All About Travel’s Kathy Sudeikis, alongside an illustration of Gilda Radner in full Roseanne Roseannadanna mode, is hoping to help open a Gilda’s House in Kansas City by year-end
When Travel Agent magazine decided to focus its coverage on breast cancer awareness, we looked no further than Kathy
Sudeikis, vice president of corporate relations for All About Travel in Kansas City, MO, who faced the challenge of the disease starting in 2006 and has been free of it for the past three years.
Sudeikis shared her story of survival with us recently, just weeks after she was inducted into ASTA’s Hall of Fame. The purpose of the award is “to recognize and honor individuals whose careers have greatly influenced the development and expansion of the travel and tourism industry.”
By sharing her story, Sudeikis hopes that others in the industry in a similar situation will learn from her experience of enduring one of the toughest challenges of a lifetime while trying to balance work and family life. Her goal is also to make the readers of Travel Agent aware of a cause she ardently supports, Gilda’s Club Kansas City, a cancer patient support facility, which is in the process of raising enough funding to open by the end of this year. (Readers can make contributions by visiting www.GildasClubKC.org.)
The foundation is created in memory of Gilda Radner, the actress/comedienne who became a star in the early days of Saturday Night Live and succumbed to ovarian cancer in 1989. (In an interesting connection, Sudeikis’ son, Jason Sudeikis, is currently a major performer on Saturday Night Live. Sudeikis has other show business connections; her brother is George Wendt—Norm on "Cheers.")
It is also our hope that by sharing this story with our readers, that others in the industry will find a network of colleagues who can support each other. If you wish to be part of such a group, please e-mail me at [email protected].
And now, for Kathy Sudeikis’ story, read on:
“Obviously, when you get a diagnosis like this, your world just turns upside down,” Sudeikis tells Travel Agent. “Like most travel agents, your thoughts go to the responsibility for your clients, but you know in your heart of hearts your body, your personal health and your family comes first. The balancing act that comes in to play is dependent on how you feel and how you respond to the treatment, because the fact is they are injecting you with really ugly things to kill everything around.”
The story begins almost five years ago. “I felt a cyst, a lump around Christmas week of 2005,” Sudeikis recalls. “There was nothing subtle about it; it was bigger than my thumb and high on my chest. I felt clearly that it couldn’t be good and I thought, ‘Well, we are going to have to take care of this,’ but then I decided I had a lot of other things to do because it was Christmas week.”
“No Clear Margins”
After the holidays, Sudeikis did visit her doctor, who sent her for a mammogram; while the results came back normal, the report indicated she had a debris-filled cyst that needed to be removed. She went to a surgeon, who had intended at first to aspirate the cyst, but then decided to remove it since the cyst looked like it would come out very cleanly. It was Valentine’s Day 2006, and after the procedure was completed, Sudeikis went to the waiting room and told her husband, Dan, that the cyst had been large, but that it was all out.
Still, a biopsy needed to be done. On February 17, Sudeikis’ cell phone rang at work. The message was simple: “I’m so sorry to have to tell you this but the entire 6.5 cm growth was cancerous and there were no clear margins.” That “no clear margins” was another sign of trouble because it meant there was the possibility of more cancer in her body, she explains.
Before even calling her husband, Sudeikis took a deep breath and stuck her head out of the door of her office to get the attention of a colleague, who had just undergone chemotherapy for breast cancer and was on her way to recovery.
“She was running round in a cute little scarf because she was growing her hair back in,” says Sudeikis. “I took her into a closed-door area and said, ‘I have just had this diagnosis.’ She hugged me and said, ‘It’s going to be okay.’ She was clearly through her chemo and surgery and on the road to recovery, so in her, I had a great role model for success.”
Seemingly within seconds, her colleague e-mailed over information on support groups that Sudeikis could reach out to. As it happened, there was a seminar that evening on meditation that Sudeikis and her husband decided to attend, rather than calling family members to tell them of her diagnosis. “They say it’s not good to give people bad news late in the day because then they have to sleep on it,” Sudeikis says.
At the meditation class, no one spoke of cancer; instead, the group of men and women lay on the floor and were guided to picture themselves in a gorgeous meadow with trees in the distance. If they saw someone or a group of people coming toward them, they were told to let them come and to pay attention to who they were.
“I was on the ground sobbing because what was coming at me was young Kathy, old Kathy, bad Kathy, skinny Kathy, vivacious Kathy and weeping Kathy and they were, all with their hands out, saying, ‘Let me help you.’ It was really intense. So I was open to letting people help me and I think that is what that was psychologically telling me,” she says.
The following morning, Sudeikis informed her family (she is the oldest of seven and mother of three) of her diagnosis. Because of her dire news, she was advised to have a friend accompany her and her husband to the physician’s office, where she was told that her condition was “deadly serious.”
