CARTHAGE, Mo. —
The lump isn’t what started it. Kathi Jones has been waging a war with cancer most of her adult life.
She was 25 when her grandmother died of cancer and 28 when her Aunt Mary lost a battle to breast cancer. Breast cancer had killed another aunt several years before. At age 39, Jones had just stepped out of the shower when she found a lump in her own left breast.
That same month — October 1992 — her brother, Charlie, was diagnosed with lung cancer.
In the years that followed, her breast cancer would rear its ugly head five more times. Charles would die. In January, her daughter, Tina Dingess, who was 17 when her mother first found the lump, was diagnosed with breast cancer herself.
And in August, the unthinkable happened: Jones’ cancer, which had metastasized, caused her lung to collapse. But, as she always has done, she is fighting the good fight.
“I’m not going to say it’s something I’d wish on anyone, but it’s made me a much stronger person,” Jones said from her office in Mercy McCune-Brooks Hospital.
“I didn’t have a lot of time to focus on my cancer when I was first diagnosed,” she said. “I was a single mother, and I had to work. I couldn’t afford to miss.”
During that time, she was employed by Leggett & Platt. Her gynecologist immediately sent her to a surgeon.
“They didn’t know it was malignant, but they knew it shouldn’t be there. It was pretty good sized. They got me into surgery pretty quick,” she said.
Jones had a modified mastectomy, which removed the cancerous left breast entirely, but didn’t leave a cave-in because less was cut away. Out of 16 lymph nodes, 10 tested positive for cancer.
“My daughter was 17, unmarried and pregnant. It was a stressful time, but I was thankful the Lord brought such a distraction,” she said. “The cancer, I just didn’t have time to mess with.”
In January 1993, Jones began an aggressive course of chemotherapy and radiation therapy five days a week for seven weeks just as her daughter gave birth three months early to a two-and-a-half pound baby at Springfield Cox South.
The baby spent weeks in a neonatal intensive care unit in Springfield, and Dingess was in the hospital a few weeks for recovery. Jones would travel the 140-mile round trip as often as she could to see them.
“I never thought I was going to die. I had too much to take care of. I just decided I was going to get well, and I got well,” Jones said.
Her doctors were skeptical, giving the Stage 4 patient a 25 percent chance of living for five years.
“When I took the chemo, I was just a mess. I had to have a ride, I was just sick. I’d take my treatment as close to the end of the week as I could so I didn’t miss work. Every weekend I was out of it,” she said.
Her faith and the support of her church family and co-workers pulled her through.
“You know you’re in a fight, you just dig in and you fight and you go on. I have been that way for the last 20 years. I put one foot in front of the other when I wake up, and I say ‘OK, give me the strength’.”
After six months of treatments, she went into remission. Her doctor prescribed a pill that would help prevent cancer from returning, but she didn’t take it like she was supposed to.
“It was expensive,” she said. “It was $150 a month, and I was a single mom, trying to hold it together. I just didn’t have that kind of money.”
Sometimes she bought it, sometimes she didn’t.
“That was my fault, not anyone else’s. But I’m not sure the outcome would have been any different,” she said.
She was hired by McCune-Brooks Hospital in Carthage as the director of patient access, and she set about digging into her new job.
“Customer service is a huge huge deal with me. Part of it is my own experience, and part of it is just because it is the right way to treat people,” she said. “That’s my personality: Always put your patient or customer first. You treat them as you would want to be treated.”
She was cancer-free for nine years. Then, in April 2001, she began coughing. For three months she coughed. She thought it was bronchitis, and the doctor did, too.
They were wrong.