Something just didn’t feel right to Terry Kutsko.
It was 2015, and Kutsko, who was 52 years old at the time and owner of a bridal shop in Columbus, had been experiencing abdominal pain for months.
She had gone to the doctor several times, but the pain wouldn’t go away, Kutsko said.
So she kept looking for an answer.
The answer, however, would be frightening, forever changing her life but ultimately becoming what she described as a “blessing” of sorts that would strengthen her faith, resolve and ability to live in the moment.
In February 2015, doctors told Kutsko that she had stage four metastatic breast cancer that had spread to her liver, lungs and spine. The source of pain turned out to be her liver, which was “really enlarged,” she said.
“I was just in shock,” Kutsko said, recalling her reaction to the diagnosis. “I never thought that I was going to hear the words, ‘You have cancer.’”
Kutsko was anxious to start treatment.
She sold the bridal shop she owed in downtown Columbus, called That Special Touch, started chemotherapy and was put on Herceptin, an intravenous drug that is used to treat breast cancer that has spread beyond the breast.
Some of the side effects of the treatment were hard to deal with, particularly the fatigue, Kutsko said. But she was determined.
“I was used to going 100 miles an hour doing 10 things at once, and when you go through chemo many, many times you just have to deal with this fatigue,” Kutsko said. “It’s just like hitting a wall. You just get so tired that you can’t even go on.”
After about six months, the cancer started to decrease until there was ultimately no evidence of disease, Kutsko said.
Doctors kept checking her with PET scans every three to six months with nothing but good news until 2018, when “they started seeing some growth in my lungs.”
Kutsko underwent oral chemotherapy for about four months and was able to get the growth in her lungs under control.
Since then, Kutsko has remained on some sort of treatment or therapy “just to make sure that (the cancer) stayed down and didn’t start growing again.”
But Kutsko hasn’t been alone during her battle.
In 2015, as she was receiving news that she had cancer, so were several members of her church, St. Bartholomew Catholic Church.
So they started a cancer support group that, at one point, grew to about 12 people. The group has continued to meet via Zoom during the pandemic.
“It’s nice to have somebody that can relate to what you’re going through and sometimes we just encourage each other, pray for each other,” Kutsko said.
Kutsko said she also had an “outpouring of support” from her family and friends. And she also led the Columbus Relay for Life for a few years.
“It’s been a lot, but I’ve had so much support,” Kutsko said. “I really feel like I’ve done so well through this journey because I’ve had just so many people praying for me and just an outpouring of support from friends and family and my church family and all that.”
As she rang in the new year in 2020, Kutsko felt as if she had rounded the corner.
“I was feeling really good and probably the best I had felt since I had been diagnosed,” Kutsko said.
But that would change by the end of the year.
This past December, Kutsko went on a walk with some friends.
After walking a few miles, her friends noticed that something about Kutsko seemed off.
They took her to the emergency room, and Kutsko said she was quickly admitted to the intensive care unit.
“Through tests they found out that I had six lesions on my brain that had metastasized,” Kutsko said.
It was tough news to receive. The prognosis “wasn’t really very good”, but she maintained what she said is one of the most important things for a cancer patient: A positive attitude.
Kutsko would undergo 14 rounds of full brain radiation, though that “was not as bad as I thought it was going to be,” she said.
During the treatment, the doctors would put on some music.
“One day, I was laying there and ‘Good Vibrations’ from the Beach Boys came on, and I was like, ‘This is a sign,’” Kutsko said. “I’m just going to have good vibrations and a good positive attitude. So that kind of became my theme during that radiation.”
A friend also brought her a T-shirt that said “Faith over fear.” Others made her some cups that said the same thing.
“That was also something that I hung on to,” Kutsko said.
And nine months later, Kutsko said she is doing well. She was preparing to attend her daughter Katie’s wedding in Chicago this past weekend.
“I made it,” Kutsko said. “I’m here nine months later.”
Kutsko has overcome the odds.
Only 28% of people diagnosed with distant-stage breast cancer — meaning that the original tumor has spread to distant organs or lymph nodes — are alive after five years, according to the American Cancer Society.
Kutsko said her journey over the past six years has turned out to be a blessing in some ways “even though that sounds kind of strange.”
“I became more prayerful, and I feel like it really increased my faith,” she said. “I’ve always really been close to my family, my daughters, my grandchildren, but I feel like it helps you to just appreciate all of the memories and all the moments.”
Instead of thinking about the future, Kutsko said, “You just enjoy where you’re at.”