Gail Keele: A Caregiver's Story
When she took part in her local American Cancer Society Relay For Life® this summer, Gail Keele wondered whether the special lap for caregivers included those who had lost their loved ones.
"At first, I thought the caregiver lap was only for those currently taking care of cancer patients," Gail says. "So I asked a staff member, 'Is this also for those of us who are walking to remember our loved ones - and who care about finding a cure?"
Indeed, Gail hasn't stopped caring. Her husband, Rick, died of pancreatic cancer in 2002, followed three years later by the loss of her daughter, Katie, to colon cancer. Today she invests her energies in raising funds for a cure.
A Rare diagnosis
Colon cancer is rare among young people. At age 15, Katie Keele's doctor felt certain that her symptoms were due to colitis. "But he ordered a colonoscopy to be absolutely sure," Gail remembers.
The Keeles were stunned when Katie, a 6-foot power forward for her high school basketball team and an outstanding student, was diagnosed with Stage 3 colon cancer in January 2004. "She was just two days away from turning 16," recalls Gail. "Her doctor said, 'Take her home and throw her a party, let her get her driver's license … then come back and we'll get down to business.'"
Katie received treatment at Barnes Jewish Medical Center in St. Louis, a 120-mile drive from the Keele's home in West Frankfort. "We began with 37 radiation treatments and 6 weeks of chemotherapy, followed by surgery," Gail says. "As her main caregiver, I faced a lot of challenges…there were long car trips, late nights, medications to monitor and more. But just as I had with Rick, I felt privileged to be the one caring for her."
Though Katie's youth and strength stood in her favor, complications developed. In the year following diagnosis, she underwent several surgeries followed by more chemotherapy. Tests then revealed she had developed acute lymphoblastic leukemia. "With this new diagnosis, we knew we had to start an entirely new battle," Gail says
"Mom, how can I do this?"
Katie recovered from many setbacks during treatment, including several staph infections - one of which was so serious it led to a long hospital stay in early 2005.
Gail found herself stretched thin as she struggled to look after Katie while staying close to her son, Dusty, then 19. "One night, after we'd learned Katie only had one or two weeks to live, he buried his head in my lap and said, 'Mom, I haven't even grieved for Dad yet. How can I do this?'" The prospect of losing his sister just seemed too much, Gail says.
She recalls every detail of the Sunday morning when Katie entered the hospital for the last time. "We were at home and I had given her all the medicine I could give. She just said, 'Mom, I think it's time to call 911.'"
On her arrival at the medical center, doctors confirmed Katie was dying. "Our entire church emptied as people came to see her," Gail recalls. "There was such a hush, such a presence in that room. It's the most beautiful thing I've ever seen."
Caregiving means giving hope
Looking back on her experiences, Gail says she is grateful for every day she spent with Rick and Katie during their cancer battles. Caregiving, she believes, is much more than taking care of a loved one's physical needs.
"Yes, I gave them their meds…I talked with the doctors…I drove them to treatment," she says. "But really, caregiving is the act of offering encouragement. It's giving a kind of hope that supports them through each day and each experience."
Having cancer is hard - but finding help shouldn't be. The American Cancer Society is there for caregivers and their loved ones, day and night. Call 1.800.ACS.2345 anytime for cancer information and support.