Faith helped Watterson graduate beat childhood cancer
By Elizabeth Pardi
Fighting cancer is fraught with emotions and physical changes. But when it happens to a 13-year-old, it can be even more traumatic. It’s with acceptance, peace and even gratitude, however, that Carolyn Koncal Breinich, now 40, recalls her adolescent experience with leukemia.
“I’ve always believed everything happens for a reason,” she said. “Having been diagnosed with cancer was no different.”
Carolyn was an eighth-grader at Worthington St. Michael School when she was diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia. It was five days before her 14th birthday. Amazingly, she wasn’t particularly shaken by the news. “I went straight to the acceptance stage of, ‘OK, I have cancer. It’s in God’s hands now. Let’s just pray for the doctors. Pray for the nurses. Pray for the chemo to work.’”
Carolyn was actually excited about losing her hair, which is a common side effect of chemotherapy. “I hated my hair, and I was excited to be bald,” she said.
In her book, Faith, Hope and Cancer: The Journey of a Childhood Cancer Survivor, Carolyn writes that her mother, Mary Ann Koncal, believed her daughter’s excitement about baldness was a grace from God making her more fit to handle leukemia. That’s just one of the many examples of how the Koncals viewed Carolyn’s cancer in a positive light. “From the beginning, I saw the positives in my diagnosis,” Carolyn writes in her book. “(That was) because of my Catholic upbringing.”
According to Mary Ann, Carolyn possessed a childlike faith throughout her treatment. “She would think of the crowning with thorns every time she had to get her finger pricked,” she said, “and that was daily.”
Carolyn also managed to be one of the happiest, giggliest patients at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, acquiring the nickname “Pollyanna” from the staff, as she says in her book.
Still, the journey was incredibly trying, especially for her father, Ron Koncal. “Dad was known as the fixer, and this was something that couldn’t (just) be fixed,” Mary Ann said.
“Things are beyond your control,” Ron said. “You’re totally reliant on the doctors. You’re in reactive mode. It’s a real life trial.”
Mary Ann said her “mother bear instinct came out” during Carolyn’s treatment. “We didn’t let too many people in. We were appreciative when people brought meals and did things for us, (but) everyone reacts differently.”
Reactions from friends and family members varied as well, Carolyn said. “Don’t be surprised if the people you expect to be by your side disappear, and the people you’d never expect … are the ones who step up. You have to meet people where they are and not fault people for leaving.”
Someone who did step up was the hospital chaplain, Father Martin Ralko. “He understood me,” she writes in her book. “He brought me Communion, talked to me and laughed with me.”
Carolyn finished chemotherapy treatments during April of her sophomore year at Columbus Bishop Watterson High School. She graduated in 1998, and by 1999, was considered cured. “That doesn’t necessarily mean I can’t relapse or have secondary cancer,” she said. “I do have to get annual checkups and things like EKGs, blood work, MRIs and the fun gamut of things.” But for all practical purposes, Carolyn is a survivor.
“I want people to realize that even if you’re diagnosed with cancer, there’s still hope for you,” she said. “Having a faith in God really got me through it because I knew he was with me, and he had a plan for me.”
Mary Ann later became a hospital chaplain at Mount Carmel West, a path she said she never would have discovered if not for Carolyn’s leukemia.
Carolyn went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in zoology from Ohio State University and a master’s degree in recreational therapy from the University of Toledo, working in animal-assisted therapy, pediatric oncology and nursing homes. “I’ve always had a desire to help people just because of … all the people who helped me,” she said. Eventually, she stepped away from her job to write her book, which was published this year.
She and her husband live in a motorhome traveling the country while he works remotely in the IT industry and she promotes her book, which is available on Amazon. She also blogs at leukemiagirl.com.
For the actual article: https://www.columbuscatholic.org/local-news-11