, she was out at fundraising events promoting the foundation.

 

So here we are today: Kathleen continues to coach her girl’s softball team ~ the survivors, she skis when the snow is good, she baby-sits for nearly every young family in her neighborhood, she coordinates nearly every one of our family functions, she operates an extremely successful foundation, and yes she still has to fly to Edmonton every 21 days for a new alternative treatment that is being tested to cure melanoma. I thought that I would be able to condense this story into 500 words, but I can’t. In fact, I still have a hard time believing what she has gone through over the past 5 years and what she has overcome.

 

Prior to being diagnosed with this illness Kathleen was a regional loss prevention coordinator with the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia, she was the first female coach in the Little League World Series, she is my best friend, she is my coach, and I am so very proud to say that she is my mother.

 

She has always added inspirational value to those around her. Through her smile, her exuberant energy, her passion for life, her charisma, her ability to laugh even at the toughest of times, and her endless desire to give to and care for others. She has always inspired me – well before this illness – but I have to say that watching her endure this battle and overcome an enormous amount of adversity has inspired me for a lifetime. There is no morning too early, there is no work project too difficult, there is always time to give to those around me, there is always time to smile, there is always an opportunity to laugh, and making the most out of every day is what matters most.

 

Sincerely,
Spencer Barnard.
Son of Kathleen Barnard

Making awareness and education available is crucial. Since 2006, the Foundation has worked to raise awareness of melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancers focusing on education, prevention and the need for improved patient care.
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