As a member of the medical field, Patrice Kohan understands the importance of a correct diagnosis, prompt treatment, and finding the best doctors when facing a medical problem. What she didn't expect was a chance to put her knowledge to the test.
Kohan, an employee at Dr. Joseph Zhou's Palmerton office, was diagnosed with breast cancer in June 2011. She has since undergone surgery and chemotherapy and is currently on a five-year oral drug regimen that she hopes will declare her breast cancer-free for life.
"Nobody wants to be told that you have cancer," she said. "The treatments can be tough. But in life, you have to keep moving forward. So many people have been kind to us. I have to try to keep paying this forward."
It is this mentality of paying kindness forward, and a drive to inspire others dealing with health problems, that led to Kohan's nomination for a "Courage Award" from the Carbon-Tamaqua chapter of the American Cancer Society during this weekend's annual telethon on Blue Ridge Communications.
The 33rd annual telethon will be held at Penn's Peak in Jim Thorpe from noon to midnight on Saturday and Sunday. The Courage Awards will be presented at approximately 7 p.m. on Sunday.
"I was frightened and anxious when I was first diagnosed," said Kohan, whose father passed away last year from lung cancer. "Luckily, working in medicine, I was able to get my ducks in a row, so to speak, relatively quickly."
Her biggest hurdle was to let go of her caregiving role and accept that she was now a patient.
"I was very uncomfortable being on the receiving end of care. But I had to let go of that," she said. "I had so much faith in my medical team. What they told me to do, I tried to do to the best of my ability."
Fortunately for Kohan, she was diagnosed with an early stage of ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), a less common but highly treatable form of breast cancer. She decided to undergo a lumpectomy, in which the cancerous tissue is removed but much of the breast is saved, after studying statistics and learning that with her particular diagnosis, removing the breast during a mastectomy would not reduce her chances of cancer recurring.
"I thought the lumpectomy would be less invasive, with less recovery time," she said, noting that she hoped to be better prepared for chemotherapy and radiation by choosing a less invasive surgery.
After undergoing a lumpectomy in July, she started radiation in August. She then went through chemotherapy from September to December. Her husband Marlon had retired just one day before her diagnosis. The timing worked out well, since they could spend more time together during her treatments and lead a more relaxed lifestyle while focusing on recovery.
"We didn't have a really hectic pace, but we kept going. It was really nice," she said. "Being out and among the living is very helpful. Mentally, it keeps you on track."
Upon returning to work at Dr. Zhou's office, she noticed that patients were concerned about her health. She had lost her hair during the chemotherapy and it was obvious that she was ill. She tried to turn around each conversation to the patient's needs and maintain an upbeat attitude in the office.
"I didn't want patients to come in and worry about me," she added. "I pushed myself through. They're here for their own problems. It wasn't about me, it was about them."
She also embraced the positive attitude of the nurses working in her chemotherapy unit.
"Chemo nurses are really special people. They do this every day, and they are just wonderful at what they do," she said. "To them cancer is not the end of the world. They're walking around, smiling and laughing, and just wonderful people. They're very good at putting your anxiety to the side."
On Dec. 31, 2011, Kohan started her first dose of the oral medication Arimidex. She will take this medication for the next five years. Doctors estimate that this treatment plan will reduce her chances of the cancer recurring from 40 percent to 10 percent.
"I started my oral drug to start off the New Year," she said. "I had all of my friends around me."
Friends and family continue to play a crucial role in her recovery. Born in Tamaqua, Kohan moved to Palmerton in 1983 with her husband Marlon and young daughter Tara. Her daughter, now 31 and living in East Stroudsburg, and son Drew, 27 and living in Fairfax, Va., were raised in Palmerton.
"I love Palmerton. There's nothing more wonderful than this community," she adds. "People are so genuinely sincere and friendly."
Her neighbors, while always warm, have become even closer since her diagnosis.
"I just love being surrounded by them. That's where I draw my strength. If I'm having a really bad day, they're there to take it away and make everything better."
Friends and neighbors also ensured that she would have something to brighten each day. Casseroles, soup and baked goods appeared on her doorstep daily, as did letters, cards and flowers.
"There wasn't a day that went by that I opened my front door and something wasn't sitting on my front porch. It was just the thing that I needed to keep me moving forward," she said.
Family members rose to the occasion by holding fundraisers to pay for her medical insurance. Although her husband, a math teacher at Parkland School District, retired shortly before her diagnosis, she was able to keep his health insurance for a price. Family and close friends rallied the community to raise the funds needed to pay expensive insurance premiums during her cancer treatments.
"My entire extended family came through for me. It took some of the worry away," she adds. "My heart is so full of happiness and love for these dear people that pray for me every day. These are sometimes people I don't even know, or people that I went to high school with 30 years ago. It's such a touching thing. The cancer changes your life, absolutely, but the kindness that comes from people changes you forever."
Having experienced life-changing kindness, it is now her mission to pay this kindness forward. She recently met two women who were newly diagnosed with cancer and upset.
"I tried to tell them, it's going to be OK. No matter what happens in life, it's going to be OK," Kohan said.
"You see a problem in front of you, and you just deal with it and keep moving," she adds. "Knowledge is power. If you have a diagnosis, you can have a little meltdown if you want. Then you get all of your facts together, you find the best physicians in the area, and you put on your game face and take care of it."
While acknowledging that the past few months have been rough, she is determined to look at the bright side.
"I wouldn't want to have another year like that, but people have had much worse. I'm one of the lucky ones," she said. "I found my cancer in its early stages. I have a very good chance of living a long life. And with all of the inroads they're making in research, maybe we could find a cure. Cancer has given me a whole new take on life. I enjoy every day.
"Anything I can do for the American Cancer Society, that is our mission. As a family, we're going to help and pay forward."