Kay Kuske has flirted with death from kidney disease and breast cancer. She says women can help save their own lives.
By Chuck Sterling
Published October 4, 2013
Kay Kuske says a kidney transplant saved her life not once, but twice.
The first time was on Sept 29, 1977, when her sister’s kidney was transplanted into her body.
The second time was when her kidney check-ups detected cancer in one of her breasts, resulting in a modified radical mastectomy in September 1990.
As the 20th anniversary of the transplant approaches, she urges other women to take life-saving action against breast cancer by having regular mammograms.
And she mourns two sisters-one of them the kidney donor-who learned too late about their cancers.
“I never in all of God’s world thought I would still be here 20 years later,” she says.
Kuske describes herself as a “behind-the-scenes” person, who shuns the spotlight.
But she decided to discuss the transplant and reveal her bout with breast cancer in order to promote mammograms.
She says women should have regular mammograms and do breast self-examination.
“They should have a baseline, or first, mammogram at age 40 or earlier if there’s a family history of the disease,” Kuske says. “Absolutely, that could save their lives.”
“There’s no doubt in my mind I would have been dead by the time I was 52 without the kidney transplant, because that was the motivation for taking care of myself. And if not for the checkups, the cancer wouldn’t have been detected in time,” she said.
After removal of the diseased breast, she told her sisters, Donna and Phillis, the kidney donor. “It was too late for them.” They already had the cancer. Donna’s was in both breasts and Phillis’ originated in the remaining kidney.
Kuske said she wanted to give the transplanted kidney back to Phillis, but by then the cancer had spread throughout her sister’s body.
Donna, four years older than Kuske, died in March 1992; Phillis, two years older than Kay, died in May 1992.
“With them gone all of my childhood memories are gone,” says Kuske, who was the third oldest in a family of eight.
Kuske’s family observes the transplant anniversary each year.
Her doctor told Kuske in January 1970 that she had chronic glomerulonephritis and needed a kidney transplant. Doctors told her she had three to five years to live.
“I was determined I had to get my babies grown up in case my time was up,” she said. The youngest of her children were ages nine and seven at the time.
Kay and husband, Richard had health insurance until the company learned she needed a kidney transplant and canceled the policy on a technicality.
But the New England Lions Club came to the rescue to spearhead a fund-raising drive among city organizations that ultimately collected more than $13,000 for the operation.
“I still feel I need to pay back, Kuske says, “since everybody was so good to me.”
She’s worked as a home health aide for more than 14 years and says she tries to give something back through her job and volunteer work.
By the time the transplant took place at University of Minnesota Hospital in Minneapolis, her fright was over and it was “nothing but relief,” Kuske said.
She shows off a log book she’s kept since the transplant. Some entries: “One year today. Thank you Lord.” and “Thank you for another beautiful year.”
Kuske takes anti-rejection medication and still has blood tests every three months. She’s two years away from another five-year checkup.
She says she’s in good health, but her biggest fear is that the cancer will come back.
That fear bothered her until “I just finally had to let it go and give it to God and live every day the best I could.”
Kuske agrees she’s a survivor two times over.
“I’ve had a third chance at life,” she said. “I’m a firm, firm believer in the power of positive thinking. I’m a hopeless optimist.”
Editor’s Note: Although this article was written 16 years ago, Kay continues to be the hopeless optimist which inspires everyone in her presence. Happy Anniversary Kay.