"I refuse to give up" even after three cancer diagnoses
Katie Maerten was already juggling a lot — caring for two daughters, one just a few months old, and her elderly grandfather — when she started feeling sick.
She had her gallbladder removed in May 2006 but still felt unwell. Doctors kept prescribing an antibiotic called Z-Pak, but after several rounds, Katie was fed up and not feeling any better.
Finally she underwent a CT scan at Eastern Niagara Hospital in Lockport, New York, and went home afterward. “I made it to the driveway when the radiologist called and said, ‘You need to come back right now.’ They did another CT scan, with dye, and he brought me and my mother (Lois Voelker) back to his office, which they never do.”
The image was clear: Katie had Hodgkin lymphoma from her waist to her neck and needed to be treated right away. She tried to protest, saying her daughters and grandfather were at home and needed her, but there was no arguing.
When doctors at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center reviewed her scans, they confirmed the diagnosis and started her on an aggressive course of treatment with chemotherapy.
“I went through the chemotherapy the first time and came out of it OK,” Katie says. But about a month later, the cancer came back. She went through more chemotherapy, followed by an autologous blood stem cell transplant, using her own cells to help fight the cancer, and radiation.
All the while, Katie, her mom, and her dad (John Voelker) did their best to care for her daughters and create a normal life for them, including Katie serving as a coach for her oldest daughter’s cheerleading squad. “I’d go from chemo to Little Loop and coach with my oxygen tank,” she says.
Instead of wearing a wig when she lost her hair, Katie opted to keep her head bare or cover it with a bandana — a choice that invited children to ask why she didn’t have hair. “They’d ask me and I’d tell them, ‘Some people have cancer, which is a disease that goes through their body, but see? — I’m not scary!’”
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A miracle baby
Things were calm for a while. She continued coaching and raising her daughters and helping take care of her boyfriend’s two children.
When she started feeling pain in her uterus, she became concerned about her history of Hodgkin lymphoma and came back to Roswell Park for a scan.
Chemotherapy had caused Katie to go into early menopause following treatment, and she was scheduled to have her uterus removed as a precautionary measure. In compliance with a recently passed law, she had to take a urine test before the surgery to make sure she wasn’t pregnant.
Previously her doctors told her it was very unlikely she would ever get pregnant again. Her boyfriend, Paul Strobel, had been in an accident that left him badly injured, and he, too, was told he wouldn’t be able to father any more children.
But the couple was in for a surprise. “They had me do the urine test and told me I was pregnant,” Katie says. She had them do a second test, then a third. An ultrasound confirmed the results: Katie was in the early days of a pregnancy she was told would be impossible.
There were concerns about the health of the fetus, given the rounds of chemotherapy and radiation she had endured, but Katie decided to carry the baby to term. Her son, Steven Michael, “a beautiful baby boy, was named after the saints, because he’s a miracle baby,” she says. “A couple of months after he was born, he had a rash and had to stay in the hospital, because they didn’t know what caused it, but the doctors chalked it up to his body reacting to my chemo or a unknown virus.”
When her uterus was removed afterward, her doctors confirmed that it, too, was cancerous, but the disease had not spread. Later, a few moles were biopsied and confirmed to be melanomas.
Determined to keep going
Today Katie keeps busy with her blended family of five children — her daughters, Elizabeth, 21, and Emily, 15; her boyfriend’s daughters, Emily, 17, and Sarah, 16; and their son, Steven, now 8. Looking back now, as a long-term survivor, she’s more determined than ever to share her story and help people understand that cancer won’t keep her down.
“I don’t let it get to me,” she says. “You can’t give up. If you give up, it’ll take you. Now I’m here with my boyfriend and our beautiful family. We have a farm; we raise our animals and we’re trying to get it where the children can have something they can look forward to in the future.
“The way I look at it, God gave me multiple chances.
“I keep telling my kids, ‘I’m here for a reason.’”
Editor’s Note: Cancer patient outcomes and experiences may vary, even for those with the same type of cancer. An individual patient’s story should not be used as a prediction of how another patient will respond to treatment. Roswell Park is transparent about the survival rates of our patients as compared to national standards, and provides this information, when available, within the cancer type sections of this website.