Post and Courier
April 7, 2002
BY STEPHANIE HARVIN of the Post and Courier Staff
Doctors told Kate Watson she had a brain tumor. Then she decided how she wanted to live. The hardest time for Kate Watson came during her radiation treatment after her hair fell out. She spent the time searching for spiritual comfort for her very human questions. “She is finding the hidden blessing in cancer, where you reach out to others and find the courage to reset your life.” Dr. Mary Decker There was hint of the brain tumor in the family photo taken at Thanksgiving. One of the get-well cards Kate received from her Washington, D.C., office was folded several times to fit into the envelope. Kate lies down for her radiation treatment. The plastic mask on the right is fitted over her head and then locked in place to ensure the beams target her tumor site. Kate collected hugs every day including this one from radiation therapist Brian Jones after her last treatment at Roper Hospital.
Kate Watson is sorting through piles. Scattered around the bedroom is the debris of living: dirty T-shirts, a laptop computer, and her duffle bag. An enormous stuffed dog occupies half of the bed. From a box, cards overflow onto the floor. She reads one sent by a colleague: “As usual, you have grabbed the spotlight again.” She laughs. Her addiction to the limelight is a joke among her staff of nine. They gave her a nickname for it: Heaper,” for high energy, aggressive person. While she’s been at her parents’ Charleston house, the cards, phone calls and e-mails haven’t stopped. Once friends and colleagues found out she was having brain surgery Jan.2, they flooded her mailbox with prayers and get-well cards. Now, March 7, two months and seven days after surgeons at Roper Hospital removed a tumor the size of a tennis ball, she is packing to return to her old life in Washington, D.C. She is to leave in five days, the day after finishing her last radiation treatment. So far, so good. It will be a month, April 12, before she finds out how much good the radiation has done. Because she came through the surgery and the radiation so easily, doctors think she has a very good chance of remission. Brain tumors, even malignant ones, are not necessarily fatal. Both she and the doctors know that one of the keys to survival is having hope. She won’t talk about the statistics and refuses to let anyone tell her what her disease might do.
From the beginning, she has said she doesn’t want to be influenced by life-expectancy charts or averages. Doctors don’t know why some people do better than others. They just know that a patient’s beliefs and attitudes can influence the course of a disease. So Kate is determined to live long enough for researchers to find a cure. She believes a breakthrough could be just around the corner, so she is mustering the kind of energy and focus that she brings to her high-powered Washington job, and is applying it to the business of healing. “I’m going to beat it, she says with confidence. “I can’t NOT beat it.” THE TUMOR If she weren’t half bald, no one would know Kate has cancer. She doesn’t look sick. She’s 5 feet 9, attractive and strong. She dresses casually and she covers her head with a blue baseball cap bearing the words, “Life is good.” Even with the cap, the baldness shows and strangers approach her on the street, in restaurants, at jazzercize class. They want to share a story with her about a friend or relative who has cancer.
The disease is everywhere. Sometimes she tries not to listen. Her health problems became obvious at Christmas. Even before that, there were sublte symptoms that she noticed as early as August. After she bought a new house, she found herself leaving the front door open. She forgot appointments and misplaced her notes for an important speech-problems in her position as vice president of communications and marketing for the American Gas Association. After Sept. 11, her stress increased. Her Washington office is located across the park from the Capitol, which authorities feared might be a terrortist target. Her boyfriend’s sister died from ovarian cancer and they would not be able to make the funeral because planes were grounded. Headaches started, and she took aspirin. When a co-worker said that Kate had cut her off in traffic, she apologized. When she drove down the wrong way and got lost, she brushed it off. Then, after Thanksgiving, she was getting over the flu when she passed out in the shower. She still went to work but was so rattled that a co-worker had to walk her across the street to lunch. Her PPO nurse said the problem was dehydration from the flu. She was probably pre-menopausal. Because Kate had never been sick before, she didn’t see a doctor. She says, thinking back she probably didn’t give the nurse enough information t cause concern.
