Cancer turned Karen Wehling’s life upside down twice in a single year.

First, her husband succumbed to side effects from treatment for larynx cancer, leaving Wehling and her three children despondent. Then, four months later, Wehling herself was diagnosed with stage four rectal cancer.

Wehling found herself being an unwilling participant in a startling reality: colorectal cancer is the second-leading cause of cancer-related death in the U.S., and nearly a third of all colorectal cancers are rectal cancer, which develops in the rectum rather than in the larger colon.

Finding answers

“There are people who are doing very poorly but have a great attitude, and they do better and have a better quality of life.”

Friends and doctors thought the pressure Wehling felt when sitting and the blood in her stool was a case of hemorrhoids. It took more than nine months for doctors to order a colonoscopy. The diagnosis left her feeling like a deer in the headlights, she said. Wehling questioned whether she wanted to live.

“I just had to decide if I was going to work for this,” she said. “Everyone has things that push them forward, and for me, I had a 10-week-old granddaughter.”

Wehling visited her granddaughter every day for a year. She had numerous treatments, including radiation, strong chemotherapy, an unsuccessful clinical trial and surgery. After the surgery, she had an ostomy for 10 weeks. She’s been cancer-free since.

“I’m kind of an anomaly because I should have been dead four years ago,” Wehling said.

The power of positivity 

She attributes her life not just to chance or some medical reality of cancer that doctors have yet to understand, but also her attitude. She learned that from her patients when she was a physical therapist before her cancer diagnosis.

“Your attitude makes a lot of difference,” she said. “There are people who are doing very poorly but have a great attitude, and they do better and have a better quality of life.”

Since her experience, Wehling has become involved with the Colorectal Cancer Alliance, becoming a patient ally and supporting others going through similar experiences.

“I’ve met some incredible people having this cancer,” Wehling said. “I’ve learned to take every day as a gift.”