By Andra Bryan Stefanoni
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.
As much radiation as she could endure
“We started running tests, and the breast cancer had metastasized into my lung,” she said. “I always felt the Lord had not finished with me. So I did what I needed to do: chemo, and one more round of radiation.”
It was the last one she would ever be able to do; the amount of radiation therapy a body can endure is limited.
But her cough cleared up, and the cancer went into remission. For three years, Jones focused all her energy on her job, her faith and her family. In 2004, it showed up again.
“It was the very same kind, the same area, the same symptoms: coughing that never quit,” she said.
“You’ve always got that thought in the back of your mind that it could come back at any time. I’d be a liar if I said I didn’t think about it, especially after (it kept) coming back the way it has. I don’t obsess on it, though.”
“I knew there was the possibility. I knew if I started coughing again I needed to have it checked out a lot sooner. And I did.”
Again, an aggressive round of chemotherapy: 10 months of two weeks on, one week off.
She was in remission — her doctors good-naturedly began calling it a “vacation” from cancer — for four years.
In 2008, it returned.
“It reared its ugly head again, the same place, same kind of cancer, and we dealt with it the same way. I had become quite the old hat,” she said.
After more chemotherapy, the cancer cleared up.
“We stayed on it until, well, there’s a point where you have so much chemo your body feels like you’ve been beat up. When I talk about that with doctor, they let me get off of it awhile,” she said. “I know. My body knows.”
Sometime in 2010, it came back — by this time, she wasn’t even paying attention to the month.
“I think I stayed on chemo a year that time. And then I got to go on ‘vacation’ again. It left. And in October (2011), I and five of my friends and co-workers took a real vacation,” Jones said. “We went on a cruise to Cozumel. It was so much fun.”
Then this August, Jones began coughing again.
‘I’m feeling really bad, really bad’
“‘It’s that time of year,’ I thought. Maybe it really is bronchitis. But I’m feeling really bad —really bad — so the doctor ordered a CAT scan,” Jones said. It revealed Jones had a collapsed lung. Her fluids had built up in the wall between her heart and left lung, pulling the wall away from where it was supposed to be attached.
“They quickly got me into a thoracic surgeon who took out the fluid and put the wall back. They sent off my fluids for testing,” Jones said.
The results: The breast cancer had metastasized to the outside of her lung.
“It was a little different, a little scarier, probably a little harder battle, but one I’m ready to fight,” she said. “So we’re back on chemo.”
Jones, who said her faith has never wavered, said she “gave it all to the Lord.”
“If I didn’t have Christ on my side, I couldn’t do what I’ve done the last 20 some years,” she said.
The fight — the chemotherapy and the radiation therapy — has been worth it, she said.
“I’ve gotten to see my grandchildren grow up,” she said.
One, Slade, the baby who was born prematurely, has graduated from high school and works at McCune-Brooks, just like his mother and grandmother. And another, Slade’s sister Kourtney, will graduate this year.
“I got to see my daughter become a young woman. And I was here to help her, give her some advice, hold her hand, hold her when she was sick, pray for her,” said Jones.
Now, Jones, who is 60, takes chemotherapy at Mercy-St. John’s every Friday afternoon.
The best thing
Jones is an inspiration to those who know and work with her, co-workers say.
“Her attitude stuck out. It was a can-do attitude. It doesn’t matter what comes in front of her, she just plows through and gets it done. The same is true of her illness,” said Karol Jones, director of the hospital’s central business office, who hired Kathi 14 years ago. (They are no relation.)
“She is an inspiration to many here. It doesn’t matter how she feels, she comes in, she does her job and takes care of what needs to be done,” Karol Jones said. “I think that’s one thing that gets her through.
“She has to have something to focus on, to have an important role.”
Because Kathi Jones works the front end of the hospital and is responsible for patients as they come in, she plays a vital role for McCune-Brooks, Karol Jones said.
But the cancer survivor’s personal experiences also have played a positive role in her work life.
“The best thing is, I have people at least twice a week drop in my office and say, ‘Kathi, can I talk?’ They have a friend or relative who has cancer, and I get to talk to them, give them advice, tell them my faith has gotten me through, suggest questions to ask the doctor,” Jones said. “Through my journey, I’ve gotten to do so much more than I’d ever think I’d get to do. It’s not a fun thing, but it is a tool I could use to help other people. To me that’s all that counts.”
Jones said her employers have been kind and understanding.
“On days I needed to miss, I missed. On days I felt good, I was at work. I have a really good staff who are real good at taking care of themselves when they need to. If I needed to be at home, or I was at chemo, they knew they could call and I could answer questions. They’re strong,” she said.
Her short-term goal is to continue the battle, staying on chemotherapy as long as her doctor prescribes or until her body says, “I’ve had enough, let’s take a break.”
Another goal is to help her daughter, Tina, who had a double mastectomy, and to present options to Kourtney, her granddaughter, who is 17 — the same age Tina was when Jones was diagnosed.
“She will have some tough decisions to make,” Jones said. Kourtney’s chances of getting breast cancer are higher because of her family history, but many women now choose preventive mastectomies to reduce the risk.
Jones also plans to continue to work. She loves her job.
“God couldn’t have picked a better place for me: in a hospital, in the front end, where I interact with patients. I think this is why God put me on this earth and why he put me here. I’ve never been one to shy away from talking about it. I’ll always tell people the truth. So yes, I think I have a purpose.”