Kroll Battles Cancer with Positivity

Julie Kroll walked into Sturgeon Bay’s West Oak Street Pub with her husband Chuck and two adult sons on June 11, 2011 – her 58th birthday. To the casual observer, the evening may have appeared just another quiet, family celebration; however, to Kroll it meant much more.

Just two days prior, Kroll had been going about her usual workday at Little Sweden in Fish Creek, and in a few short days, she would be going in for surgery to remove a brain tumor. As the family celebrated, they took Kroll’s cue and kept a positive outlook, hoping for the best and praying that her tumor was benign.

On June 9, Kroll remembers feeling dizzy at work. She called Chuck to come pick her up, then sat in her car to wait for him.

“While I was sitting out [in the car]…I was real confused, and I backed my car into the building,” she said. “When I got out I couldn’t walk – I just fell on the ground.”

She had suffered a seizure, which she first thought was a sign she was having a stroke. Then, while her husband drove her to Ministry Door County Medical Center in Sturgeon Bay, she suffered another seizure.

The emergency room staff put her into an ambulance headed to Green Bay, where she underwent a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scan. The MRI revealed a small tumor resting just beneath her skull on the back of her head.

“I wasn’t really concerned. I could see the tumor (on the MRI scan)…it wasn’t anywhere where they had to go digging it out,” Kroll said.

Her doctors scheduled surgery to remove the tumor for five days later, and Kroll went home with anti-seizure medication in hand, feeling hopeful. The June 14 procedure went smoothly. Kroll’s doctors removed the entire tumor.

That, however, is where the good news stopped. Pathology tests revealed the tumor’s true nature; the doctors had removed a Stage 4 glioblastoma, the most aggressive type of brain tumor.

Kroll started radiation and chemotherapy. The chemotherapy protocol relies on five doses of pills rather than intravenous (IV) fluids. Laurie Pagel, spokesperson for the American Cancer Society, said many forms of chemotherapy exist and choosing pills instead of an IV is based on where the cancer is and the patient’s situation.

“Chemotherapy pills can’t be used for all types of cancer, but nowadays it seems doctors are doing it when they can,” Pagel said. “It’s easier – patients don’t have to come to the hospital everyday, they can do their chemotherapy treatment at home.”

One major drawback of the medication, though, is its potency.

The pills are toxic, so Kroll isn’t supposed to touch the pills with her hands. Instead, she must pour the medication into a plastic cup, swallow the pills and start chugging water.

Kroll is now in the midst of the second of six, 28-day chemotherapy cycles, and she’s been feeling surprisingly well so far. Kroll is finished with radiation, but still has four months of chemotherapy left.

As she sits in her kitchen wearing a green cap to cover the C-shaped scar on the back of her head, she tries not to think about life expectancy, glioblastomas and MRIs.

“I’m not lying in a bed half out of it…I encourage people to call or come over,” Kroll said. “People get scared when they hear this diagnosis…but really I’m doing as well as I can be doing.”

She gets sick on the first day of a new cycle, but side effects have been minimal.

Chuck opens and reads all the bills, taking finances off her mind as much as possible. Kroll said he has “been a rock,” driving her to check-ups, working and supporting her. Along with her husband, her sons, family, friends and employers have also kept her focus on what matters most – living with her diagnosis, not letting cancer define her.

She was angry at first, but shuns pity, never asking “why me?”

“I’ve lived a good life,” she said. “And I’m encouraged by others who have beaten doctors expectations. I feel really good right now.”

Kroll’s insurance through Little Sweden covered her for 12 weeks following the seizure, after which time she applied for an extension of her work benefits through COBRA, which allows people to keep their work health insurance, but pay for it out of pocket for a period of time.

But insurance doesn’t cover everything, and Kroll’s medical expenses have placed a strain on the Kroll’s finances. Both normally work two jobs during the summer – Kroll full-time at Little Sweden and part-time at The Ephraim Shores Motel and Chuck at the Landmark Resort and the Alpine Resort.

Used to working two jobs, now she passes her time knitting, watching television and sketching with her sister-in-law Sue Kroll. The two women have a friendship that runs deep, and Kroll said Sue has “been incredible.”

It was Sue who started a benefit fund at Baylake Bank for Kroll, helping alleviate part of the financial burden from the loss of Kroll’s summer income.

With Sue’s help and friendship, Kroll is able to focus on the things that she most needs to. Talking with other survivors has helped Kroll avoid dwelling on the diagnosis, putting her in a position where she can face her new life and not spend time wondering why or how this happened to her.

“After being healthy my whole life you start to think about what brought this on…but then how do you know? You don’t,” she said. “You can’t waste your time trying to figure out what brought it on.”