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#EyeGetDilated Month – Kathryn (Kitty) Weller Story

For our #EyeGetDilated Month, we share Kathryn’s story who was diagnosed with ocular melanoma in 2019:

Kitty WellerIn July of 2019, as I was driving back from a trip out of town, I noticed some blurriness in my vision.  I closed my right eye and it seems fine.  I closed my left eye and it seemed as if a shadow partially blocked my vision on the right.  What now?  Probably nothing to worry about.  I’m just tired and the sun is bright. I should get a new pair of sunglasses.  A good night’s sleep will take care of it.  What if it’s a detached retina? Better look up symptoms when I stop. Hmm.Two days later I am in my optometrist’s chair. He seems concerned, even a bit panicked. My heart skips a beat and races.  He calls to a retinal specialist in town. The next morning, I am in his chair. Ocular melanoma. What? I am being referred to an ocular oncologist in Denver.

I am in complete shock.  My mind reaches back to the one and only patient who had this diagnosis in all the previous 34 years I have worked as an RN. Most people have never heard of OM.  Early in my career, I was an ER and ICU nurse but wanted to feel more connection to patients and their families.  It led me to switch to being a hospice nurse. I did this for 7 years, took a break, missed working with cancer patients and worked for 6 years as a clinical trials nurse at our local cancer center.  I have a comprehensive understanding of oncology from newly diagnosed to end of life BUT not from this angle.  This cannot be happening to ME.  It CANNOT.  People rely on ME, I don’t rely on THEM.  I can’t even bring myself to look up anything about OM on the internet.  Yeah right!  My luck to get a rare cancer.  Why ME?  WHY me?

The very hardest thing was having to tell family and closest friends about my diagnosis. Days went by before I could. I definitely minimized it, partially out of protecting them but perhaps also myself. One day I would think maybe this isn’t so bad and the next I thought, “when will I die? I’m not ready to die!”

Looking back, I have no idea how I juggled my stressful career, reeling from my diagnosis in addition to traveling for treatment. Denver is a 6 hour drive from my home in South Dakota. I learned I would have to stay in Denver during my surgery to implant the radiation plaque, keep it in for 5 days and have a 2nd surgery to remove it.  I was overwhelmed, lonely and scared but I kept remembering a Bob Marley phrase…”You Never Know How Strong You Are Until Being Strong Is Your Only Choice” I am immensely grateful for a few wonderful friends, one who drove with me to Denver and was my 2nd set of ears during my initial consults with the oncologists. One who checked on me often and even joined the OM facebook page to better understand my cancer and accompanied me to my one year check up in Denver.  Others who encouraged me to get out and hike with them when I was still wearing an eye patch for protection.

I am beyond grateful for my compassionate, mature daughter and her understanding wife. My daughter flew in from out of state, drove me to & from Denver and stayed with me during surgery and treatment. She was my rock. We even went a few places in Denver when I had my plaque in and I wore a lead patch when within 6 ft. of her or anyone else. We happened upon a little metaphysical store where we bought a couple of healing items and passed the time pulling angel cards to keep spirits up.  We played scrabble off and on until my eye felt sore and tired and I would nap. She was there and everything was going to be ok.  For the most part it has been.  My vision is tolerable, my brain adjusted to the wonky vision, I can drive without any restrictions, I got back into hiking and yoga when I recovered. Life goes on.

Today, I have follow-up every 6 months and I am still NED (no evidence of metastatic disease).  They call us cancer thrivers now.  Some days I don’t feel like a thriver, only a survivor, other days I feel I can manage whatever comes my way.  I think it helps to have the hospice background because there isn’t any mystery to it all. Whatever happens going forward, I hope I can approach it peacefully and with grace. In the meantime, I am checking off as much as possible on my bucket list. I stop to look at sunrises and sunsets a little bit longer than I would have in the past. I drink in the sights when I’m hiking, stop to take a deep breath, and take the next step.

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