Stories of Hope
Like the Daffodils, TV Arts Reporter Is a Symbol of Hope
Article date: March 27, 2002
"Basically we're all in this together. Cancer has affected every single person on the planet. Either you have it yourself, or you know someone who does, a family member or friend. Everybody has a cancer story."
The daffodils come back every spring, and so does Joyce Kulhawik, Boston's WBZ-TV arts and entertainment reporter, and a three-time cancer survivor. Daffodils and Kulhawik serve as symbols of hope in Massachusetts.
For 20 years Kulhawik has chaired the American Cancer Society's (ACS) Daffodil Days, a fundraising drive that supports cancer research, education, advocacy, and service programs. She has touched thousands of lives and helped to raise $10 million for ACS. Kulhawik is proof that one cannot only survive cancer, but thrive. And in making a difference to others, one can live an extraordinary life. Her energy, compassion, mission, and spirit unite the state of Massachusetts. She also testified before Congress in 1991 on her own cancer experience and the importance of increasing the budget for cancer research. She is a living testament to how early detection, second opinions, new treatments, spiritual outlook, and sheer luck can give wonderful odds. It all started in 1979, one week before her wedding, when she noticed a suspicious mole on her thigh and had it checked. A biopsy showed it was a malignant melanoma. She walked down the aisle with 17 stitches in her leg, which her husband removed on their honeymoon. She was 26 years old.
Lucky to Feel Symptoms
Ten years later, she would survive two bouts of ovarian cancer, luckily caught at the earliest stage. While practicing yoga in 1988, Kulhawik experienced high temperatures, chills, and intense abdominal pains. The doctors gave her antibiotics and two weeks later they decided to operate on her appendix, but were surprised to find a tumor on her left ovary. She was lucky to have felt any symptoms at Stage I. Ovarian cancer can be deadly because it is often discovered too late — there are few early symptoms. The doctors wanted to remove both ovaries, but Kulhawik held out for the possibility of conceiving a child. This would prove to be risky. In 1989, feeling more pains, she had emergency surgery. Doctors removed her remaining ovary, which was cancerous. Kulhawik continued to work while receiving six months of chemotherapy, surprisingly, never losing her hair. After her chemotherapy she insisted on another operation to make sure all the cancer was gone. "Once you've had something growing inside of you that's invasive and [you] didn't know was there, you are shocked into a whole new way of thinking, physically, emotionally, and spiritually," she said. "But I never felt, 'Why me?' " In the middle of a Daffodil Days campaign she was open about her condition to the public. She's a known symbol of cancer survival, and talks to thousands of people. "Cancer is very much a part of who I am," she said, "what my particular story is, and how I know what I know."
Take Charge, Gather Information
"It's very important to get a second opinion and gather as much information as you can," said Kulhawik. "That information is constantly changing, and different people at different times are in possession of it. You want the latest information you can have. "Buy yourself as much time as possible, because every single day there are new treatments, new drugs, and new therapies. So if you can give yourself a year, two, or three, there will be some new drug, some new therapy, something to get you through the next phase." Managing her own treatment decisions, Kulhawik discovered there are lots of different treatments for cancer and opinions on how to treat cancer. "That was an eye opener," she said. "I had no idea. I thought it was a black and white diagnosis. Well, it's not. I absolutely insisted on knowing all information, and making the final decisions about everything that happened to me. I think that's important."
Daffodils Celebrate Hope
The ACS Daffodil Days event has blossomed. In Massachusetts alone, 3 million flowers were sold this year. Every year for Daffodil Days, Kulhawik visits a host of schools from day care to universities; corporations; women's groups and arts gatherings; and hospitals, all who have proven their commitment to fighting cancer. In Massachusetts, Harvard University has the distinction of being the single largest donor to Daffodil Days, with the law, medical, and business schools raising $30,000. In hospitals she talks to medical staff and lingers with patients. With her husband she hosts research receptions featuring noted guests, such as Judah Folkman, MD, father of the concept of antiangiogenesis (blocking a tumor's blood supply), who received some early funding from ACS. She loves going to the schools. Assemblies of kids dressed as daffodils cheer for her, perform plays, and read stories how cancer has touched their lives while they raise money for cancer research. She reviews their work on TV like she would any professional production, adding a bouquet of daffodils at her desk. Kulhawik always finds a common ground with the people she meets. And while she encourages them, they are an important part of her extended support system. "Basically we're all in this together," she said. "Cancer has affected every single person on the planet. Either you have it yourself, or you know someone who does, a family member or friend. Everybody has a cancer story."