When Fitz Koehler wrapped up 14 months of treatment for breast cancer in May, she felt it was time to celebrate. Unfortunately, May was at the height of COVID-19, and she initially had to celebrate on her own.
“We had a little disco party. It was basically just me at my nurses’ station, with the song ‘Celebrate’ by Kool & The Gang and a disco ball, and I danced alone in the nurses’ station,” she says.
“My daughter and I did a little celebratory dance out in the main lobby. We uploaded that to TikTok for people to enjoy.”
Koehler, a fitness professional, has written a book about her experience entitled My Noisy Cancer Comeback: Running at the Mouth, While Running for My Life. It will be released to the general public on October 20th, during Breast Cancer Awareness Month. (Advance copies are available now on her site www.fitzness.com)
Koehler was at Walt Disney World to run in a race in late February 2019, and while in her hotel room, she felt a lump – even though she had a clean mammogram just seven weeks earlier.
“I just put my finger there and went, ‘Uh, oh’ and I knew it right away. It was a bean that should not have been, and I knew right away that it was breast cancer.”
“My gut instinct said, ‘Oh, here it comes.’”
“Within 30 seconds I picked up my cellphone and I called my gynecologist’s office, and they took it very seriously.” They tried to get her in the next day but she was out of town.
“I can relate this to what it must feel like to be hit by a semi-truck. It’s just instantly your life is launched into medical care. You know, just instantly your life is launched into medical appointments…and fear.”
She found the lump on a Thursday, had a doctor’s appointment the following Monday, and then a biopsy that Thursday.
“I can’t say my life fell apart, I was just launched into this medical chaos, where you just have to keep going, appointment after appointment. My doctors were very concerned about the rate at which my cancer was growing. It was 17 days from ‘lump’ to chemo.”
“I decided that I’m going to do this, and I’m not giving up special time with my children: if they have a special event, a sport, a play, a graduation, I’m going to be there, and I’m not missing any of my races, period, end of story.”
“I did make the decision that I was going to truly live, while trying to survive. And I think that was the best thing for me, I’m grateful I made that very bold decision because it worked out in my favor.”
“I never once felt like it was unfair. I felt it was one rogue cell, and that’s how a lot of cancer stories go.”
Koehler has taught exercise on television, has written books on exercise and healthy eating, and has always been punctual on doctor’s appointments and exams.
“I do all the right things, I am the Exhibit A of, if it can happen to me, it can happen to anybody.”
Did she feel this was somehow unfair, that someone so health conscious would still contract breast cancer?
“Comparatively, I wasn’t a kid with cancer, it wasn’t my kid with cancer, and it wasn’t one of the more traditionally lethal cancers. There was never a pity party.”
“There was absolute terror. I was certain I was dying for a little while, because it would have made too much of a tragic tale…but I, fortunately, wasn’t going to be that tragic tale.”
She does say her quick response illustrates what one should do if they find a lump or some other sign of cancer.
“Make that phone call within the first 60 seconds of finding your lump. Do not call your spouse, do not call your friends, do not Google. Pick up that damn phone and make the damn appointment, and I do prefer the word ‘damn’ be included in those statements because it’s that important, and early detection does save lives. It certainly saved mine. If I had waited to my follow-up mammogram, I would have been dead.”
“You are in charge of your own health. You are responsible 100% for what goes in your mouth, what you drink, when you sleep, what you do to move your body, and that was probably the most important decision I’ve ever made, was picking up that phone within 60 seconds, and making that appointment.”
How does she think the people around a person with a cancer diagnosis should react?
“Obviously, rallying the troops, and letting that person know, ‘I’m going to be there. I will do whatever it takes to support you medically.’ But then there are some surrounding behaviors people can adopt that will make life a little easier on the patient.”
“Try to keep things positive, that would go a long way.”
“Obviously, hair loss is a common thread throughout many of the cancer treatments. Don’t diminish the losses. I had a lot of people say, ‘It’s just hair,’ and while that was true, and it was a fair exchange for my life, it wasn’t ‘just hair.’”