When she arrived at her family’s Bull Street home for Christmas, she was exhausted and worried about her memory lapses, but she just wanted to rest and to let her parents take care of her. But her parents knew something was wrong. “It wasn’t Katesy,” says her father, Wyly Watson. “Katsey has always had a sense of humor and didn’t at Christmas.” He calls her by her childhood nickname. It’s how all their friend in Charleston knows her. “She didn’t care that her belt and shoes didn’t match,” says her mother, Helen. “I thought what an interesting collection of clothes she brought.” Kate would laterssau that the tumor packed her bags. The difference in their daughter between Thanksgiving and Christmas was startling. This was the girl who graduated from Ashley Hall School and decided to shake the dust of Charleston from her feet. She worked as an aide to former Rep. Newt Gingrich after graduating from college and then as chief of staff to former Rep. Enind Greene Waldholtz. She lives all politics, all the time and is a Washington insider on the rise. Her quick wit is legendary. But, at Christmas, she fished for words. She seemed detached. She would stand beside chair but not be sure how to make herself sit. Her sister, Hallie would deliver a gentle karate chop behind the knees to make her bend. “It’s like the wiring in my brain wasn’t telling my knew what to do. I could see I needed to sit, I just couldn’t do it by myself,” says Kate. Finally, she was too exhausted to go the family’s annual Christmas Day dinner. She stayed at the house and watched “The Christmas story” three times.
The next day, her parents asked her internist uncle, Dr. Chip Linton, to check her out. He asked her to do odd things like touch her fingers and thumbs together in sequence and to count backward by nines. He told her she was probably stressed. “But just to be sure, I want my friend Dr. tom Dukes to check you out,” he said. Dukes, a neurologist, sent her immediately to Mt. Pleasant for an MRI. She was pretty mellow, Kate says now, but still planning to return to Washington the next day. An hour later, Dukes was on the phone saying that he would meet her at the emergency room. She was still feeling Zen-like from the mild sedative technicians had given her to tolerate the machine, so she didn’t think anything was wrong. “I was just humoring everyone,” she recalls. She and her parents sat in one of the small, curtained cubicles as Dukes delivered the news. She had a tennis-ball sized tumor spread across the midline of her brain. He wanted her to check into the hospital immediately. He would start steroids as soon she was settled. The tumor had to come out. The only discussion was about what day the surgery would occur and who would perform it. “I thought, Oh come on. A brain tumor is not what you expect at 38.”
She couldn’t take in what he was saying. She felt as if she was floating above it all. She held her fathers hand. She remembers that her mother wanted to see the black and white scans on the light box that showed the mass. She and her father couldn’t look. Later, she would learn that if they hadn’t found the tumor when they did, it would have killed her in four to six weeks, probably without warning. She learned that her earlier mellow feeling were the result of the tumor pressing on vital areas of the brain. In her hospital room, her sisters, Beth and Hallie, decided to take care of their big sister. They would pay for her to have a pedicure. Beth would grab Kate’s address book and call her friends and contacts on Capitol Hill. Kate made out a will. Gingrich called from Australia. “I was in a distant place late that Saturday. I began to come back as the medicine reduced the swelling from the tumor. There were streams of visitors. I was treated the way the queen of Sheba would have been if she had had a brain tumor,” Kate says with a grin. Visitors were kind, but it is the kindness that happens at a funeral home. She did learn one thing from the incredible outpouring of support: “Most people die before they see all this. I’m so lucky.” Nobody told her the surgery was risky, and she didn’t ask. She let her parents handle the fear. Five days after she learned she had a brain tumor, she was wheeled into surgery for what doctors said would be a 10-hour invasion of her brain. She was out in six. Most of the tumor was removed.
