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Love Notes

Marianne introduces you to "the unsinkable" Molly Klein

 

 

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EDITOR'S NOTE: This is an expanded version of the story which appeared in print

 

Anyone who has yet to meet Molly Klein has a treat in store.  I’ve known this vibrant young lady since her high school years when her mom Cheryl and I taught together at Sandpoint High.

After graduating in 2002, Molly went off and did her thing, which included a year in Switzerland as an exchange student, a degree in fine arts from Gonzaga, Schweitzer ski instructor, and a stint as a flight attendant for Continental Airlines out of Newark, N.J.

I reconnected with Molly last year when we befriended each other on Facebook.  My jaw dropped when I saw that she had nearly a thousand FB friends.

Molly loves people, and people love Molly.  She’s funny, energetic, self-deprecating, energetic and grateful.  Molly is also devoted to her family, including Gus, the family cockapoo.

Inspired by a two-week experience in 2005 as part of a medical brigade setting up clinics in Honduras, she volunteers at children’s hospitals wherever she happens to be. So, it seems natural that her career itinerary includes a future of  practicing medicine.   

Since last May, however, Molly’ track toward becoming a physician has gone into a holding pattern.  I so vividly recall reading her FB comment one day when she mentioned excruciating pain in her leg. Soon thereafter, the word “cancer” came into the daily FB comments after an MRI revealed a tumor in her right thigh. 

Through Facebook, Molly has shared the ups and downs of her ongoing treatment at the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle. Her Facebook list and widespread support continues to grow, now including nurses and doctors who have treated her, fellow cancer patients and people who have stepped forward to make her life and that of her supportive family operate as smoothly as possible.

After spending an entertaining evening with Molly and her parents a few weeks ago, I came away profoundly moved by her candor and positive attitude toward the fight she’s been forced to accept. Later, I asked if she’d care to share some of her thoughts for my column, highlighting the experience, her outlook on life and her gratitude toward the people surrounding her. 

No surprise.  She was more than happy to take time reflecting on the experience thus far.   So, with no further adieu, meet the unsinkable Miss Molly Klein. 

Growing up in Sandpoint:  My parents (Jim and Cheryl, both retired educators) were always present in my life. I got to experience a very safe, stable environment. I have had the same friends my whole life.

. Once I graduated high school and moved away, and now that I’m home fighting cancer and living with my parents, I’ve realized that one of the best things Sandpoint has to offer is people content with who they are.  They aren’t trying to compete or be people they’re not or have things they can’t afford. Sandpoint is a very supportive community! 

Educational background/travels:  I graduated from SHS in 2002. Highlights from high school would be cheerleading and tennis. I wrapped my entire life in sports, and my mother was my coach. The girls remain my bestest friends.  Cheerleading challenged me to work my hardest to be a good athlete and respected by all sports in our school!

I spent one year after high school as an exchange student in Switzerland, living with a host family who made me feel like part of their family, traveling with me throughout Europe! I was always very close to my parents, so it took awhile for me to adjust to being away from them, to a new culture, and to become independent.

It was a very challenging year, but by the end, I had become more open-minded, fluent in German, more independent, and a very strong woman.  Then, I attended North Idaho College 2003-2005 and Gonzaga University where I graduated in 2007.

Your volunteer work: In 2005, I was able to attend a medical brigade in Honduras. For two weeks, our team set up medical clinics, administered health care, and trained local doctors and dentists to keep the clinics going. It was such a memorable and valuable experience, that I began volunteering at Children’s Hospitals back in the United States.

For three years, I volunteered at Shriner’s Children’s Hospital, and then Sacred Heart Children’s Hospital in Spokane, WA. While I was a flight attendant, I volunteered at Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital in NYC on my days off. Each hospital offered me a unique experience, which I thoroughly enjoyed.

I took full advantage of every opportunity that was offered, such as shadowing doctors and nurses, or spending time with pediatric oncology patients. During my radiation treatments for five weeks in December 2009, I decided to spend my free time volunteering at Seattle Children’s Hospital in Seattle. This was especially special to me, because I was a patient myself over at the University of Washington Medical Center.

