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Cancer survivor’s children, sister-in-law come through in pinch

Connie Kasella's support system starts with son AJ, left, and daughter Laura, right. Kasella, a cancer survivor, will serve as the guest speaker during the Luminary Ceremony at Relay For Life South Washington County. (Staff photo by Mathias Baden)1 / 2
Connie Kasella will be collecting donations in her miniature camper at events to support the American Cancer Society, including Relay For Life South Washington County. (Staff photo by Mathias Baden)2 / 2

When cancer affects a loved one, the situation calls for a simple, calm reaction from family and friends.

"The way we supported was just being there," AJ Kasella said.

"Listening," added his sister, Laura.

Their mother, Connie, was diagnosed with stage three colon cancer two years ago, just before her 51st birthday.

Her treatments have amassed medical bills of more than $1 million and changed the lives of her family members' lives in ways that are both strengthening and horrifying.

Connie is a guest speaker at Relay For Life South Washington County, which begins at 6 p.m. Friday, June 10, at the East Ridge High School track, 4200 Pioneer Drive in Woodbury. Her speech will take place prior to the lighting of the luminaria, scheduled for 10 p.m. The ceremony is a tribute to those who are fighting cancer.

Making a difference

Connie has been an advocate for the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, is part of a Relay For Life team, and this year joined the local event's leadership team.

The 17-year Woodbury resident isn't the only one in her family who's making a difference through Relay For Life. Laura is on the leadership team, as well as leading her own Relay For Life team.

"You don't go through something like this, and not use your experience to try to make a difference for others," Connie said.

Fundraising for Relay For Life is done in small increments, with many Relay teams holding very successful, personal, under-the-radar fundraisers. Relay For Life South Washington County organizers don't always know about the full gamut of events put on by supporters, but they are thankful for donors and fundraising team members who contributed the local event raising more than $165,000 for American Cancer Society.

Diagnosis, treatment

Connie experienced a medical truism when she went to a doctor appointment in 2014: colonoscopies can save lives.

"Though colorectal cancer is one of the most preventable forms of cancer," she wrote in a letter to the editor in the Woodbury Bulletin, "many people don't get these lifesaving screenings because of co-pays and other patient costs."

Connie went in for her colonoscopy and doctors discovered a tumor in her colon. She wore a catheter for nine months, one of the many unpleasant things about her treatment.

After surgery and chemotherapy, "we thought we nailed it," she said. "I was told I was cancer free, and then less than 24 hours later ..."

Two tumors appeared on her liver. It was August 2014 when she was re-diagnosed.

It was metastatic cancer, colon cancer that spread to other parts of her body. She had half of her liver removed in April 2015. She suffered from Lyme Disease.

The ileostomy bag left burns on her stomach, and it leaked. Stool was left everywhere—in the car, in the bed, on the chair, elsewhere in the house. Sometimes it spewed. She laughs at the time she was getting gas, and the bag leaked all over her. There was nothing she could do. She was a poopsicle, she said. It would be funny if it weren't horribly gross.

"You've got to laugh until you cry," Connie said.

She didn't react well to chemotherapy. Her brain was scrambled, she said. She had little energy. Connie was sensitive to cold. Her fingers gnarled and her toes curled up.

"Every day is not a good day," Connie said. "Quality of life was zero during chemotherapy."

Radiation treatment went comparatively much better, although her hips are permanently damaged.

Formerly a vice president at Wellington Management, Connie doesn't work now, except for giving an occasional ride via Uber Minneapolis and side jobs refurbishing furniture and doing interior design.

She might not be a Woodbury resident much longer after her daughter graduates high school next year, because she's got the travel bug.

After her condition stabilized, Connie bought herself a gift: a 2016 Shasta camper. It looks retro, but actually it's a limited edition. And it transports her to nature, where she feels whole.

"I camped all last summer," Connie said. "Being in my camper in the woods, that's my place of solitude."

This summer, the three adults and two dogs have already gone on a road trip.

The doctor said she should have a high quality of life and that chemotherapy may or may not make a difference for her. Chemotherapy is over, for now.

Extraordinary support

While Connie was undergoing treatment, AJ and Laura provided welcome distractions for their mother. At times she needed them to treat her like things were normal, AJ said.

Things were abnormal.

The effects of chemotherapy have a way of accumulating. Connie made 23 trips to the emergency room. She was hospitalized 11 times.

AJ often served his mom's driver. AJ and Laura would spend the night in the ER, then go to school the next day.

When finals were coming up, Laura stayed at the hospital with her mom rather than going home and wondering if Connie would be OK—Laura thought that going home alone might be even more stressful.

