Trust your intuition
Joyce Kulhawik did and it saved her life

 


Joyce Kulhawik stands in her backyard at her home in Wayland with husband and architect Andrew Cohen and daughter Annelise.
(Photos courtesy of Joyce Kulhawik)
The black mole above her right knee was the size of an eraser head, but it never really bothered her. In fact, it wasn’t until Joyce Kulhawik was sitting down to watch an episode of “The Phil Donahue Show” that she really took notice of the mole.

When the woman being interviewed said that her colon cancer started with a mole on her leg, Kulhawik happened to look down at the mole and decided that it would be a smart idea to get it checked out. That decision saved her life.

Kulhawik made an appointment to see a dermatologist shortly thereafter and asked for a biopsy. The doctor complied and removed half the mole. Two days later, Kulhawik, who had recently landed her first job in television at “Evening Magazine” on WBZ-TV in Boston, received a devastating telephone call at work. The doctor told Kulhawik that he was 99 percent sure that she had malignant melanoma.

“I thought I was going to collapse,” Kulhawik recalls.

The 26-year-old was in utter disbelief as she had no family history of cancer and always thought of herself as being “healthy as anything.” What made the situation worse was the timing. Kulhawik’s wedding, in fact a double wedding with her brother, was only a week away and now she didn’t know if she would be able to go through with it based on the severity of this doctor’s diagnosis.

Her soon-to-be sister-in-law, a chief radiation therapist at a local hospital at the time, strongly urged Kulhawik to get a second opinion. She did just that and made an appointment the very next day with Dr. Peter Deckers, a surgical oncologist who specialized in melanoma. Deckers told Kulhawik that she had a vicious, aggressive tumor, but the good news was that he thought it had been caught in time.

Right then and there he gave Kulhawik a local anesthetic and removed the rest of the mole. She left the office with 17 stitches in her leg.

Despite some pain and 17 stitches, the wedding went on without a hitch. Kulhawik walked down the aisle May 12, 1979 and married Andrew Cohen.

Skin cancer is the most common of all cancers, but Kulhawik was quite lucky. “If I had not done anything about this, I would have died from melanoma,” she says.


Kulhawik and her husband were married May 12, 1979 in Connecticut, only a week after she was told she had malignant melanoma.

According to the American Cancer Society, melanoma is responsible for less than 5 percent of skin cancer cases, but it causes the greatest number of skin cancer deaths. It has also been reported by the American Cancer Society that the number of melanoma cases has been increasing for at least 30 years. It is estimated that around 70,230 cases of melanoma will be diagnosed in 2011 and there will be about 8,790 deaths from melanoma.

Kulhawik acknowledges, “Nobody was talking about melanoma” back then the way they do now because “it wasn’t generally known and it wasn’t generally understood.”

To reduce the risk of melanoma, it is recommended that people limit their exposure to the sun during peak hours, protect their skin with appropriate clothing and wear sunscreen. The American Cancer Society also suggests people give themselves self-exams and check their skin once a month. Moles that suddenly appear or change in color, size or shape could be a warning sign for melanoma.

While there have been medical advances since Kulhawik’s diagnosis in 1979, what she understood at that time and still takes very seriously, is the importance of acting quickly when the body is telling you that something is not quite right. She had no idea at the time, but her cancer story was only a third of the way through.

Another health issue surfaces

Kulhawik remembers vividly how it began. It was February of 1988 and she had just finished a yoga workout in her bedroom, when all of a sudden she got really cold. Within a minute, she recalls having chills and running a high fever.

She proceeded to drive herself to the nearest medical facility, which happened to be Lahey Clinic. Kulhawik says the nurses told her she looked green when she walked in. A week later after numerous tests were taken and antibiotics given for what medical staff thought was some kind of abdominal or pelvic infection, Kulhawik was released and told she was fine.

 



Kulhawik was still not feeling 100 percent so she confided in a friend. “Does [my stomach] look normal to you?” Kulhawik recalls asking. The friend told Kulhawik that it didn’t look normal for Kulhawik’s body; it was slightly fuller. She checked into Beth Israel Hospital and after reviewing her symptoms the medical staff thought it was appendicitis.


Christine McCall photo

Doctors were shocked to learn that Kulhawik didn’t have appendicitis, but instead Stage 1A ovarian cancer, meaning the cancer was only in one ovary. Doctors removed just the affected ovary at this time.

Kulhawik says she had been nauseous about a month before this occurred. Other symptoms of ovarian cancer can include swelling of the stomach, pelvic pressure, stomach pain, trouble eating, feeling full quickly and having to urinate often.

“I had a vague sense that there was something in there that shouldn’t be in there,” she says.

Kulhawik fell outside the statistical norms for an ovarian cancer patient. The American Cancer Society reports that most ovarian cancers occur in women who have gone through menopause and half of these cancers are found in women over the age of 63. Those who are obese or have a family history of ovarian, breast or colorectal cancer also have an increased chance of developing ovarian cancer.

She cautions women: “You do not fool around with any kind of ovarian cancer at any stage.”

Round 3 — Summer 1989

A year and a half later, Kulhawik and her husband were on their way to Kenya for a vacation when she began experiencing tremendous abdominal pain. She couldn’t help wondering: Was it the flu? Was it cancer again?

Kulhawik was held up for a few days on the trip, but was able to compartmentalize the pain and do what she had to do to get through the vacation.

When she returned home, she made another trip to the doctor. This time, Kulhawik was told she had pancreatitis. Kulhawik was given a CA125 blood test, which is used as a marker for cancer of the ovaries. When the test came back, the counts were through the roof and it confirmed the ovarian cancer was back.

The night before Kulhawik was scheduled for surgery, the abdominal pains were too intense to ignore. She went to the hospital immediately and it was found that she had a tumor that had ruptured.

Kulhawik underwent a total hysterectomy. The surgery was followed by six months of chemotherapy at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Kulhawik did not lose her hair and finished treatment Christmas of 1989. Following chemo, she

Cancer Resources


Melanoma:

American Academy of Dermatology
888-462-DERM or www.aad.org

Melanoma Research Foundation
800-673-1290 or www.melanoma.org

National Cancer Institute
800-4-CANCER or www.cancer.gov

Skin Cancer Foundation
800-SKIN-490 or www.skincancer.org


Ovarian Cancer:


Gilda Radner Familial
Ovarian Cancer Registry

800-OVARIAN or 800-682-7426
www.ovariancancer.com

Gynecologic Cancer Foundation
800-444-4441 or www.thegcf.org

National Ovarian Cancer Coalition
888-OVARIAN or 888-682-7426
www.ovarian.org

Ovarian Cancer National Alliance
866-399-6262 or www.ovariancancer.org

underwent a second-look surgery to make sure there were no more remaining cancer cells.

Moving on ...

It’s been 21 years now — “cancer free,” Kulhawik exclaims. She has yearly checkups and says with a large grin, “I’m still here, totally healthy and totally fine.”

Of all the things Kulhawik has learned from her bouts with cancer, there are a few things she likes to stress:

1. Pay attention to yourself.

2. Stay close to your body and believe what it tells you.

3. Go to the doctor and get a definitive answer.

“The best prognosticator of how you’re going to do is how early you catch the disease,” she says. “We know our bodies better than anyone.”

Kulhawik, publicly known as Boston’s former WBZ-TV arts and entertainment reporter and critic, has been a voice for the arts for more than 30 years, but in all that time she never lost her own voice.

“It’s therapeutic for me to tell the story,” she admits. “What it means to be able to share what I know is powerful.”