“I loved my hair. I had long hair since I was a kid. It made me feel feminine and beautiful. It didn’t define me, but I loved it. It was, I hate to say insulting because I don’t easily offend, but it wasn’t kind for people to throw this out, while they meant well. Don’t be scary, just be positive, don’t diminish their difficult experiences because there will be many reasons to cry. I could fill up the ocean with all the tears I cried over this cancer. It was terrifyingly stressful to so many degrees, but I also smiled equally.”
Koehler gives massive credit to all the people who treated her.
“My hematologist/oncologist is Dr. Lucio Gordan, Florida Cancer Specialists and Research Institute; Dr. Cherylle Hayes with the Cancer Center at North Florida; and Dr. Peter Sarantos, who’s my surgeon. They were presented to me by friends who were in medicine that they were the A Team. I was fortunate to grab ahold of them, and I believe they are the A Team. They saved my life, and they were so great, so great in every regard.”
The first course of treatment was chemotherapy.
“It was very scary, the fear of the unknown, and while it was terrifying to walk in, I was also really eager to get the cancer killing show on the road. I would have started chemo in that hotel bathroom if I could have, because I didn’t want to die from cancer.”
“I showed up at 9 a.m. and I didn’t leave until 6 p.m. It was four different chemo drugs they provided me with, some of them took an hour to deliver, some of them they just had to observe me to make sure I didn’t have an allergic reaction post-infusion. It was strange, it was very strange. It was very strange to go from athlete to sick person and fall risk.”
Koehler says friends who had gone through a different type of chemotherapy described being left tired and kind of “mousey.”
“I thought well, tired and mousey, I can do,” she adds with a laugh.
“Instead, within a few days, my stomach exploded and I became actual chemo sick. I tried to be gritty. I thought, ‘I don’t need to reach out to my doctor and tell him I’m sick because I’m having chemo, I’m supposed to be sick,’ which is not the case!”
After one particularly miserable weekend for Koehler while at one of the races, Dr. Gordan came up with a way to address the sickness.
“My regimen became chemo, then I would have IV fluids every day for two weeks post-chemo. Interestingly enough, I would do this on the road. So, in Buffalo, New York, in Kansas City, in Orange County, California, I showed up and went straight in for IV fluids. Sometimes there would be a nurse bringing it to my hotel room, but I had some management tools to keep me functional.”
“I had chemo for fifteen months, which was a bear. I had five months of what we called ‘the mean chemo,’ and the mean chemo is exactly what it sounds like. It was horrible. It was every three weeks, I did chemo every Monday every three weeks, and after the six rounds of mean chemo they switched me to a different chemo, which was kind of like a sharpshooter. The original chemo was to kill anything systematically that looked like cancer or any quickly replicating cells. It did, it killed it all: fingernails, my hair, and my lashes and my insides.”
She then had surgery, then another, different type of chemotherapy.
“We switched to another drug, which we wound up naming Godzilla, because while it wasn’t the same level of toxicity, it was still very mean.”
“I wanted any percent chance at survival,” explaining that that’s how treatments are categorized, in terms of percentage of survival. “I said ‘yes’ to it all.”
“I also had 33 rounds of radiation between September and October, and I’m happy to say that was my most enjoyable, least stressful experience. I was one of the lucky ones who didn’t have severe burning or blisters.”
“It was insane, it was the Twilight Zone, and that’s why I actually wrote the book, cause when you get chemo, people think okay, you’re going to get tired, you’re going to get sick, and you’re going to lose your hair. They don’t tell you all the nitty gritty details.”
“A rash covered my face, and my fingernails ripped off, all this other weird stuff happened and I thought, ‘nobody tells you this, nobody warned me of this,’ and I actually thought, ‘this is kind of funny, people would get a kick out of it, so I’m going to write a book.’”
After fourteen months, the treatment ended.
“It was pre-planned, so my last day of treatment was May 11th this year.”
“When I woke up that morning, I was surprisingly giddy to be there. Sadly, because of covid, my husband couldn’t come, so I’d go it alone.”
Remember the disco party at the nurses’ station, and the celebration in the lobby with her daughter? Turns out they weren’t the only ones celebrating.
Neighbors welcomed Fitz Koehler home.
“They lined the streets with signs and balloons and pinwheels and cheered for me. It was breathtaking. It was absolutely incredible. When I pulled in the house, there were even more people waiting in my front yard, and all the neighbors came up the street.”
