It’s inevitable. We all have our time to go. No one’s life lasts forever. But regardless, it still doesn’t seem fair when the ones that give the most and care the most are the first ones out the door.
Yesterday, the world lost one of its most brightest and compassionate people it had to offer.
Andrea Kabourek was more than a high school English teacher. She was more than a track and cross country coach. She was more than a runner. The way she lived her life was an inspiration.
Fittingly, I wore my “I can, I will” shirt yesterday and went on a five mile run dedicated to Coach Kabourek. Little did I know that day was going to be her last day with us.
Describing Coach Kabourek isn’t easy. She’s a million different things all at once. But to me, she’s the first person outside of my family who believed in my journalistic abilities, even though I didn’t make any journalism staff until my senior year of high school. She believed in me when I was a little freshman who was scared to death for her first varsity track meet. She inspired me to keep believing in myself, even though other people told me otherwise.
How? She did it all with poise, tact and a whole lot of humor.
Being diagnosed with cancer once is hard enough. But three times? It takes the strongest of the strong, the most determined of them all, to go through something as taxing as that. But Coach Kabourek did it with as much grace and tact that anyone could.
I remember finding out about her first diagnosis. It was 2009, my freshman year. She took her breast cancer diagnosis in stride. She shaved a her head into a mohawk and dyed it pink. Eventually, after her treatments started, the pink mohawk was no more and Coach was bald with pride. She let us write in sharpies on her head. I wrote “Keep Running, Coach” with a heart just over her ear.
She never once looked defeated, at least not at school and not on the track. She always had a a smile on her face and a just the perfect amount of sass and humor on her lips. During practice that year, she’d run too. It wasn’t fast, but she was running. That motivated me more than anything. If my coach, who has breast cancer, is running right now, I have no excuses, I remember thinking to myself.
I remember talking with her, the only female coach on the staff at that time, about how I was nervous for my first meet. I was a freshman who made varsity on sprints. I was the only one and I was scared. She told me there was a reason why I made it. If the coaching staff didn’t feel like I could handle it, I would have been placed on JV. She always believed in me when I wasn’t even one of her runners.
She didn’t let anything keep her down. She didn’t just talk about seeing the world from a hot air balloon. She went out and did it. She told us tales of her trips to Hawaii, Greece and Turkey. She told us she wasn’t stopping there. She was going to go to China. She was going to go to Africa. She wasn’t going to let cancer get in the way. And she didn’t.
My junior year, 2011, cancer came back. But it wasn’t breast cancer. This time around, it was leukemia. On April 1st, our coaching staff read a letter from her. It read:
“I am from the mantra “I can, I will.”
I am from beating cancer TWICE because I have an amazing support system of family, friends, colleagues, students, doctors, nurses, and total strangers.
I am from finding the humorous side of everything, as it is important to go through each day knowing what is really important.
I am from the Prison Ward at St. E’s Hospital, cell #505.
I am from decorating my hospital room in a prison theme, complete with a “Jail Sucks” blanket, various shanks and shivs, and a set of new handcuffs.
I am from keeping a positive self-image, no matter what kinds of tests and challenges are thrown at me.
I am from modeling how to deal with adversity—using the strongest tool I know: humor.
I am from staying focused, remaining mentally tough, and exuding confidence.
I am from missing my East High family everyday, but I know that you all will do everything in your power to be successful.
I am from believing that the four words, “I can, I will,” are much more powerful than the three words: “You have cancer.”
I did not want to have to start out fourth quarter dancing between the hospital and my home receiving chemo treatments for leukemia, but sometimes there is a reason why we need to face this obstacle. I know that I am here to show others that adversity and change does not have to be terrifying, and when you find yourself facing a difficult problem, you don’t just look the other way and give up. My job is to make each day a positive experience—a day full of laughter is my ideal. Certainly, the joke is that I am incarcerated in this jail cell (and will be for several days through the upcoming months), but the reality is that these four walls cannot contain me, my spirit is too strong and too resilient, and cancer will not win this time either.
Please know that you are always willing to contact me by email and if you would like to come visit me, I would love to see you. I will be alternating between St. E’s hospital and my home, as I maneuver my way through the rounds of treatments. Please email first to get my latest location, and if you do come to see me, make sure you are healthy, because my immune system will be pretty weak from the chemo. I love you all, and it will be very difficult for me to not see you everyday.
I love you. I’m sorry I won’t be here to teach you. I will be thinking of you consistently. But know I am doing everything in my power to get healthy, so I can return this fall.
Reading her blog, “Life From a Metaphorical Prison” helped us cope as she took on, and eventually beat, the leukemia. She posted visitors logs, updates on what she did that day and super random other things that kept her spirits high. She tried incorporating humor into every post. I think that’s what kept all of us, and her, sane.
Even though she wasn’t on the sidelines I remember her saying how proud she was of our 4×400 team that season. We made it to state and ran the 6th fastest time in school history. (I checked. No one has gone faster than us since.)
I transferred after my junior year to Southeast, but that didn’t stop me from taking in everything. Coach still came up to me after my races, telling me how proud of me she was. That meant the most to me.
In August 2014, Coach was diagnosed with cancer for the third time. This time her breast cancer metastasized to her lungs. I saw all of the posts on Facebook and Twitter. I couldn’t believe it. I thought that she had beaten it all already. I was in awe that it came back for yet another time. No one said it, but everyone feared she wouldn’t bounce back from this one. She held on for over a year, thanks to the chemo.
Thank you Coach for everything. You were such an integral force in my life for my three years at East. I remember talking with you about not making either of the yearbook or newspaper staffs for two years in a row. I remember crying in your classroom because, by not making it, I felt I wasn’t talented enough to pursue a career in journalism. You told me that if I really wanted it, I could do it. I’d find the strength within myself to make it work. Thank you for giving me that boost of confidence.
You were the strongest person I know, hands down. Cancer didn’t win. You did and you did it so gracefully. You beat it time and time again. Rest in peace, Coach. Keep running.
I leave you all with her last blog post:
“I went to the DMV last week to apply for a handicapped-parking permit. For the record, this is not where you go to do this—you have to go to the state building downtown. I didn’t have enough battery life on my portable oxygen backpack, so I had turned it off, making my DMV experience even more “life-sucking” than usual. On my way out, the “Nebraskans for the Death Penalty” accosted me for my signature. In my lack-of-oxygen haze, I didn’t reply back with something clever and witty, although I should have said this: “I already have the death penalty, lady: it’s called metastatic breast cancer.”
This morning, Brian and I went to the doctor, and we were faced with the same scenario: the [cancer] death penalty. Going into the appointment, I knew that I was running out of chemo options, and my deteriorating breathing convinced me that the current regimen was probably not being very effective either.
What I did not expect to hear was such a short timeline. Last fall, when I was diagnosed with “metastatic” (stage 4—spread elsewhere—in my case, mostly to my lungs) breast cancer, my doctor told me I had maybe two months to live or I could do chemo. Obviously, I chose the chemo route, and, in the meantime, I managed to live my life according to my true “I CAN. I WILL!” style—taking on new experiences from skydiving to African safaris. While it wasn’t surprising, since I have now been completely dependent on an oxygen machine to breath, I did not like the fact that my current timeline was cut much shorter—to a week or two.
Despite facing three cancer diagnoses in the past five and a half years, cancer has never felt like a “death sentence” to me. Why? Because even though there were a lot of lethal injections involved, I always had my “inmates” to back me up. I know that I am very lucky to have the best friends, families, and supporters in the world. I love you all.
I CAN. I WILL!