“Cancer is not fun,” is an almost obscene understatement. Kayla Redig knows that first hand because she’s been battling breast cancer since last May, but she doesn’t care; she’s made beating her cancer fun instead.
Redig, 25, is an Evanston resident, a fifth-grade teacher at Baker Demonstration School in Wilmette, a devoted Chicago Blackhawks fan and a young woman whose devoted family and many friends describe her as inventive, loving, funny, creative, brave and generous.
She’s used all those attributes in her fight, and called on friends and family to help her. Last week, she closed out the second phase of her anti-cancer campaign by celebrating the last of 16 chemo treatments she needed before having a double-mastectomy next month.
That’s right; celebrating.
Redig had her final chemo treatment Oct. 10 at the Kellogg Cancer Center at NorthShore Evanston Hospital while wearing a Blackhawks jersey, surrounded by friends, family – and hospital staff – similarly decked out. She arrived with boxes of gift bags to give to her Kellogg team, from front door greeters and registration desk staff through her nurses and doctors.
Her walk to the center from Baker, less than two blocks north of the hospital, was a triumphant procession of students and fellow teachers, all of them cheering her on with cries of “We love you, Miss Redig” and “Beat cancer!” Tommy Hawk, the Blackhawks’ mascot helped escort Redig with strains of “Chelsea Dagger” as accompaniment.
The cheers, the high-fives and hugs that Redig got and gave started even before that, in the classroom she shares with teacher Sarah Milo. Her students dressed in Hawks’ jerseys and pink kerchiefs to commemorate her cancer fight; they screamed with surprise and joy when Tommy Hawk showed up to embrace an equally surprised Redig.
It was all part of Redig’s self-created “Theme-O” campaign; weekly themes to help get her through the last six weeks of chemo.
“I said to my family from the get-go, ‘Don’t let me hate chemo, because it’s going to save my life,’” Redig said, explaining Theme-O as she perched on her hospital bed awaiting treatment.
She meant that. Cancer’s all too familiar to her family, since her mother battled it and one grandmother succumbed to it. Redig started treatment in May, less than a month after she’d started feeling physically “off,” then discovered a lump on her left breast during a self examination.
Then, despite assurances from friends and even the doctors she promptly went to (“They said, ‘Don’t worry. You’re too young to get breast cancer’”) she got the bad news.
“Your life changes in a couple of days,” she said.
Redig didn’t shrink from the aggressive treatment regimen, but her first round of chemo treatments laid her flat with nausea, weakness and hair loss.
“I felt a type of terrible I’ve never felt before and hope never to feel again.” Knowing treatment would save her didn’t stop her from dreading them, and that’s when she came up with “Theme-O” as a way to battle her own dread.
She started with a heroic splash, wearing a Spider-man costume to kick off her superhero-themed chemo date. In subsequent weeks, she and the family and friends who always came with her to treatment wore mustaches for another week’s theme. She and they dressed up in 80s fashions for another treatment and Redig looked glorious in a startlingly pink prom dress for a “prom week”-themed treatment, before donning her hockey jersey for her final appointment.
Well before that, Baker colleagues and students picked up on Theme-O, joining her other support team members in the costumed fun.
“Kayla’s very infectious in her energy, and Baker’s a close community,” Baker advancement director Addie Goodman said Oct. 10. “This is about community coming together to help one of our own.”
Redig’s attitude helped assure students of her well-being, despite her hair loss and frequent absences from school. That, too, was important for Redig, a Downer’s Grove native who fell in love with teaching, graduated from the University of Illinois Chicago, taught briefly in California, then returned to Illinois in 2012 to join Baker as an associate teacher.
“The kids have been fantastic. It’s hard to be upset around children; when I’ve had tough days, they’d give me little signs and (have) been so understanding,” Redig said. “They’re one of my biggest gifts.”
Dr. Katharine Yao is a surgical oncologist with NorthShore Evanston Hospital, and part of Redig’s treatment team, along with oncologist Dr. Teresa Law and nurse Ellen Mosak, who calls Redig “an amazing young woman, an amazing role model.”
Yao said Redig’s quick response to finding a lump on her breast was key to effectively treating the cancer. So, too, was her support system, Yao said: “I think if she didn’t have that support, she might not have made it through the entire treatment.”
Redig’s parents Tom and Patty Redig were key to that. When they learned she had cancer, they moved back to Illinois from the home they’d made in Arizona in order to support her through her treatment.
Tom Redig was at the Kellogg Center to greet her when she arrived, and talked about his daughter’s experience.
“This is probably the worst thing that has happened in her life,” he said, his voice wobbling a bit. “But through it has come something that’s one of the best things … What you see here are God’s people rallying around her,” he said. “I keep it in my heart, but how can you put it into words? There’s so much care for her and so much love.”
In the coming weeks, his daughter will undergo major surgery, then a round of radiation and medical follow-up for the rest of her life. It’s not the life she expected, but the support she’s received, and her strategically cheerful response to a medical sentence she couldn’t evade have given her an unexpected gift, Kayla Redig said.
“It’s made me feel that cancer is so small when the love around you is so big.”