Imagine being diagnosed with lung cancer in your early 60s, and just as you are in the throes of treatment, getting the news that your wife also has cancer.
Such was the case for Peter and Deborah Kehler.
It was spring 2017, and the Kehlers were planning their life around Peter’s imminent retirement from his 20-some year post as Chief Information Officer at SAIT. Deborah had already retired from her career as CFO of Red Deer College. Her last 12-years of commuting between Calgary and Red Deer were becoming onerous … it was time for a new chapter.
The couple set their sights on travel, perhaps with longer stints in a warm climate. With that in mind, they sold their Calgary house and were living in a furnished rental while awaiting the construction of their newly purchased Condo.
“One day Deb noticed I had a persistent cough so I went to the doctor. They ordered an X-ray, followed by a CT scan, but I wasn’t that worried about it,” said Peter. “I have to say, cancer – especially lung cancer – was nowhere on my radar.”
But when a radiologist detected a tumour on Peter’s lung, surgery was scheduled for February, and though it was planned as a biopsy, once they got inside the decision was made to take the whole upper left lobe, and some surrounding lymph nodes.
“It was quite frightening. This tends to be a scary cancer,” said Peter. “They felt they got it all, but when I was offered chemo, I decided to go for it,” said Peter. “An insurance Policy,” added Deborah.
It was around that time that Deborah was diagnosed with breast cancer.
“Peter had just had his first round of chemotherapy when I had this pain in my left breast. My doctor recommended an X-ray and mammogram, but I wasn’t taking any chances – I went straight for an MRI,” said Deborah.
Oddly, the MRI turned up a tumour in the opposite breast – not the one that was aching. “I felt like it was a fluke. I had had regular mammograms, so they caught it early; Stage 1 – Grade 1 invasive ductile cancer. “
Deborah first chose to do a lumpectomy – then changed her mind and went for a mastectomy. Both were in recovery mode, dealing with fatigue and some side effects for the months that followed.
“This was an incredibly stressful time for us, it’s all kind of a blur now,” said Deborah. “We had both been so focused on Peter’s cancer – I had difficulty switching gears to focus on myself. It was a really hard time in our lives.”
The couple’s four adult children rallied in support at the news of their cancers and subsequent treatments. On the day of Deborah’s surgery Peter was undergoing his final chemo treatment. Their daughter-in-law spent the day with them literally running back and forth between the chemo clinic and pre-surgery area giving the couple much needed moral support. In the following days their two daughters took great care of them providing “chauffeur service” and home cooked meals. The boys were in touch more than previously and provided moral support. Their son and his partner from San Francisco offered to come home to help but since there was assistance they made a special trip for a family vacation later in the summer instead. “They are all busy with their own careers and families,” said Deborah, “they handled it well and helped a lot.”
While their bigger support network was back in Red Deer, Peter and Deborah said they found good community and some helpful programs at Wellspring Calgary. “On our first visit we had a conversation with a volunteer who had also gone through cancer. He talked about what we needed to think about to get through this. It was very reassuring. He made us laugh, he made us cry, he was very good,” said Deborah. They also attended some speaker events, the Bird Stroll program, and Peter took a photography class.
“We were starting to find ourselves huddling at home,” said Deborah. “Wellspring gave us a place to go and some much needed social contact.”
Now, both feeling like they are healed and almost back to their old selves, Deborah reflects on what it took to get through the traumatic ordeal.
“I put it down to a quote by Winston Churchill,” said Deborah. “If you’re going through hell, keep going.”