“I was standing in the middle of my street when it hit me, that it was done. I buckled over in tears for a little bit. It was wonderful.”
“I got to survive, I got to be there. It was so great, life is so great.”
While going through all this, how was she able to still keep calling races?
“Nothing but pure will and determination…a little bit of stupidity mixed in,” she says.
She says a long trip to Philadelphia or California would be grueling for a totally healthy person.
“I had many occasions where I spent the night on the bathroom floor, sick. Then I would wake up, and I would put on my running shoes, and go to my Startline Stage, and the second I stepped on it, it was as if nothing was wrong. Being out there with those athletes is like hitting my On switch.”
“All of a sudden it powered up, and I became Fitz Koehler again, the best version of myself. I really benefited from their energy, and the fact that I love and admire them so much. It’s just a pure adrenaline thing. They were my go-go juice.”
“I don’t know what would have happened to me if I didn’t have those races. Sure, it was difficult physically to do all of the stuff revolving around the races.”
“I don’t think I would have come out of this as well without them.”
Being a race announcer forced Koehler to let people know what was going on.
“I had no choice but to share my cancer diagnosis publicly. I’m actually a very private person. I share things on social media but it’s work, you don’t really know what’s going on in my day-to-day life.”
“I am in the business of health and happiness, not sickness and sadness. I didn’t want to share, but because I was going to have to step on stages bald for the next year, people were going to ask questions. So I revealed in a very uncomfortable video that I had breast cancer, and that’s still up there on my sites.”
“What I decided was to not tell the truth as I was going through it. I’m adverse to pain, and I’m adverse to sadness at all, and I figured if I put a picture of myself and said, ‘boy am I sick today,’ or ‘I have been hospitalized with blood transfusions,’ the big pity party would have rained down on me with a bunch of love and concern, but it wouldn’t have benefited the people that I care about, for them to know that I was sick.”
“There was nothing they could do to help me, so I actually put on a lot of smoke and mirrors, and a big smile.”
“Even on my worst days, my message was ‘this is great and I’m fine.’”
That lead to the writing of My Noisy Comeback.
“This book is really people’s first insight into what really went on.”
“It goes through those things that nobody tells you. I think people will get a kick out of them, and it will be very informative for someone who knows someone, or they themselves have been diagnosed.”
“I think anyone who’s been through cancer treatment will look at the book and read it and shake their head and go, ‘Oh, Yeah, been through that. You’re right, nobody tells you.’”
“The book is also a source of hope for people who are in cancer care. If you look at the bookshelves, there’s not a lot of that, they’re pretty grim…they look kind of scary.”
“I didn’t want to be scary. I told the truth, and I told MY truth, but there’s hope. We have a lot of choices as cancer patients. We get to choose our attitude, we get to choose whether or not we pursue our passions.”
“Of course my career is unique, but if you love gardening, find a way to get out in your garden! If you love music, play it all the time!”
“There’s a way to keep pursuing your passions, even in the worst case scenarios. Even when it gets really hard, keeping your family and your friends and your passions in your life is such a good choice, and it all boils down to choices.”
“Clearly, I didn’t choose cancer, but I chose the way I responded to it. My doctors made great suggestions, and I took them up on their offers for treatment, but the patient is fully in charge.”
“I think the book is really fun, and funny, and there are some sad parts, but my feedback from people who’ve read it is that it was an easy read and they couldn’t wait to get to the next page, because every high came followed with a low and a high again. I think I was able to take people on the adventure with me.”
“This book isn’t just for breast cancer patients. I had breast cancer, but there are so many universal experiences we shared with people with all types of cancers. People who’ve never had cancer will hopefully enjoy the ride. It’s a tale that’s informative medically.’
“There’s no romance in there, but there’s drama, comedy…and adventure.”
There may not be romance in the book, but as she reflects on life, there is romance with her husband, Gainesville Police Lt. Rob Koehler. They live in Gainesville with their two children.
“My life was charmed…I had made such good decisions and chosen such wonderful people in my life that I was incredibly happy on all levels.” That’s the way Fitz (her real name) Koehler describes her life, before cancer – and after.