If you go
What: Relay for Life
When: Begins at 6 p.m. Aug. 10 and continues through the night until 11 a.m. Aug. 11
Where: Steamboat Springs High School football track
Contact: Marvin Lindsey at 871-4770 or Luther Bernston at 870-9675
Steamboat Springs When Kassandra Collins was first diagnosed with colon cancer nine years ago, the Steamboat Springs resident said the road to recovery started at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.
"I took a trip to California - I'm a big fan of scuba diving - and I thought a real good way to end things would be to take my regulator off and just dive down in the ocean with the beautiful fish and just have my lungs collapse and not be here anymore," she said. "When I got down there, it was so beautiful I just thought that there was a lot of life left to live."
Since that moment when Collins decided life was too beautiful to give up on, the 48-year-old said she has tried to live a life worth living. Collins had her first date with her husband, Steve, soon after her diagnosis, and they welcomed home their adopted daughter, Sienna, this week.
"With my daughter coming home to us, it really has all come full circle," she said. "It showed me that human beings as a whole are real survivors. This little girl, who was abandoned on the streets of China with nothing to eat, is going to have a beautiful life. I would never have been able to have this beautiful gift. I would never have met my husband and never gotten married. There are so many things I have lived since I decided I wanted to live."
The first diagnosis
Collins was diagnosed with cancer in December 1998. Surgery followed three months later to remove 12 inches of her colon, while chemotherapy and radiation treatments continued for months. She learned to cope with colostomy bags, wigs and an intravenous port, but what she couldn't handle was the feeling of being alone.
"The amount of chemotherapy was sometimes hard for me because I was by myself, and I drove myself to chemo," she said. "I was so tired. I had treatment three times a week. Normally, my treatments were pretty bad at the end of the day and I'd have to go home. I'd lay there, and I was tired and I was alone."
Collins' mother was diagnosed with breast cancer two years before her own diagnosis. Her mother continued to struggle with recovery while Collins
dealt with her own pain, but she later succumbed to the cancer.
"She was going through it at the same time I was," Collins said. "I suppose probably part of my philosophy is, through watching someone who had terminal cancer dying, is that I want to live."
At the time of her diagnosis, polyps in Collins' colon had not gone through the colon wall. She knew her cancer was caught early, and she had a good chance for survival, but she said fear was like an ever-present companion.
"I really struggled with it for a while," she said. "I had to realize that being scared did not help me recover. I have a choice every morning when I wake up. I would say I'm a pretty happy person, and I'm like that because I choose to be because I know being happy helps my immune system and being unhappy destroys my immune system."
'Something was wrong'
Almost a year after her first diagnosis, Collins said, her symptoms returned.
"I had blood in my stool. I had really bad diarrhea. I couldn't keep anything down for days at a time, and I lost 10 pounds in 14 days," she said. "I can eat very little and gain weight like that. I have to work out and watch what I eat, so I knew based on what had happened before that something was wrong, again."
Collins declined to undergo radiation treatments for a second time and hoped chemo and surgery would wipe out the cancer.
"I decided not to do radiation the second time because I was very sensitive to it - I had a lot of burns the first go-round," she said. "But, my chemo was not a piece of cake."
Her hair fell out again, to the shock of her two kittens.
"I remember being in the shower - dark hair in a white tub - and it was all over the shower walls, all over the floor, and I'm picking it up," she said. "I wrapped the towel around my head - a lot had fallen out after the third treatment - and I came into the bedroom, took the towel off my head and both of my cats' eyes got wide open. They freaked out and were like, 'Who is this person?'"
Collins, a hairdresser at the time of her cancer treatments, joked that being bald in her profession is not a trait that instilled confidence with her customers.
"I just embraced the wigs, and I wore really long ones. I wore all sorts of colors; I had fun with it," she said.
'I'm never alone'
Collins had a long history of health problems prior to getting cancer. She had a hysterectomy when she was 27, and has dealt with a variety of gastrointestinal ailments. Because of her mother's cancer and her own problems, she was able to easily address the topic of cancer with her family.
"My family was always asking me how I was feeling, so it was kinda an easy conversation to bring up - it wasn't a surprise," she said. "My family was my greatest support in terms of always caring and wondering how I'm feeling, what my latest diagnoses are. I know, with them and my husband, I'm never alone."
The addition of her husband to her life added an additional source of support.
"I have a great husband to go through this with," she said. "If I need to talk about it, we talk about it. If I don't want to talk about it, we don't talk about it."
Steve Collins said his friends and family questioned why he wanted to start a relationship with someone who might lose a battle with cancer.
"I just told them it didn't even factor into our relationship at all," he said. "I never lost faith she wasn't going to be OK. I never thought of the what-ifs at all. We lived in the moment and did our thing, and she ended up being fine."
The couple's first date was a ski trip only a month before Collins' surgery.
"Probably one of the greatest things about meeting him, getting to know one another and getting to know our stories, is that he never disabled me," she said. "He never made me feel like I was broken in any way or I couldn't do things : he made me feel normal."
The Collins' 1-year-old daughter snoozed in her room Friday as the couple continued to recuperate from their China adoption trip. Their daughter suffers from ailments due to malnutrition, which may keep them from walking in the Steamboat Relay for Life event Aug. 10.
"I hope to walk, but we are still settling in with our daughter," she said. "But I'm continued to be amazed by how many people you meet who are also going through a battle with cancer or know someone who is."
After six years of remission, Collins said her cancer sometimes becomes a fledgling memory.
"I think that, as time goes on and you hit certain milestones, you forget about it," she said. "You measure yourself by those dates and think about how long you've been in remission, As you feel better and better, you kinda slack off on it and you go back to living a bit more of a normal lifestyle."
Steve Collins was quick to counter that he constantly reminds her about her diet and exercise regime.
"It's really all about peace of mind," he said. "Once in a while when her system gets out of whack. I never think about it. I'm sure she will outlive me by many years."
Kassandra Collins added she's actually grateful she had cancer at a young age.
"It's usually diagnosed in people in their 50s and 60s," she said. "I got all my old lady stuff out of the way early, and I'm now going to live to 110."