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Each day a gift, blessing for TDCJ employee who twice survived cancer

Cleere at the Relay for Life race with son and husband standing on either side of her
The love and support of her family, sons Chris, left, and Jason (not pictured) and husband Ron, right, have seen TDCJ Ombudsman Program Coordinator Kathy Cleere through two occurrences of breast cancer. “My family has been wonderful,” she said. “I never would have made it without them.”

Photo by David Nunnelee

Kathy Cleere is a fortysomething who in no way dreads the approach of another birthday. In fact, she looks forward to each one. That’s largely because at the age of 31, Cleere was diagnosed with breast cancer, a diagnosis that threatened to end the life she now so thoroughly appreciates and enjoys. In some ways, she even feels blessed for having had to fight the dreadful disease, not once, but twice.

“That’s one of the blessings of cancer, it really enhances your life,” said Cleere, coordinator of TDCJ’s Ombudsman Program. “The things you used to take for granted and the priorities that you used to have in your life, suddenly, you appreciate every day more. The older people get, especially women, the more they tend to dread that next birthday. But having survived cancer, you look forward to that next birthday, and you’re thankful for that next birthday. So for me, every day is a gift. Every day is a blessing.”

Cleere’s life had indeed seemed blessed in 1991. Then with TDCJ for 10 years, she was the happily married and harried mother of two young boys (ages 2 and 6) and working as a sociologist at the Goree Unit in Huntsville. But then came the day when “by accident” she felt a lump in her left breast. Her doctor immediately ordered a mammogram and took a biopsy. It came back malignant.

Cleere was caught off guard. Only later would she learn that one of her father’s two sisters had developed breast cancer and had died from the disease. Further, she discovered that six of her eight females cousins on her father’s side had also been stricken with breast cancer.

“When you’re 31 years old, you’re not thinking about anything like that happening to you,” she said. “You’re thinking that cancer is an older woman’s disease. You don’t really think about it until you’re going through it.”

On the advice of her doctors, Cleere underwent a lumpectomy followed by six weeks of daily radiation treatments and six additional months of chemotherapy. The treatments checked her cancer, but left her with lasting side effects that include arthritic joints and painful scar tissue in her lungs.

“The chemotherapy and radiation wipes you out, and their side effects stay with you the rest of your life,” she said. “Your immune system is affected, and it affects your metabolism forever. Still, I felt very lucky that the cancer was found early and that the doctors felt like they had gotten it all with the surgery.”

Over the next 13 years, Cleere underwent periodic check-ups, and despite some scares, she remained free of cancer. Still, she stayed anxious.

“Every year you always get a little anxious when it’s time to got back for a check-up,” she said. “It’s just something all cancer patients go through. You try not to focus on that, but once you’ve had cancer, there’s always going to be a fear that it’s going to come back.”

It did. During her annual check-up in early 2004, a routine mammogram detected another spot in her breast. And a biopsy confirmed that the cancer had, indeed, returned.

“It was devastating because the longer you’re cancer-free, the more you think that you’ve beaten this thing,” said Cleere.

This time, after consulting her doctors and family, Cleere opted to forgo traditional treatments and undergo a double mastectomy that was immediately followed by reconstructive breast surgery. She spent 12 1⁄2 hours on the operating table and two months at home recuperating.

“It was a tough decision,” Cleere said about her choice to go with the radical surgery. “But it’s a good thing I did because when they did the pathology on the right breast, I had pre-cancerous cells. So I would have had to go though (radiation and chemotherapy) again, anyway.”

Then she laughed.

“I guess the good news is that at 44 years old, I got an extreme makeover,” she said. “That was pretty nice.”

No follow-up radiation or chemotherapy treatments were needed following the surgery, and Cleere now goes for check-ups just once a year. She knows there is no certain cure for breast cancer, but she feels that she has taken its best shot.

“I feel like I’ve beaten cancer,” she said. “The first time I had cancer, my prayer was, ‘Lord, please let me live long enough to get my children raised.’ Well, they are 22 and 18 now, so that prayer was answered. And every additional day I have is a blessing.”

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