If you call a Spectrum Health hospital or doctor’s office, chances are you’ll hear the sweet, clear voice of Kathy Shoemaker informing you of office hours and telling you which number to press to make an appointment.
Shoemaker, 57, has served as the voice of Spectrum Health for years.
“My voice is out there in a lot of places,” she said. “That was my fun job.”
She also works as an administrative assistant for health care executives. She would have celebrated 30 years at Spectrum Health this winter, in fact, but her life began mapping a direction of its own some time ago.
Doctors diagnosed her with triple-negative breast cancer in 2017—her second such diagnosis in recent years.
She’d first been diagnosed with breast cancer in 2012. She’d had a mammogram a few months before an August 2012 appointment, but she sought another evaluation after noticing a change in one of her nipples.
She saw that same symptom detailed in a brochure she read in the waiting room at Betty Ford Breast Care Services at Spectrum Health Lemmen-Holton Cancer Pavilion, while her mother was having a mammogram.
After a double mastectomy in September 2012, followed by chemotherapy and radiation treatments, Shoemaker’s breast cancer went into remission.
“Life was good for five years,” she said.
Always an upside
In November 2017, she noticed an uncomfortable mass below her rib cage. Doctors quickly diagnosed her with triple-negative breast cancer.
“Cancer came back as a third ‘boob’ in my abdomen,” Shoemaker said.
Initial treatment shrank the tumors, but only for a time. The disease soon spread to her bones.
At this point, there is no cure. Only treatment to improve quality of life.
Shoemaker now undergoes chemotherapy treatment every three weeks to slow the cancer growth. She said she generally feels well, apart from the bothersome bowel obstructions that have sent her to the hospital several times.
She remains grateful for the little things each day brings and she strives to find the positive in every circumstance, no matter how gloomy something may seem at a glance.
The thing is, there is always an upside.
Even to chemotherapy.
“I’m feeling good,” she said. “I don’t have adverse side effects from chemotherapy. I don’t have nausea. I don’t have a chronic cough. I feel very blessed.”
Shoemaker considers herself an active partner in her health care.
Before surgery in January to remove a cancerous mass, she worked with a personal trainer to build strength in her arms and legs.
She depends on her Fitbit to monitor her steps and she carefully reviews her test results and doctor’s notes on her Spectrum Health MyHealth account.
When she has questions or concerns, even on difficult issues, she isn’t shy about discussing them with her doctor, Marianne Melnik, MD.
And this is just fine with Dr. Melnik.
“I think patients definitely should be advocates for themselves and participate in decisions,” Dr. Melnik said.
Shoemaker has her sights set on her 40th wedding anniversary in July. Even if she doesn’t make it, there’s no questioning that she has made the most of her time.
She walks regularly. She meets friends over breakfast and lunch. She has plane tickets for a late February getaway to Costa Rica.
After her January surgery, she had hoped to recover in a Northern Michigan ski lodge while her husband, Terry, her two daughters, their husbands and her three grandchildren hit the slopes. Instead, she stayed in Grand Rapids for a second, emergency surgery.
Recovery has been difficult.
“Each day is a gift,” Shoemaker said. “And relationships become more important.”
Of course, no plans are guaranteed. That’s why her doctor encourages her to travel and live the fullest possible life.
“I say to do whatever you want as soon as you can,” Dr. Melnik said.
Life will even cede some unexpected blessings along the way.
“A while back, she was looking bad,” Dr. Melnik said. “So I said, ‘You might want to go sooner.’ But then she bounced back.”
Shoemaker, ever philosophical about life, is quick to recall the highlights—officiating a beachfront wedding in Hawaii ranks up there—and the regrets. (One notable regret: being too quiet about her faith.)
She said her cancer diagnosis has prompted her to live more intentionally.
One of her favorite quotes comes from evangelical pastor Chuck Swindoll: “Don’t seek more days in your life, but more life in your days.”
“Cancer hasn’t made me bitter, it’s made me bolder,” Shoemaker said. “When you are sick, people listen to you regardless of whether they believe what you are saying.
“I feel I have a soapbox—and I’m not afraid to share my faith in Jesus Christ.”