After a visit to a cancer specialist and an oncologist, a mastectomy was scheduled for the following Tuesday, which would be followed up with radiation treatments.
She was also sent for a CAT scan, which, at the time she didn’t realize, was to determine whether the cancer had spread to other parts of her body.
However, before Sudeikis went through with the surgery, her best friend called her. The message was direct: “Kathy, we need to talk. We’ve already lost two of our closest friends to cancer and I cannot lose another friend. I’ve spoken to the research physicians at the University of Kansas Research Center and they know of your prognosis and your diagnosis and they know how really aggressive this is. They will take you on as a patient but they will not take any second opinions.”
“It was going to be either their way or the highway,” recalls Sudeikis, who didn’t hesitate to take her friend’s advice to visit Dr. Carol Fabian, a recognized leader in risk assessment and prevention trials for breast cancer, who already had a copy of her CAT scan from that morning and a piece of the tumor from the original excision.
“She was incredibly aggressive and lovely and she said she loved a challenge. She said, ‘Since the tumor had already been excised, I shouldn’t really be working with you but [as] there are no clear margins, you clearly still have cancer in your body and here is what I do: I don’t do surgery. I think women who are exposed to surgery right away are more likely to have anxiety problems, just because they don’t have time to cope with the decision about surgery.’”
Fabian’s method of treatment was to instead move ahead with a heavy dose of chemotherapy first. Her office actually hadn’t used Adriamycin, the drug recommended by Sudeikis’s other physicians, in 10 years.
And so she had a decision to make, whether to go with the traditional course of treatment or with Dr. Fabian’s. She wavered all weekend, researching her options on the Internet.
“During times like this, you are just back and forth, you are flying blind,” she says. “You need the resources of so many people and there are so many terrific resources on the Internet.”
With little time to decide, she made the choice of going with Dr. Fabian; within days she was in chemotherapy. At the end of each treatment, Sudeikis would be treated with what she refers to as “designer drugs aimed at stopping the blood flow to kill off the cancer.” The price tag was steep, more than $13,000 per dose (the cost has come down dramatically over the past three years, she now notes). She was also treated proactively for the possible side effects of the chemo, such as nausea.
“Many doctors only give you those things when those symptoms appear,” says Sudeikis. Bottom line? She stayed home for the first two weeks of her treatment, but the reality was, “I just didn’t feel bad, I felt like this was crazy. I mean I thought everyone in the office would think I am crazy for coming to work. But I kept thinking to myself I am a big chicken and when it comes surgery time, I am going to take time off, so I may as well go back to the office.”
Sudeikis recalls, “I wasn’t exactly punching a clock from 9 to 5, but I was responsive to my clients and since the retail side of the business allows you to call at crazy hours of the day, I was able to pretty much keep up with my clientele during that period of time, much to everyone’s surprise.”
In terms of balancing work with chemotherapy, Sudeikis says it all depends on how your body handles the treatment. “I don’t think you could be a corporate agent going 24/7 but I think you could go for a good four hours, not on the day that you get chemo or two days later. My treatments were three weeks apart and depending on how many weeks apart [they are] you can certainly do it. [And] it depends on the regimen, too.”
Following chemo, Sudeikis did end up scheduling surgery for a full mastectomy because of the original size of the growth. It was July and while it seemed logical to have the procedure done over the Fourth of July, she instead slated it for July 17 and took a weeklong Alaska cruise to help pass the time. Delaying the operation caused her some anxiety, but it was a strategic move since she had been advised by friends not to have the surgery in the beginning of the month. That’s because she was told that “at a teaching hospital, all of the new interns, residents and surgeons arrive July 1 and no one knows anyone’s name.”
The surgery was an ordeal, as expected, but her two daughters, who spent the night in the hospital with her, were able to find a bit of humor when Sudeikis received her instructions as to how she was to behave as she recuperated. “The doctors said, Okay now when she gets home, no laundry, no bending over to fill the dishwasher and lifting things up…’ My girls were just rolling their eyes up and down,” Sudeikis recalls.
“When you get a diagnosis like this, your world just turns upside down.”
Following surgery, Sudeikis was prescribed to go through 45 days of radiation treatment, on a Monday-through-Friday basis. “The process with lasers is so neat and precise, it’s incredible,” says Sudeikis.
Receiving radiation was much different from chemotherapy, which was more of a social affair, with friends joining her for the trip and her husband, Dan, bringing in lunch from Panera to treat everyone as they caught up with each other’s lives. In contrast, Sudeikis says that one tends to go to radiation therapy alone, since “it takes longer to drive to the place and put one of those little cape tops on; it’s like seven minutes,” she says. She suggests arranging to meet friends for lunch following radiation treatments to combat this feeling of solitude.