 It offered me a chance to help other people but also to share my own story. I was quite an inspiration to everyone at the hospital. In the volunteer office, I got to meet a lot of new people and helped in different hospital departments. 

This experience was a healthy emotional release for me. My volunteer coordinators have offered me the option of volunteering any time I’m in Seattle, which doesn’t happen often.

Volunteering is my one true passion. I feel like I’m the best person I can be when I volunteer. I am always happiest when I’m helping someone else. Combined with medicine, it’s a great thing to focus on besides just my cancer.

Until your diagnosis, what were your overall goals for the next five or ten years? My goals have not changed since I was diagnosed. I was actually supposed to be back in school right now in pre-med, working my way into medical school. My cancer has only convinced me even more that I’m headed the right direction to becoming a doctor. I can share my story with my patients one day.

People tell me medical school is hard, and the chances of getting in are slim, but I feel like if you can live through cancer, you can do anything! My ultimate dream would be to travel and live in a  third-world country,  setting up clinics like I did in Honduras, administering health to the people who need it most! I’m very passionate about volunteerism and extremely passionate about fighting cancer. Rather than look at cancer as an ultimate destruction, I’m going to use it to the greater good of this world and save lives with it!

Details of your initial diagnosis: I was working as a flight attendant in New Jersey. The way the economy has been going, I had a lot of down time in New Jersey where we weren’t being called out to go fly, so I joined a gym and began working out a lot to pass the time by.

Come May of 2009 I was working out at least five days a week, two-three hours a day. I’ve always been an athlete, so I’m aware that injuries can flare up. I thought I had just pulled a muscle in my thigh,  and it was swelling. I also noticed how painful and swollen my right thigh was when I ran home from the gym one day.  It was so excruciating that I was up all night crying.

I bought icy-hot cream and knew something was wrong when the cream wasn’t penetrating into the softball-size bump on my leg, and I couldn’t feel its effects. Since January,  2009,  I had also been tripping a lot. In fact, on one layover in San Diego I was stepping out of the hotel van, and fell straight on the ground flat on my face. My leg gave out right under me.

 During the next months up until May,  I was falling down the stairs in my apartment building every day, which is unusual since it was becoming so frequent. Two weeks after I first became aware of the bump on my leg, I flew home to Idaho, intending to only be home for five days.

When I showed my mom the bump on my leg, she thought it was unusually large, not to mention it has been that large for two full weeks. I got an MRI at the hospital. Two days later, I was diagnosed with the tumor. And. nine months later, I’ve been home in Idaho since. I got out on medical leave right away.

Treatment Timeline:

  • May 2009: Diagnosed with a tumor in my right thigh from an MRI.

  • June 2009: Surgical biopsy in right thigh in Seattle, WA. Diagnosed with sarcoma cancer in my right thigh.

  • July/early August 2009: Egg retrieval and freezing at Seattle Reproductive Medicine in Seattle, WA

  • Late August-November 2009: four weeks worth of chemotherapy at University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle, WA

  • December 2009: Five weeks of radiation at University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle, WA.

  • January 2010: Surgery to remove the tumor. Found that the tumor was imbedded in my femoral nerve. They removed my femoral nerve, and part of my femoral artery with the tumor. Lost 1 liter of blood during surgery and had to get a blood transfusion the next day. My surgeon told me that only 20 percent of patients respond so well to chemo and radiation, and I was one of the lucky few. I killed off 80 percent of the cancer cells, which is the best response you can have at 25 years old. I was told that if I had not responded so well, I would have had my leg amputated, and I would/could potentially be dead. I’m very thankful, blessed, and lucky!

  • March 1, 2010: Eight more days of radiation

  • April and May 2010: Two more weeks of chemo

Explain your experience at the University of Washington facility for treatment. My parents and I heard of a specialist in Seattle at the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance. Come to find out he’s the No. 1 sarcoma surgeon in the nation. He performed the surgical biopsy and found out that it was a Stage 2 metastatic spindle cell sarcoma.

