She's beating the odds, thanks to her 'tenderhearted' oncologist
BY SUSAN KEETER
On an August day, Kathi Tamer and her cousins were making Lebanese string cheese. The process involves kneading hot cheese curd into braids and rolling them in caraway seeds. While they cooked, they talked about oncologist Stephen Graziano, MD, whom Tamer calls “hanoon,” an Arabic word for tenderhearted.
A 15-year survivor of stage IV non-Hodgkin lymphoma, Tamer, 65, is grateful for every day with family and thankful to Graziano for her health.
In 2004, Tamer had pressure in her chest and a cough but assumed she was having an asthma flare-up. Symptoms worsened, and Tamer thought she had a bad case of the flu. Her otolaryngologist ordered a chest X-ray that showed enlarged spots in Tamer’s lungs.
“You need to see Dr. Kohman now,” Tamer’s family doctor told her.
Surgeon Leslie Kohman, MD, ordered additional tests and gathered a multidisciplinary team that included Graziano and an Upstate pulmonologist.
They determined that the 60-plus tumors in Tamer’s lungs were not lung cancer, but cancer of the lymph nodes that had spread to her lungs.
Treatment was three intravenous chemotherapy medications every three weeks for a year.
It was rough. During her first treatment, Tamer had a seizure — caused by a reaction to the then-new chemo drug Rituxan. Graziano slowed the administration of the drug, which stopped the bad reaction, but meant that Tamer’s treatments lasted eight-to-10 hours. She suffered from nausea and lymphedema (swelling) in her right leg. Chemotherapy caused her hair to fall out, and she still has bald spots. For years, what began as a cold could put Tamer in the hospital for a month.
How did she cope with the lengthy treatment and slow recovery?
“You embrace the battle, you accept help,” Tamer explains, “and you add humor.”
She grins when she remembers the man who installed her chest port, a device for receiving chemo. He called her “Mama,” and they laughed that their families were like the one in the movie, “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.”
Tamer remembers the toy horse that her cousin gave her. “You’ve got cancer, but you’re strong like a workhorse,” her cousin chided her. “We’re the Clydesdale Club.”
Tamer drew strength from “Kathi’s Angels,” co-workers who took her to treatments and helped with chores.
Today, Tamer feels truly healthy and remembers a special day 14 years ago. Graziano teared up when he told her that the chemotherapy worked and her cancer was in remission. “Like I said,” she smiles. “He’s hanoon.”
This article appears in the summer 2019 issue of Cancer Care magazine.