Fargo couple both diagnosed with cancer in 2018
By Lisa Ridder
Keith and Paula Kolle of Fargo are strong believers in faith, hope, family, friends and each other. They are the kind of couple that looks like they were meant to go through life together. Their story is one of courage and hope, for better and for worse, in sickness and in health.
“Since meeting back in 1992, all of our life has been spent together,” said Paula. “Be it small events, going to the lake, or spending time in sunny Arizona, we have thrived on each other’s company and support. That commitment became legal on May 18, 2002, when we got married, but was brought to total reality in 2018 when in a span of four months we were both diagnosed with cancer.”
Paula was with her parents having dinner at the local VFW back in 1992 when she met Keith.
“It was ironically a few days before my mom had open heart surgery,” said Paula. “Just a few days later we visited her in the hospital and Keith was the first one to make her smile!”
Fast forward to 2018 when their cancer journey began. On Friday, July 13, 2018, after being extremely ill for a week, Keith was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML), also accompanied by pneumonia. A decision was made to hospitalize him immediately in an attempt to fight the pneumonia first, so he would be strong enough to begin chemo.
“Never in our wildest dreams did we think that 7th floor of Sanford Health–Broadway would be his home for the next 37 days,” said Paula. “He struggled along the way and had many bad days along with good ones. I spent the first few days completely at his bedside, but knew I had to fulfill the commitment to my job.”
Paula is a personal banker at a local bank, so she was spending her days at the bank and evenings at Sanford Health.
“After all those days we knew the menu by heart,” she said. “The only way he would eat is when I would be there with him. Finally in August he was released and was so happy to be going home.”
Each day brought new challenges.
“And most days it was a trip to ‘Roger’s House (Roger Maris),’ as Keith called it, for blood work or transfusions if necessary. It became his second home,” said Paula. “One of the most difficult things for Keith was staying home and not being at work.”
A few months later, on Oct. 21, 2018, Paula went in for a routine yearly checkup and mammogram. She felt fine and entered the appointment thinking she had no problems.
“My first call about my mammogram came a few days later telling me I needed to follow up with an ultrasound and then a biopsy,” she remembered. “But the real news came on Friday, Nov. 16, when I was told I had bilateral breast cancer. I felt like my world had fallen apart.”
In December 2018 Paula underwent two surgeries to remove the cancer. Her care team originally thought that radiation was all that would be necessary for follow up treatment, but after further evaluation, it was determined that chemo would also be necessary.
“I was devastated, but I knew if Keith could go through the chemo like a fighter, so could I!” she said.
Paula went through four months of chemotherapy and then a month of radiation.
“I got to encounter all the side effects... being sick and losing my hair. Finally in April my journey was complete and I got to ring the bell!” she said.
Paula’s father, Leonard Kirkhoff, has been a part of their journey as well. Leonard moved to the same apartment complex about eight years ago. Leonard is an Army veteran who spent two years stationed in Germany. Paula likes having him close by so they can help him if needed and look in on him from time to time. They try to include him in the different parts of their lives, making decisions together that impact all of their lives.
“He did not see me go through a lot of difficult days. I tried to stay distanced, as not to bother him,” said, Paula. “However, it was very hard for him to watch Keith so sick and wonder how he was going to make it at home?”
A short time later and in celebration for both of them, Paula’s co-workers put on a benefit for them.
“It was amazing and attended by many,” said Paula. “We were so surprised and shocked to see our picture on the giant electronic billboards throughout the community.”
Paula has always been someone who has planned ahead.
“My dad taught me to plan for the future but because of our journey I had to unlearn that, as there were and are only so many things that can be planned. Each day brings something new to deal with,” said Paula.
It was the hardest part of her journey, not being able to plan for the future.
“However, it’s also taught me to be strong,” said Paula, who has a sign on her desk at work that she got years ago that says, ‘BELIEVE.’ It is a reminder that even through difficult times one has to believe they can go on so they do go on.
As Paula and Keith continue to support each other daily, hoping for continued positive feedback from their respective care teams, they now get to add going through a pandemic to their life of challenges. Her dad recently turned 95 and while it was always her plan to have a large gathering, they had to make due with an immediate family only gathering as plan B.
Paula and Keith have not let the pandemic slow them down. A while back, they made signs, bundled up and headed over to a local North Fargo nursing home, intent on standing outside and shouting messages love and support for best friend, Patty Miller, who is a resident there.
“We originally went to the wrong room. There we were knocking on the wrong window,” said Paula, laughing at the thought of it. “But we eventually found the right place and cheered her on.”
Keith’s daughter, Nichole, has been great support through their journey as well. “I also have a friend from college that lives in Nebraska. We reconnected through all of this and she has been a tremendous source of support,” said Paula. She had breast cancer, too. Her husband also had cancer and recently passed away.
“There is no way in this world we could have gotten through that journey without each other,” said Paula, thinking back over the last few years. “We were and still are each other’s world. As he would look at me with no hair and call me ‘cutie pie,’ I knew there was no one else in this world that I wanted to be with more. As Keith said, ‘you can have all the money in the world but if you don’t have your health you don’t have anything.’ Our attitude is good, and with people’s kindness, love, and support we have made it this far in our journey and hope to enjoy more years enjoying each other! Everyone said we always did everything together. Now that statement is really true!”
Keith and Paula are both doing very well. Keith’s health gets reviewed every three months and Paula’s every six months.
“As I compare our life today with what it was like two years ago the word to describe it is… Grateful,” said Paula. “The longer Keith can go with receiving positive genetic blood testing, showing he has no signs of leukemia the better we are. We continue to pray that God will keep us in his sight and care, and have hope as we go through each day that our journey through life will continue.”
Their message for others going through similar circumstances is simple... “Have faith and hope and never give up,” said Paula.