I cancelled my [earlier-planned] surgery in Spokane and opted for treatment in Seattle. It was a hard decision because I really liked how nice and confident the surgeon in Spokane was, but for some reason my intuition was telling me that I was better off going to Seattle.

 I have always known how important it has been to me to have a family one day though, so I mentioned this to my chemo-oncologist. She told me that after chemo, there is a 50:50 chance that you can have kids in the future. This is when I knew it was important to me to get eggs taken out and frozen. I was referred to Seattle Reproductive Medicine for this.

For the next month, I went through the rigors of hormone treatments. I had 12 eggs removed, and 9 are frozen at a fertility storage center in Reno, NV. Because it was so important to me to get my eggs removed, I couldn’t wait any longer to begin treatment before my cancer would spread to my lungs. Four days after my egg removal, I was in chemotherapy.

It is extremely difficult because each round is 5½ full days in the hospital. Chemotherapy is pure poison that is put into my port, then running straight through my heart into my bloodstream. The first round of chemo, I was still very swollen from my egg removal, so swollen in fact that everyone thought I was pregnant.

My nurses introduced me to other patients who were close in age. We have been friends since. It’s always nice to have a friend who knows firsthand what it’s like to have cancer and how difficult treatment is. Between each round of chemo, I was home for two weeks, recovering and waiting for my hematrocrit (blood) counts to come back up. The chemo drugs were so intense.

One week later I lost all my hair on my whole body, and ended up ER sick with a fever. I was responding poorly from the amount of chemo drugs they had given me, so for the remainder of chemo treatment, I would be given 20 percent fewer drugs than the first time.

Chemo is very cumulative too, so each round got more and more difficult. No matter how many patients or cancer survivors warn you about what to expect, everybody responds differently. Everything happened opposite from what I was expecting. 

At Seattle Reproductive Medicine, and Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, as well as University of Washington Medical Center, the care I’ve received has exceeded my expectations:  some of the most talented doctors in the nation and first-class care from nurses, volunteers, and employees, always putting their patients first.

I had to learn this the hard way, though. My second day of chemo ever, I had been told to go visit the wig clinic on the 8th floor of the hospital. The day I checked into the hospital was so crazy that I was never given a tour of the hospital. 

Come to find out, the 8th floor is the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance floor where bone-marrow transplant patients live for their six months of treatment. I was visiting, and right away I was yelled at by a float nurse, who proceeded to say to me in an extremely harsh tone,  “What is your name? I heard you checked into the hospital yesterday. Are you even allowed to be off your floor? We typically don’t let our cancer patients off of their floor. You are in no direct harm to anyone if you touch them, but if your bag of chemo spills,  it’s a biohazard!”

I left the 8th floor right away. By the time I reached the 6th floor, I fell down in the middle of the hallway on the way back to my hospital room, and was crying. Nurses ran right up to me to make sure I was okay.

The hospital staff was so appalled that the nurse manager for the 8th floor came to my hospital room the next day and personally apologized for the other nurse’s poor behavior toward me. Since then, the nursing staff on the 6th floor, (where I’ve been placed for all of my chemo treatments, as well as my big surgery) has made sure that I receive only the best treatment.

Looking back, what made it all funny is a sign that reads: “7-Day Safe Handling Precautions. Wear: Gloves, Gown, and Face/Eye Shield when handling body fluids, until Discharge.” Now I really feel like a biohazard! My friends have nicknamed me “their favorite biohazard,” as long as I’m in treatment.

But the day I am discharged, with my blood counts so low I’m at a higher risk of catching sickness from everyone, so that makes everyone else the “biohazard,” at least until I’m back in the hospital for more chemo. It’s turned into an inside joke with close friends and family. This experience toughened me up; basically, take something bad and make it seem like a good, fun situation.

The nursing staff at UWMC has come to realize that I’m an extremely positive person, and now a few nurses before I even show up for treatment have changed their schedule ahead of time to make sure that I’m their patient. I always have the most visitors in my hospital room as well, so patients and nurses have dubbed my room “the party room.”

