Archive for Thursday, June 1, 2006

Kuster eager to start career

four years after cancer treatments, Kuster looks ahead

June 1, 2006

Armed with a degree in English from Kansas University, Erika Kuster started her career Tuesday as an administrative assistant with metropolitan-area publishing firm specializing in children's books.

It isn't how Kuster envisioned she would be relating to children when she graduated from De Soto High School four years ago. At that time, she planned to work with children cancer patients.

"I wanted to work on the cancer floor at Children's Mercy," she said. "After a year headed toward that, I changed my mind."

It wasn't academic requirements that motivated the change. Kuster graduated from KU last month summa cum laude.

"I just realized I didn't think I could go the hospital every day of my life," she said.

The hospital and its staff remain dear to her, having helped her through treatment for stage four Hodgkin's lymphoma, or cancer of the lymph glands. Cancer is graded in stages one through four, with four being the worse.

"It wasn't the worst it could be, because it hadn't reached my bone marrow yet -- it was pretty much everywhere else."

The diagnosis came after 18 months of mounting concern.

"When I felt the little lump in my neck, that really scared me," Kuster said. "I kept being told, 'Teenagers have crazy lymph glands.'"

Still, the physicians offered to do a biopsy with the assurances. Comfortable with the doctors' opinion, wishing to avoid the minor surgery, and aware that Hodgkin's lymphoma most often strikes older men and young boys, Kuster passed.

The periodic swellings persisted in association with symptoms impossible to ignore. Kuster started getting "little fevers," developed a persistent cough caused by a growth pressing against her esophagus and had a lymph gland in her armpit swell to the size of a lemon.

The lesson, Kuster said, was to be thorough if you suspect something is wrong.

"You have to trust your own instincts," she said. "I thought something was wrong. They said, 'If you want to, we could do a biopsy.' I thought, 'Well if you don't think so, all right.'

"It's nobody's fault. It was all our decision."

During her treatments, Kuster stayed positive, purposely avoiding looking at survival rates.

"I remember laughing a lot," she said. "I made fun of myself. I learned everything I needed of the drugs I was on. I didn't look at the consequences of chemotherapy until I was done. What was the point? I needed to get through it and get done."

Despite the eight months of chemotherapy, she had a good senior year, Kuster said.

"I feel like I kind of idealized it," she said. "I thought it was pretty good. There were days I would have to stay in and then I would be right back to school. I was there as much as I possibly could be.

"I had a chemo treatment the day of homecoming. I felt crappy, but I went anyway."

She had a lot of support from classmates, faculty and the school's administration. The football team dedicated a game to her, and teachers wore wigs in solidarity. Also supportive was the staff of Children's Mercy, her oncologist Dr. Abbas Emami, and the Make a Wish Foundation, which set up a free shopping trip at the end of her chemotherapy.

Kuster acknowledged the support of the school and the community in a graduation speech she gave as one of her class' top students. A departure from standard graduation fare, the speech left most in the De Soto High School gym with moist eyes.

"I had people ask me for copies," she said. "I've had people quote me part of the speech, saying,'That's the one that made me cry.'"

Despite the upbeat attitude, the illness and treatment took a toll. Even a year later with her cancer in remission, she would find herself depressed, Kuster said.

Her battle with cancer has made her more willing to take risks, such as her decision to move into KU's Margaret Amini Scholarship rather than commute from her parents' home, Kuster said.

"And last summer, I got on an airplane alone to go to New York," she said. "I met my friend from Wales who I met on an Internet cancer board. We were best friends, but we'd never met.

"We went sightseeing all over the place. It was crazy."

Diagnosed with Hodgkin's at the same time, the two 17-year-olds supported each other through treatment and stayed close as they both went to college. There had another thing in common -- they are very bright young women.

Her friend, Fionn O'Hara, is off to Cambridge University next fall to take up the cancer fight through the study of microbiology.

Although Kuster decided against such a career, she does stay active against the disease. She has attended past De Soto American Cancer Society Relay for Life events (her attendance Friday is uncertain with the new job), and organized a relay team for her scholarship hall, which raised $1,500, Kuster said.

In addition to the Relays' survivors' laps, Kuster found another way to celebrate her victory over cancer.

"I've been in remission for four years," she said. "We celebrated in my scholarship hall with a little party. Technically, you're considered cured after five years. But I thought, 'Four years. That's pretty close.' And I wanted to have a celebration before I left the hall."

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