Dr. Arthur Pacult hoped radiation would kill the rest, but he put some chemotherapy wafers in to aid the process. The biodegradable wafers are saturated with cancer fighting drugs and dissolve slowly over time. “They just popped the top off my skull like you are opening a can, says Kate, pointing to the c-shaped scar on the side of her head. Once she was back in a regular hospital room, she wanted to know what the tumor looked like. “The surgeon told me it’s not like your tonsils where you can take them out. It’s a bunch of cells that they suck out.” She was diagnosed with malignant anaplastic astrocytoma, a form of cancer that originates in the brain. Her tumor cells were graded as two and threes, with one pocket of fours. Tumor cells are graded from one to four, with four as the worst, based on their ability to grow. She knows the cancer is aggressive and has a tendency to come back. But her information stops there. She let her parents read the pathology report about the tumor. She won’t surf the Internet for information. She only wants to know about things that will cure her. She is maintaining hope. “I am not a statistic,” she says. “I don’t want to know what the prognosis might be.”
SEARCHING FOR HEALING
For six weeks, her expectations were simple. Stay positive. Do whatever it takes to make it through the treatments. Dr. Mary Decker, her radiation oncologist, warned her that she might have side effects from the radiation. Most people suffer extreme exhaustion, trouble eating, weight loss, but once again, she didn’t want to know what the problems might be. Five days a week, her afternoon was punctuated by the 2 p.m. appointment at Roper Hospital. Her dad went with her. Kate calls the radiation machine at Roper Hospital a cross between Hannibal Lecter’s cell and the spaceship in “Alien.” In order to have the radiation beam focused on her tumor exactly the same place each time, she had to wear a plastic resin mask that was anchored to the metal bed. She hated the mask. She had to lie still while technicians made it and it covered everything except for eye slits and a breathing hole. “While they were making it, all I could think about was how it was going to mess up my hair.” Then I thought, I don’t have any hair.” Her hair grew in a little after surgery, but it was only an inch long when she started radiation. Then it fell out again, three weeks later. In the mirror, it looked she had a sideways Mohawk hairstyle, with hair growing only where parts of her head were shielded from radiation. Before and after the treatments, Kate and her family pursued whatever might help her heal.
She started jazzercize to build up strength because she worried about a slight weakness in her left side after the surgery. Helen joined her. Kate joined a yoga class as a way of locating her spiritual center while getting in touch with her body. Helen and sister Hallie went, too. She was looking for a way to turn off the fear, especially during the treatments, so she went to a meditation class. She calls Tracy Bonner, the teacher very funny and very spiritual. But, there’s a huge difference between a guided mediation in a quiet space with low lights and trying to meditate during radiation treatment when you’re flat on your back with your head locked down. She struggled with it. While the classes filled the time, they didn’t help her come to terms with what was happening, so Kate sought out the six week Expressions of Healing class at Roper Hospital. She was looking for others who were going through the same thing she was. Using a combination of art writing therapy, it is a support group for people with cancer and their loved ones. Her father went with her. The night of the third class, Kate talked about the meaning of a painting she had made the week before. It is simple and childlike, but there is no such thing as bad art in this class. She drew a field with a tree on one side, and a hosta plant under it. An underground bulb is waiting to sprout. In the grass is a dog. Overhead, three birds on the wing head into a big yellow sun.
As Dianne Tennyson, the art therapist, gently prodded, Kate worked out the significance each piece: The hosta is a strong plant that comes back after winter. The bulb is waiting for new life. She was not sure what would happen to the bulb because it was dormant. It might flower, or it might fertilize the earth. The dog is her black lab, Daisy, who is in Washington. Daisy has cancer, too. Kate didn’t know if she would see her old friend again. Tears threatened. Tennyson nodded and asked about the three birds flying into the sun. Two are together, and one is separate. Do they have any significance? Kate began to cry. The two birds together are her two sisters, and she is the one alone. She thought the birds might be separated in the same way that she and her sisters would be separated if she dies. “We’ve talked about,” she said between the tears. It’s too hard to think about.” Tennyson observed that in her painting, the colors are bright, the sun is shining and the birds are flying in great freedom. It is not the work of someone overwhelmed by fear or loss, she said. Even the dog is in the meadow with its ears perked. Kate stared at his painting and then agreed. Yes, she feels hopeful. Then, it’s her father’s turn. His picture holds four sections, and in each he has drawn the stages of a volcano: the first one shows a quiet one, the second, a smoking one, the third one, the explosion and the fourth, the volcano gone from the island with nothing left but the rings in the water. The meaning seems obvious at first: His anger at his daughter’s disease. He and Kate have always been close. But then he began to read what he had written about the volcano. He talked about the force of nature, how no one man can predict the course of a volcano. Marjory Wentworth, the poet and originator of the group, suggested he was talking about as a force of nature, his helplessness in the face of the Almighty. It’s all a spiritual journey,” she says. “We are all on one.”