The solitude took its toll on Sudeikis, who recalls crying every day of her treatment. But there was another reason for her sadness. She’d realized that by committing to the constant treatment, she was tethered to Kansas City. In other words, she couldn’t travel. “That was the worst part for me,” she says, noting that it was certainly not her style to ever stay home for six weeks straight.
She did try to get around that restriction, but for a good cause. At one point, she requested for two days off from radiation therapy to attend the ASTA Trade Show. Her physicians were fine with that, but when she took a few more days off following the trip, she was reprimanded.
“I didn’t think anyone cared,” she recalls. “When I was going through chemo, they had walked me through the whole process and they had explained to me all about the surgery but then they just send you to this radiologist. I never understood what the radiology was about except that it was burning the heck out of my skin and whatever cancer that might be left.”
It turns out they did care because they thought she was dropping out of treatment, which was certainly not her intent. In the meantime, Sudeikis had other issues to address, namely the fact that she was losing her hair. Making the most of the situation, she zeroed in on a glamorous blonde wig.
“It was fun and really wild,” she recalls, noting that since then, she’s kept her hair blond. When she had the option of not covering up her hair loss in public, she decided against it because she was involved in a retail work environment. “I felt it made other people uncomfortable,” she says. “It’s one thing if you’re on the phone, but you don’t want to be out there selling and making people uncomfortable about enjoying their vacation. She does have friends, though, who went with the bald look to make a statement.
“It’s a personal choice, it really is,” she says, adding that she also made the decision for her co-workers’ comfort. It also let them know she was doing just fine. “Ninety-nine percent of the people are going to be really supportive, they are not going to know what to say, but they are going to see that you are okay,” says Sudeikis.
Kathy Sudeikis wasn’t the only one at All About Travel—an affiliate of BCD Travel that employs more than 100 people—who’ve battled breast cancer. Two of her colleagues were diagnosed with the disease at the same time she was. From an insurance perspective that was a challenge, but management truly stepped up and supported the three women. Management can be a tough challenge when it comes to helping an employee balance their life outside of work.
“I have always said that from a management point of view, looking someone in the eye in the morning does not tell you what’s going on in their personal lives. Statistically there must be so much trauma people go through, husbands losing their jobs, their fear of losing a job, maybe their kid is doing drugs, or maybe a mother or father has died. You can’t tell any of this by someone looking someone in the eye,” she says.
Such an intense radiation therapy experience did make her tired, and Sudeikis kept moving ahead with her life, planning her daughter’s wedding in her spare time. She says she considered at one point moving to a four-day work week, since the economy was taking its toll on her travel business, “but that never happened.” She did adjust her schedule, eventually finding the hours of 11 to 7 or 8 p.m. at night an ideal time frame to work in. She also worked intensely with clients online, admitting that once she gets involved with them, it’s hard to know when to stop.
A CarePage to Communicate
As she battled her condition, Sudeikis realized it was important to communicate with her family how she was doing. That was no easy task; the eldest of seven, she has 49 immediate subscribers to a “CarePage” (www.carepages.com), where she had followed a family friend’s illness.
“If it comes back, will I be as strong? Will I be as single-minded?”
“It’s a really nice, benign way to keep in touch with people,” she says. “I type something in and if you are registered, you get an e-mail that says you might be interested in Kathy’s update or CarePages. So you don’t have to check it every day. So, if I put something in, some people would respond on it, others would call and still others would want everybody to see it.”
Because she has no cancer in her family, she felt she was serving as a sort of guinea pig for her relatives to let them know what it was like for her. For this reason, she wrote about everything in the first person “so that people would have a point of reference about some of these things and know what to expect. And so I was really using it as a clarification and learning tool for the next person who might have to face a challenge like this,” she says, noting for that same reason, she tried to give very specific information about her treatment, including the names of the drugs that were used.
“It was really about being a little bit altruistic rather than trying to be a champion because I really would have loved to have had a place to go for this kind of info when I was struggling in such a short window of time,” she says.
While it was meant to update family, along the way, the travel industry got involved, since everyone was concerned about Sudeikis’s well-being. One ASTA chapter posted information about the Care page in its newsletter and others followed suit. Because Sudeikis had been traveling the world in 2003–04 to places like South Africa, England, Germany and New Zealand to speak to travel agent associations about how the U.S. travel agency community survived the commission cuts, her CarePage took on an international tone as those she’d met along the way started communicating with her through the site.
“So all of a sudden, I was getting these e-mails from friends and colleagues literally around the world,” she said, noting that the CarePage messages of support had a strong positive impact on her, especially when she’d read them late at night.
The icing on the cake was once she was in recovery mode, all of the postings from the CarePage were put into a bound book and delivered to her, which gave her perspective of the whole experience.
