Kara Bercher was 36 and raising two boys — ages 4 and 1 — when a stubborn pain in her side emerged. Nothing seemed to help.
In 2013, about a year after the sensation surfaced, the pain became excruciating. Kara thought she was having a kidney stone and immediately headed to the Emergency Department during the middle of the night.
“You don’t have a kidney stone,” doctors told Kara. “But you do have a mass.“
“What’s a mass?” she asked. When told it was another word for tumor, Kara’s world was quickly shaken.
Two weeks later, Kara was in the operating room where Dr. David Paolone, a UW Health urologist, surgically removed the 8-centimeter cancerous tumor. Dr. Paolone also removed one of Kara’s kidneys and adrenal glands because they were located so close to the mass. Kara’s diagnosis — a high-grade leiomyosarcoma — is an extremely rare cancer that affects smooth muscle tissue. About 3 people out of a million are diagnosed with this aggressive type of cancer.
Kara hoped she would be fine once the mass was out of her body. Instead, her journey with cancer was just beginning. Since then, Kara, now 45, has undergone multiple rounds of chemotherapy, targeted radiation, three surgeries to remove cancerous nodules in her lungs, and a microwave ablation to treat a recurrence in her liver.
Nobody plans for a life with advanced-stage cancer, let alone being hit with such news in their 30s. Yet Kara’s desire to find the good in such a difficult experience is relentless.
“One of my chemo nurses who is now retired once told me, ‘You are happy, and cancer doesn’t like happy,’” Kara says. “With a cancer diagnosis, it often seems like our choices are limited. But happiness is a choice. I chose not to let cancer take away the joy and happiness that life brings.”
Oncologist moved by Kara’s passion
Kara’s medical oncologist, Dr. Rob Hegeman of the UW Carbone Cancer Center, is touched by Kara’s authenticity and positive energy.
“Kara embodies what we want for all of our patients,” he says. “Despite the struggles of this horrible disease and the side effects of the treatments, she lives an incredibly healthy life. Kara also embraces a nutritious diet, regular exercise, mind-body awareness and yoga, which she teaches to other cancer survivors. In oncology, we are increasingly recognizing how these healthy practices can affect patient outcomes.”
Despite multiple recurrences that have occurred in her lungs and liver, Kara always tries to see the glass as half full without sounding pollyannish.
“I made peace with my diagnosis a long time ago,” she says.
“I can’t live in fear. What would I be showing my children? What kind of wife would I be to my husband? I’ve been to the edge, so I find comfort in simply noticing and enjoying the small things, like the winter sunshine sparkling on the snow out my window. And my house is always a mess,” Kara adds with a laugh that instantly puts things in perspective.
Kara is grateful to Dr. Hegeman and countless other UW Health physicians, surgeons, nurses and therapists she has met over the past eight years. She couldn’t imagine being treated elsewhere.
“When you come to a comprehensive cancer center like Carbone,” says Dr. Hegeman, “it means you are getting the collective expertise of an entire team, including surgeons, medical oncologists, radiologists, pathologists, radiation oncologists, and other specialists who sit down together to discuss a patient’s situation. Patients like Kara receive better care because the plan we come up with is based on the input of many highly trained experts.”
One nurse who stands out for Kara is Marci Alexander, RN, who was involved with Kara’s microwave ablation treatment on some lung nodules.
“When I looked Marci in the eye the first day we met,” says Kara, “it was as though we knew each other for years and just understood each other at a deeper level.”
Strong support from students, colleagues and family
Fueling Kara’s passion for life are her students and colleagues at Lodi (Wisconsin) High School, where she has taught for 18 years, as well her husband Mark, a biotech scientist, and their two sons: William, 13, and Elliot, 10.
“I absolutely love downhill skiing and mountain biking with my husband and our boys,” Kara says. “There is a risk for me, having only one kidney, but the benefits are truly immeasurable. Yoga, which I teach as well as do on my own, and mindful meditation are very beneficial. I also enjoy talking with newly diagnosed cancer patients because I don’t want them to feel so alone or overwhelmed. All of these things keep the anxiety from shadowing me constantly.”
Kara’s primary goal is to stay healthy between cancer treatments. She knows what it means to cherish each day as a gift.
“I wouldn’t change my journey,” Kara says. “After living with stage four cancer for nine years, something not that many can say, I consider myself very lucky.”