Kate realized she was searching for a spiritual path. Yoga, meditation and prayer are all ways of getting in touch with the larger issues of living and faith. “I was never very spiritual before. I grew up in church, but since I’ve been on my own, I realized I haven’t thought that much about God,” She says. Her mother tried to help. A lifelong member of First Scots Presbyterian, her faith has sustained her through the crises. Now Helen found herself trying to be strong for both of them although she couldn’t always hide the tears. After she and Kate were crying hard one morning, Helen decided they couldn’t cry if they raised their eyebrows. “So now we both go around looking like victims of cosmetic surgery gone bad,” Kate says with a grin. It was Helen who found the healing service at St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, a six hour workshop and service that is held every month on a Saturday for people who want to pray for healing of any kind: physical, emotional, spiritual. Jean Corbet, the rector’s assistant for pastoral care, conducts the service. Prayer ministers sit with those who attend and pray for and with them. Prayer requests are filled out ahead of time, and there is a time of praying for others. “It’s a day of basking in the presence of the Lord,” says Corbett. Kate remembers that Saturday halfway through her treatments as the one where she dried for six hours. And the one where she felt blessed. “Jean Corbett told me that day that she had a vision of God with his hands cupped around my head, comforting me like he would a small child. He was looking straight at me with love in his eyes.” Corbett confirms Kate’s story and said she, too was overwhelmed.
While she doesn’t know the form of the healing, she admires Kate for the courage to seek it. Corbett feels God was listening and sending his love. HOPE So far, she hasn’t gotten mad, Kate says. There are flashes and bursts where she cries. The 4 a.m. terrors are the worst. Tucked into the four-poster bed passed down to her from her grandmother, she has tried to repeat a mantra learned in meditation. “I say a syllable over and over again so I can’t hear myself. I’m trying to turn off the noise in my brain.” If that doesn’t work, she grabs for her parent’s dog Ralph, the therapy dog. When all else fails, she cries into his black coat. He’s absorbed a lot of tears in the past two months, she says. Everywhere are reminders of her plight. “I went to the health food store and saw this pamphlet on cancer and it said that mine was a mortality cancer. I thought, “That can’t be me.” I came home and I was so upset. It’s amazing how much something like that can set you back. It can slam you down and not let you up.” She is determined to put those kinds of setbacks behind her. As far as she is concerned, what doctors don’t know about the brain is amazing. She understands that doctors won’t talk about a cure, but instead can say that her body can heal. Dr. Decker thinks Kate’s response to treatment could mean she’s looking at years of remission.
Dr. Agnus Baker, an oncologist she consulted for the referral to a doctor in Washington, D.C., also thought she would do well. “Patients like Kate, who don’t close up or fold in on themselves, are the ones who survive,” says Decker. “Hope is vital. To me healing also has to do with healing your psyche. “I’ve seen patients come in here with very treatable cancers and they fold up and die.” She thinks Kate is remarkable and adds, “She is finding the hidden blessing in cancer, where you reach out to others and find the courage to reset your life.” Kate’s parents drove her to Washington on March 12. Now she waits for Friday when she will have a new MRI, and find out what needs to happen next, medically. But, waiting doesn’t mean not living. She described it best in an e-mail to her staff from home: “I am waiting with great anticipation to see what next several weeks have in store for me in terms of cosmic surprises. I had no idea we were so interconnected.”