 I trust the entire hospital staff at UWMC with my life. With no control over my schedule, it’s extremely important that I do trust them!

Support you’ve received: I’m extremely blessed to live in Sandpoint. This community is so supportive. Every time I return home from treatment, I receive a number of phone calls, letters, hugs and kisses, and lots of money for medical bills and transportation that I never expected.

One of the coolest things that has happened to me, is last summer while I was in Starbucks, a man saw me in my “stupid sarcoma” T-shirt. He had heard about my name from a friend. He talked to me, made me feel good about the top care I’m receiving in Seattle (since he’s a radiologist there) and bought me coffee that morning.

Come to find out, he’s a good friend of Janice Murphy (sister of Sandpoint’s Kathe Murphy) who’s been letting us stay with her for free every time we come into Seattle for more treatment! It’s a very small world! While I was going through radiation, I started volunteering at Seattle Children’s Hospital.

Every time I am back in Seattle, the people I’ve volunteered with are always in touch. They were especially supportive to me through my surgery last month, delivering messages, flowers, and even a huge stuffed animal that was given to the children’s hospital by Wells Fargo Bank.  

I am extremely lucky because I went to Gonzaga, and a lot of my best friends from there live in Seattle. Every time I go into town, I have college friends who hang out with me, and visit me during chemo! That was pure luck.

Because of the number of people we’ve met in the area, we were introduced to Janice Murphy, who I mentioned lets us stay with her while we’re in town. When I was going through radiation,  Tish Litvin of Sandpoint opened her condo up to my parents and me to rent while I was there, which she never opens up, so I was very thankful to have my own place to stay for five long weeks in December!

Between my fourth round of chemo at the end of November, and radiation, I joined a small group at Cedar Hills Church in Sandpoint. Every time I’m home they’ve remained a tremendous support and offer constant prayers. The ladies from small group and I hang out once a month, which is great for me, so I’m guaranteed at least one night a month to get out of the house and have fun! I’m on the prayer list throughout many churches in Sandpoint. I have unending love and support coming in every day. I’m extremely blessed!

How about your family? Every time I go back in for more treatment, I learn a new lesson. After not being able to walk anymore on my right leg out of surgery, I don’t take walking for granted anymore, and since I rely on constant care from my family, I’m thankful for them everyday, and never again will I take someone caring for me for granted.

My extended family has always been supportive. Just recently, my entire family surprised me with a quilt. Every family member designed a square, and they sent them all to my aunt who sewed the entire quilt together for me. Now I have my whole family with me every day. It’s the greatest love a person can feel.

They are with me through thick and thin. I don’t ever expect to meet a man who will be there for me like my parents have, but I will know who the right man is when I find him because of the love my parents have offered me.

My mother retired early from her career as a teacher to be with me, and take me back and forth to Seattle for treatment. Especially not being able to walk currently, I wouldn’t be able to get around, or even to eat and drink, if I didn’t have my parents in my life. I’m more blessed than anyone can ever ask for.

Other than my family, my friend Jillian Sturm has been one of the most supportive people throughout this entire journey. We were a year apart in school at SHS. I never hung out with her very much in high school, but we were introduced last summer since she’s in medical school and I’m going through my cancer treatment in Seattle, where she goes to school. She has been with me through all of my treatment.

She has been a great relief for my mother, by spending the night with me during chemo, which gives my mom a night off to catch up on sleep. I couldn’t ask for a better friend, among many others!

What good has come from this experience for you? I understand how important and satisfactory to see that a positive attitude can control how well I respond to cancer treatment. I am more positive than ever that I want to go back to school, work hard to get into medical school, and become a doctor. I’d like to give back the amazing care I was given, and share my story with future patients.

I will serve to be a great inspiration and example to future cancer patients. I know firsthand how hard and exhausting it is to have cancer, and there is no better way to give that back. I will have great bedside manner. I’m respected and admired among hospital staff because I understand how important it is that they treat me well through my treatment, and that comes with showing respect to them first.

Not enough doctors have good bedside manner or take time to get to know their patients, but I have high regard and respect for the ones who do, therefore I will offer that to patients!