"I wish I was more aware of how alone they probably felt," Connie said.

With their mom in the hospital, Laura and AJ came home to an empty house, except for the pet chickens and dogs that needed care. The high schoolers went about their business.

"I just go, holy crap, that's a lot for these really young kids to deal with," Connie said.

They are thankful for the support of friends and family during their trials. They don't want pity.

Society often requires people to ask, "How are you? I'm sorry. If you ever need anything, call me," Laura said. "It's a checklist. It's what you're supposed to do."

"They don't really want to know," Connie said.

A friend from middle school talked to Laura, though. Her mom has cancer, too. The friend said, "I'm sorry. It sucks." She expressed hopes that it's going to be fine, Laura said. "My friends that just listened to me were the most helpful."

Laura, a junior at Woodbury High School, looks back on her freshman year and sees why she was tentative.

"I didn't want to meet new people and say, 'Oh, by the way, this is something really fun I go through,'" she said. "School was I didn't have to think about it for six hours. Now I talk about it all the time."

Laura was nervous and scared for her mother.

But Connie, who has a great sense of humor, is responsible for "keeping the mood not so sad all the time," Laura said. "I think humor is a really good way to get through it."

Cancer feeds on stress and anxiety, Laura said.

Connie won't be Captain Depressed, she said. "That's part of fighting cancer on an emotional level—not letting it win everything. Do you see anywhere where it's written I can't have any fun?"

AJ, a WHS graduate and freshman at Inver Hills Community College in Inver Grove Heights, didn't want to throw a pity party for himself, either, he said. He didn't tell friends. He poured himself into working out, longboarding, and learning to work on cars.

"I coped more alone," AJ said.

He still prefers to "zone it out," he said, talking to friends at times but dealing with constant anxiety on his own terms.

When his mom lost her long, curly, black hair during chemotherapy, AJ had to open up. She told some of AJ's friends.

Laura and AJ look at the past two years as the past—they are over. Laura wants to get to the next thing, and AJ's focus is on one day at a time.

"There's strength in moving forward," Connie said.

When visitors came to the hospital or her house, Connie didn't want them to leave.

"I craved normalcy," Connie said.

Then, came Maggie Murphy Maertz, Connie's sister-in-law.

For three months, Maertz came from California to Minnesota to help Connie and her children. If surgery was upcoming, Maertz arrived.

"You kind of realize the potential of your family," Connie said.

Maertz offered support for Laura and AJ. She was just there when they needed her. Simple things like buying groceries got done. Maertz also looked after Connie during the daytime, when the children couldn't be there.

"She was kind of the rock for us," AJ said.

"She didn't get to break down," Laura said. "One person always has to be the strong one."

Reminders

Laura and AJ have never been lippy teenagers.

"Part of it is just from the circumstances," Connie said.

Together, they are appreciating every day. Teenage drama doesn't seem so important in the face of cancer.

"You just don't sweat the small stuff," Connie said.

"We just don't get hung up on little, annoying things," Laura said.

Laura would listen to petty conversations of high school kids and tune it out, thinking about her mom.

Friends should remember to be cautious with their words, Connie said. "You have no idea what's going on in (other people's) worlds."

Connie felt guilty for needing the help of a freshman and junior in high school.

"This is not what you're supposed to be doing," Connie said.

But Laura and AJ insisted on helping.

"Here we are," Laura said.

And, AJ assured his mother, "you'd give us a normal life when you were feeling better."

If his mom was hurting, AJ ran the show. He acted stoic, strong and mature, Connie said. He told her he was not worried, and that she was going to make it.

When Connie was at home and awake, Laura added, "you were a normal mom."

It was OK to talk to Connie about day-to-day issues of teenage life. She never wanted her children to think that she was the only one who felt helpless against cancer.

Laura spent every moment possible with her mom, often holding her hand.

"She changed from a typical teenager to a girl who sees life for what it is," Connie said.

The family is appreciative of the small things in life, they said.

During high school, AJ could've gone days without seeing his parents for an extended period of time and been fine.

Now, he said of his mother: "Seeing her every day, or as often as possible, is nice."

They just appreciate the conversation with their mom, Laura said.

Laura and AJ are coping and preparing for what if their mom dies, AJ said. "Anything less I can deal with."

Preparing for the worst helped him deal with all of the rest of the issues that come with cancer, AJ said.

"There's a little fear still," Laura said. "All of cancer sucks."

The family has confidence in Connie's doctors.

"These few years are being taken away so that we can have 40 more, or how many years we're going to have together," Laura said.

Connie, on the other hand, never thought about dying.

"She's alive," AJ said.

So are the kids. "They're the best!" Connie said.

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