Blindsided by multiple cancer diagnoses in one year, family and friends decide to do something about it
Prior to 2010, the Wehling’s family history of cancer was short. Maybe one or two cases of prostate cancer, says Karen Wehling, but not enough to cause concern. In the span of 12 months, that short history ballooned: colorectal and throat cancer was added.
Paul Wehling, Karen’s husband of 32 years, was diagnosed with throat cancer in June 2010. A year later, Karen’s routine colonoscopy revealed colorectal cancer. The family was in shock.
“I was blindsided by the diagnosis,” says Beth Slaboda, Karen and Paul’s daughter. “I didn’t have cancer in my family history. Now, when I go to my physician, it’s part of my history—it’s a part of my daughter’s.”
A “COMMON COLD”
Losing one’s voice, a common cold symptom, is usually a short-term frustration. But for Paul Wehling, his “common cold” stuck around for more than a year. Though he lost his “fantastic tenor voice,” he pushed his worries aside, assuming Colorado’s dry air was the cause.
By summer 2010, Paul’s voice didn’t come back. After seeing multiple doctors, he was diagnosed with cancer of the larynx or throat cancer. Unsure of where to go for treatment, the Wehling’s were referred to Drs. Antonio Jimeno, David Raben and John Song at the University of Colorado Cancer Center or “the hidden diamond of Denver,” according to Karen.
“We’re really lucky we got the three doctors we did,” Karen says. “If you had to have throat cancer, Raben, Jimeno and Song are the ones you want.”
Though Song, a surgeon, and Raben, a radiation oncologist, both specialize in head and neck cancer they differed on how to treat Paul. Song wanted to remove the larynx; Raben wanted a strong dose of chemotherapy and radiation. Both agreed a second opinion was needed.
Paul and Karen traveled to the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas and confirmed that chemotherapy and radiation was the best answer. They would preserve the larynx.
Paul began “the Godzilla of chemo treatments” at the University of Colorado Hospital, CU Cancer Center’s clinical care partner, immediately. Six weeks of radiation followed and he finished treatment at the end of 2010. Life was looking up, but only for a short time.
A week after Paul’s last radiation treatment he came down with pneumonia and landed himself in the ICU. Though he passed previous stress tests, his body reacted to the antibiotics and he suffered a heart attack.
On Jan. 22, 2011, at the age of 56, Paul passed away cancer free.
“It was very unexpected,” Karen says. “He wasn’t supposed to go before me. Doctors Jimeno and Raben were also devastated. They had visited or called Paul every day when he was in the ICU. I don’t think all doctors do that.”
Turns out, Jimeno and Raben do. They don’t just care for their patients; they care for their whole family.
“Dr. Jimeno and Dr. Raben have been more than just doctors to our family,” says Beth. “They’ve really been there for my mom.”
In June 2011, after the family had dugout from Paul’s death, Karen went to the doctor for a routine colonoscopy. She didn’t think anything about it, but it revealed news she wasn’t prepared for—colorectal cancer.
“I was just getting over a rough patch when I found out,” Karen says. “At that moment, I decided I needed to either go back down or pick myself up. I decided to pick myself up.”
As Karen was leaving the doctor’s office she sent a text to the two doctors she knew best—Jimeno and Raben—asking for help. Moments later Raben responded: “You’re coming here. We’re making your appointments.”
Jimeno contacted Wells Messersmith, MD, director of gastrointestinal medical oncology and co-leader of the Developmental Therapeutics Program at the CU Cancer Center, and Karen’s appointment was scheduled the following week. Two weeks later she started treatment.
“My husband led me to the treatment that I’m getting here and I’m so thankful,” says Karen. “The treatment is so good here and no one is too busy to make time for you.”
“The doctors here are the best and more people need to know that,” she says.
RETURNING THE FAVOR
Seeing how much the doctors had done for Paul and Karen, family and friends joined together to create Voices for Hope, a fundraising group dedicated to supporting head and neck cancer research at the CU Cancer Center.
“If we can help another person receive better treatments, less side effects, and a better lifestyle while they go through it, that’s what we want to accomplish,” Karen says.
Last week the group held their first two fundraising events: a head shaving and a concert. Beth had her head shaved to honor a friend battling breast cancer and to do “something big” for turning 30.
“I’ve had friends who raised money while running half-marathons and those are way harder than shaving my head,” says Beth. “It’s just my hair. It will grow back.”
The next night, the Paul Wehling Memorial Concert was held to honor Paul’s love of music and raise awareness for head and neck cancer. The events raised nearly $20,000 for head and neck cancer and young women’s breast cancer research at the CU Cancer Center.
But, fundraising is not just about the money. For Karen, it’s about hope and giving back to an organization that’s given so much to her and her family.
“Fundraising has saved me,” says Karen. “It’s helped me channel my energy into something positive instead of focusing on my own cancer, and I think it’s helped keep me healthy.”