I was supposed to go back to school this fall while I was working in New Jersey, and this cancer has confirmed that I’m definitely headed in the right direction. I feel like if you can beat cancer, you can do anything! Because of the difficult and stress that this disease is causing me, I’ve been forced to learn who my true friends are, because people are either in touch with me and checking in with me how I’m doing, or I never hear from there.

That’s probably been one of the hardest parts of this disease, without a doubt, since relationships are extremely important to me. I have a deepening relationship with GOD. I have no control over my cancer, nor the schedule, so I have no choice but to depend on and trust on someone higher.

He has helped me through all of this. I can feel the Spirit lighten up within me when people pray with and for me. It’s very powerful.  I’ve always been very funny and light-hearted. I’ve had a lot of time to sit around and think. I know myself very well, and I’ve come to love and respect who I am!

How do you sustain yourself during the tough times? One of the hardest things is people expect cancer patients to look really sick. Because I don’t, they will ask what’s wrong with me, but often when I tell them I have cancer,  they no longer have anything to say, not even “Well, I wish you the best.” Nothing! [It’s either] that, or people think that because you have cancer, you’re on a death bed, and eventually you’ll die.

 Days are never normal. You either feel really good or extremely sick, tired, and frustrated. Another hard thing for me is not being able to control my schedule. I have always liked to be in control in situations.  Ironically, during the hardest part of my life, I have absolutely no control over anything. I have to put my full trust into GOD because I really have no other choice.

When times get hard, I lean to my LORD and he helps me through. A good example is when I was in chemotherapy. I was very nauseous, and I was given every type of anti-emetic drug. Nothing was working, so I didn’t have many choices left.

Unfortunately, I experienced the worst. I had an allergic reaction, and the drug took full control over my body. I became clammy, started twitching, began sweating, and felt like I was about to die. My mother held onto my hands, and for the first time in my entire life, I gave full control to GOD. Minute by minute, He helped me, and I ended up being okay. I’ve never consciously come so close to dying in my life.

Moments like that make you so much stronger. It’s amazing what the body can with-stand.  I’m blown away every time I go through more treatment in Seattle. This road is also turning out to be a lot longer than expected. I thought I’d be done very soon, but it seems that every time I go through more scans or treatment, something turns out to be worse than what the doctors expected.

We thought the tumor was growing in the middle of my muscles and nerves, and pushing everything out. It was a shock to find out the tumor was actually growing inside my nerve. I worked hard to get back into school, and it seems that every time I get there, cancer just gets in the way.

 It’s extremely frustrating for me. [I think] I am such a great girl; I don’t deserve this, This is the last place I want to be right now. I cry a lot in my private time. Everyone assumes because I sound so positive on Facebook or while I’m in town that I’m doing great because of what they see, but they don’t know how much I cry in my spare time.

I don’t want anyone to see me upset, but people assume or forget that I’m still going through treatment and are surprised when I tell them it’s not even close to being over yet. Also, one thing I’ve come to realize that’s been tough is despite all of the support and prayers, even from my family, at the end of the day I’m stuck fighting cancer day and night. I can’t escape from it. There is no direction to go but to fight it.

It gets very exhausting. It can be so overwhelming that I have learned to take life day by day, sometimes (like in chemo) I even take life minute by minute. That is my goal. It’s been a good lesson for me though.

One of my faults is that I always look forward to what hasn’t happened in my future yet, and I forget to enjoy what happens today. But because cancer is so overwhelming, even though the bad days are really hard and tougher than someone living a normal life, I  also enjoy the great days more than anyone else!

This is without a doubt going to be the hardest year of my entire life, but since I didn’t choose to be in this situation, I choose to remember this year as a good one. I’m taking and appreciating as much good out of this year as I can, as hard as it’s been. In the end, it will most likely turn out to be the greatest year of my life!

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Author info

Marianne Love Marianne Love is a freelance writer and former English teacher who enjoys telling the stories of her community. She has authored several books, the latest of which is "Lessons With Love."

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