“I could feel the prayer, the love and the prayers out of those pages and the phone calls, it’s powerful, it’s powerful,” she says.
Sudeikis says the time after she completed radiation was interesting because the physician who so ably assisted her during her crisis did not have time to communicate a great deal with her afterward. For that reason, it was important for Sudeikis to join a survivorship clinic with others who were in a similar situation. Being in such an environment that provides socio-psychological support is of vital importance, she says, because research shows that such assistance keeps survivors grounded, and helps to prevent a recurrence of the disease.
“It gives you a place of hope and peace when you are scared to death, when you’re not seeing your doctor on a regular basis,” she says.
The realization of the importance of this dynamic has helped Sudeikis find a new cause to live for. She recently received some good news on her own health front; she’s been seeing her oncologist every three months for the last three years, since she completed radiation; in July, she was told she can now see her every six months. Just two months later she was recognized honored by being inducted into ASTA’s Hall of Fame. The purpose of the award is “to recognize and honor individuals whose careers have greatly influenced the development and expansion of the travel and tourism industry,” which, she emphasizes, she accepted not on her own behalf but on behalf of the travel agency. “I am just so humbled,” says Sudeikis.
It may very well be that same strength of character that got her through her ordeal with breast cancer. In fact, during the course of her illness, Sudeikis says, she never felt her life was threatened.
“I really didn’t; I always felt like this was a challenge to rise up to,” she says. “Years later, I am more scared than I was at any moment then. Now that the reality of the thing has set in, and you think, ‘Holy cow, if it comes back and I have to go through all that again, will I be as strong, will I be as single- minded?’ That’s a lingering piece that I think you would find in every survivor.”
Sudeikis says it’s her wish that by telling her tale she’ll instill hope in those going through a similar situation. “I hope this can be a good way to get people to have an understanding that there is so much hope and it’s such a miracle to be able to be treated in the 21st century and that there is no reason to look back but to just look ahead. You know, it is a miracle.”
Gilda’s Club, Doing Good in Radner’s Name
We checked in with Mary Linna Woods, board president of Gilda’s Club Kansas City, to learn about the Club and how it is helping people with cancer.
Gilda’s Club (www.gildasclub.org) is named after actress/comedienne Gilda Radner, who died from ovarian cancer in 1989. Radner dreamed of a place where people with any type of cancer could come for social and emotional support. She also recognized that when someone is diagnosed with cancer, it impacts the whole family, which can include close friends. Gilda’s husband, actor Gene Wilder, helped fulfill her vision by opening the first Gilda’s Club in 1995. There are now 23 clubs throughout North America. Each Gilda’s Club has educational programs, support groups, nutritional and exercise classes as well as a range of art classes, book clubs, etc…all free of charge. “Noogieland” provides specialized children’s programs for ages four to 12, and teen programs are offered as well. Because humor is a big part of Gilda’s Club, fun programs include pot-luck suppers, holiday parties, game nights and movie nights.
The mission of Gilda’s Club, Woods says, is to ensure all people impacted by cancer are empowered by knowledge, strengthened by action and sustained by community. This past year, Gilda’s Club and The Wellness Community joined forces under the umbrella name of the Cancer Support Community. While each affiliate has the advantage of being a part of a larger organization, each club has its own 501(c)(3) so that the money raised in each community stays local.
The Cancer Support Community and its affiliates were selected by Lee Jeans to be a charity partner of Lee National Denim Day. In addition to funding for breast cancer research to find more effective, less toxic forms of treatment as well as identifying biomarkers for earlier diagnosis, local affiliates will receive a portion of the funds raised.
“The idea for Gilda’s Club Kansas City was a vision of a colleague of mine, who became a member of Gilda’s Club Nashville after being diagnosed with breast cancer six months after moving to that city,” Woods says. “Anne challenged me to see that a Gilda’s Club was started in Kansas City, and four months before she died, I promised her I would see that that would happen. We have raised significant funding, hired our executive director, acquired a clubhouse and overseen the improvements of that space, thanks to a dedicated board and volunteers. With our recent phase of fundraising, we anticipate opening our doors early in 2011. We have a great central location for the metro area that will enable us to offer our great program to the community.”
Woods anticipates expanding the the Club’s range of people served, and working with hospitals and cancer centers to make sure that emotional and social support is being offered to all patients and their families.
“Since the Kansas City metropolitan area is so large geographically, we anticipate opening satellite locations in the years to come to ensure the program is accessible to as many people as possible,” says Woods.”Since each Gilda’s Club has the freedom to enhance the program to fit its community, we cannot yet predict what direction our members will take Gilda’s Club Kansas City in the future. We are looking forward to finding out, though!” —Jena Tesse Fox