Appendix cancer survivor Lowell Kratzer says he and his wife Chris feel they have a second chance at life. “While I wouldn’t want to go through it again, I feel blessed from the journey because I see life in a more positive light now and appreciate every day,” said Lowell.
“I’m not sure we’d say cancer was a gift,” said Chris. “But wonderful things came from the experience.”
After a long and difficult course of treatment and recovery, the Kratzers and Lowell’s oncologist think he’s finally put cancer behind him.
‘You have cancer’
Lowell was diagnosed with appendiceal cancer in March 2016. He was 63 years old. He says hearing the news felt like being punched in the stomach and having the wind knocked out of him. For Chris, it was almost too much to take in. Many years earlier, her first husband had died at age 33 of pancreatic cancer just a few weeks after his diagnosis. But the Kratzers had hope. The oncologist said Lowell’s tumor was low grade, and slow growing.
The diagnosis came after Lowell went to the doctor for an irregular heartbeat and had several tests to find out what was wrong. A CT scan revealed a mass in his abdomen. A colonoscopy revealed one in his colon. Further tests showed the tumors had started in Lowell’s appendix, which was removed during emergency surgery in 2013.
Although his recovery from the appendectomy in 2013 was complicated by sepsis, a life-threatening condition that can happen from a bacterial infection, Lowell had thought he’d made a complete recovery. He didn’t learn until after his cancer diagnosis in 2016 that lab tests from his 2013 appendectomy showed the presence of cancer cells.
Surgery and more surgery
Lowell’s treatment plan included surgery to remove the tumors in his abdomen and colon, and hyperthermic intraperitoneal chemotherapy, also known as “hot chemotherapy bath.” This is a type of heated chemotherapy treatment that is delivered directly into the abdomen during surgery.
Unfortunately, Lowell’s recovery this time was once again complicated by several bouts of sepsis, pneumonia, and other infections. He became unable to breathe on his own, and required a tracheostomy, a feeding tube, and a ventilator to keep him alive.
He had several more surgeries, including one to create an ileostomy – an opening in the abdomen for the passage of waste while the colon is healing. An ileostomy can be temporary, and later reversed. However, because of Lowell’s history of complications, he and his doctor decided against another surgery to reverse the ileostomy. They decided his would be permanent.
“It was a rollercoaster journey,” said Lowell. “I would have a good day or two, then it would get bad again.” Eventually, Lowell grew stable enough to come off the ventilator and breathe on his own, but he had to re-learn how to swallow and how to walk. “Learning to walk again was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” he said. “I had these little bird legs. I had to will myself to walk down the hallway. Then two hallways. Finally, I began to gain some strength.”
He moved from the hospital, Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, to a long term acute care hospital in Harrisburg for rehabilitation. In July 2016, he was able to go home. He was 55 pounds lighter and struggled to walk a small lap around his back yard. In October, he returned to work full time.
Help when it’s needed
Lowell says the love and support he received from Chris, their family, and the medical staff were phenomenal. But for most of the 66 days he spent in the hospital, he was barely conscious. Chris bore the strain of worry and uncertainty about Lowell’s condition. Looking for help, she found the American Cancer Society Hope Lodge of Central Pennsylvania, close by the hospital. The Hope Lodge program provides patients and their caregivers with a free place to stay while they’re getting cancer treatment away from home.
“I went looking for help when I thought I couldn’t do it and the American Cancer Society was there for me,” said Chris. She says staying near the hospital allowed her to avoid a long drive back and forth during a time when she was often upset. What’s more, she found a unique kind of comfort among the other caregivers at the Hershey Hope Lodge facility. “We went through things together,” she said. “I was coming back to people who knew what I was going through.”
After he returned to work, Lowell began having problems with his ileostomy. He became dehydrated and had to return to the hospital several times to receive fluids through an IV. In March 2017, he went to the emergency room with another bout of sepsis. He and his doctor reconsidered their decision not to reverse the ileostomy.
In April, Lowell had surgery to reverse his ileostomy and reattach his colon. The surgery and recovery exceeded everyone’s expectations. He was able to go home in less than a week and returned to work well ahead of schedule.
“We could hardly believe it,” said Chris. “We just looked at each other and laughed when we got home. We anticipated there would be setbacks, and there weren’t any. For two or three weeks, he reached to check his ileostomy bag, and it wasn’t there!”
Lowell has continued to have follow-up visits and checkups and has had no signs of cancer.
“Someone told me to stay positive and keep moving. There are going to be days when you feel like you can’t put one foot in front of the other, but you do." ~ Lowell Kratzer
In July 2017, Lowell and Chris spoke at the American Cancer Society Relay For Life event in Selinsgrove, Pa. Relay For Life events are held every year in communities around the world, raising money to invest in research and to provide information and services to cancer patients and caregivers. Lowell spoke about the rigors of his diagnosis and treatment. Chris spoke about her stay at the Hershey Hope Lodge facility and how helpful it was for her to have other people to talk to during that time.
They’ve also supported a Kentucky Derby-themed fundraiser for the Hershey Hope Lodge facility called “Race Day Soirée,” and a “Chocolate Tour” fundraiser for cancer research at Penn State University.
Lowell and Chris say they are inspired to reach out to others because of the help they received during Lowell’s treatment and recovery. Lowell said, “Someone told me to stay positive and keep moving. There are going to be days when you feel like you can’t put one foot in front of the other, but you do.”
“When you need help, ask for help,” said Chris. “It’s a smart thing to do.”