Barbi Walter’s Story
“For Sickness and Health, We’ll Get Through This.”
It’s late 2011, and Barbi Walter’s father had passed away a few months ago. She was stressed out, exhausted and still grieving. A friend from Barbi’s beauty shop had encouraged her to attend a women’s health fair with her. It was fun, but beginning to wind down. With her 10-year-old daughter, Molly, Barbi felt drawn to the Central Illinois Bloodbank semi outside of the event. Still thinking about her father’s passing, she had the sudden urge to show her daughter how easy it was to help people by donating blood.
Once in the vehicle, the phlebotomist that tested her blood came back, a small frown on his face. “You’re extremely anemic. I think you should make an appointment with your doctor on Monday.”
“I didn’t go to the women’s fair to give blood,” Barbi says. “But something was pushing me over to that semi that day. And I think back—I wonder if my dad was there that day, pushing me to go into that semi.”
By the time she was able to see her doctor, her blood levels had dropped even more. Her doctor, thinking it was a bleeding ulcer, recommended that Barbi see a hematologist. Tomasz Srokowski, MD, with Springfield Clinic’s Cancer Center ordered a colonoscopy. On Dec. 20, 2011, Barbi found out she had cancer in her colon. After a biopsy, her doctor delivered the news: It was ovarian cancer, and it was stage three.
Her treatment plan after the diagnosis included three rounds of chemo and then surgery to remove the cancer. Barbi lived cancer-free for almost five years. When the cancer came back on Dec. 2, 2015, Barbi did six rounds of chemo and had surgery again to remove the cancer. Barbi had a little over a year without cancer this time around. When the cancer returned a third time in February 2017, Barbi did six more rounds of chemo to drastically decrease the cancer. But the fear that it will return in full force is still there.
“It keeps on making us stronger,” Kyle Walter, Barbi’s husband, says. “To the point that I’m not scared. I mean, I get scared, but I’m not scared. If we were to get the phone call again: ‘Barbi, it’s not working,’ we would deal with it. We would go on. Because that’s just the support system that we’ve built.”
That support system begins with Kyle and Barbi’s three children and two grandchildren, who all live in Sherman. The Walters’ oldest daughter, Kerstin, is a teaching assistant for behaviorally-challenged preschoolers at Sherman Elementary School. Her two children, Dawson and Raelyn, get to hang out with their grandparents a lot since Kerstin lives near her parents. Kyle and Barbi’s two other children are twins, Molly and Zachary, and they will graduate from Williamsville High School in May 2018.
“I’m excited to see what they will bring to the world,” Barbi says with a grin. “Molly is so vocal and outspoken and beautiful, and I’m excited for her to enjoy life and make something out of it. Zachary is so intelligent and compassionate and soulful, I’m excited to see what changes he’s going to make in this world.” When asked how she was preparing herself to send her two youngest children off to college, Barbi laughs. “Well, it’s not that hard because I think when they become 16, 17, they become such little stinkers. It helps prepare you for them leaving.”
Dawson, who’s ten, and Raelyn, who’s eight, don’t know a grandmother who’s been cancer free. “They know grandma’s not feeling well, but they don’t know any different,” Kyle says. “Raelyn will see Granny curled up in a blanket and go snuggle her. Dawson will give Barbi a kiss on the cheek.” Kyle can’t say enough about how the family has come together in the long years of Barbi’s three diagnoses and cancer treatments.
The family doesn’t end there, not really: Barbi owns and runs her own beauty shop in Sherman, Barbi’s Styling Studio. She used to run her business out of her home but recently moved to a new space separate from her house. A lot of her customers have been with her for years and—especially since they actually used to be over at the house all the time—are considered part of the family to the Walters.
In addition to family and work, Barbi has a 10-woman friend group that Kyle had, at one point, jokingly called “a gaggle of witches.” The friend group took it and ran—Now called “the coven,” they have matching witches hats that they wear when they visit Barbi in the hospital. “I can’t put it into words,” Barbi says, “I could never put it into words. We’ve all gone through something that’s broken our hearts. To have that type of support, there’s no words that could tell you how those girls have made me feel.”
The coven’s support extends to Kyle and the rest of the family as well. When the women come to visit Barbi, they bring their husbands to hang out with Kyle as well. “These people have families of their own; they’ve got things going on,” Kyle says. “I cannot even explain it, what it means. They’ve been there since the beginning.”
In the beginning, Barbi was diagnosed so close to Christmas that she and Kyle waited until after the holiday to tell their kids. The day after Christmas, the family went to the movie theater to see We Bought a Zoo. What they didn’t realize at the time was the story is about a family that loses their mom and wife to cancer.
“We had NO idea,” Barbi says, laughing so hard she’s in tears. “Kyle and I looked at each other, he’s crying, I’m crying, the kids are just glued to the movie.” Kyle went to the basement after the family returned home from the movie. “I cracked open a beer and said, ‘What the hell!’ Her and I are laughing at how horrible of parents we are. You can’t make this up; it’s the truth.”
Barbi and Kyle encountered many moments through Barbi’s cancer journey that made them laugh, even in the middle of crying. Another significant moment was when Barbi decided to shave her head shortly after her first chemo treatment. As a hairdresser, hair has always been an important part of Barbi’s life. At first, she was going to have her kids do it, but then realized she might be more emotional than she wanted to them to see.
“Before I got sick, somebody would come into the beauty shop and I would say, ‘You should really take care of your hair, because your hair is you—if you have a bad hair day, you just have a bad day. That’s so wrong. So wrong,” Barbi admits. “I’ll never forget the day I first shaved my head. Kyle and I went to the beauty shop when no one was there. I sat down in my chair, and he took the clippers and turned me away from the mirror. He started shaving my head, and he looked at me and said, ‘It doesn’t look bad.’”
Barbi started to cry and Kyle turned her around to see her reflection. “I’m tearing up,” Kyle says, “And then she turns to me and says, ‘Does this haircut make my butt look big?’ And now I’m crying and laughing at the same time.”
“It was upsetting, but it wasn’t like I thought it was going to be,” Barbi says. “I thought, ‘Okay. Let’s get on with this. Let’s move on.’ I was without my hair for a long time twice. And I had great hair. And I realized, that hair ain’t nothing. It’s what’s in here,” she says, patting her heart, “not what’s on top of your head. I’m not going to sit here and sugarcoat it—but it’s not the worst thing.”
“There’s been moments,” Kyle says, “where we just—if you don’t laugh and you don’t take it for what it’s worth, it’ll tear you up.” He tells of another such time, the first vacation the family ever took together.
“Our kids were 10. Barbi and I were celebrating having her get through chemo. There’s a little bar that looks over the beach at Fort Meyer. Molly and Zach are playing out on the beach, and Zach comes back to the bar and says that Molly’s hungry, so we order them some fries.” Both Barbi and Kyle start laughing so hard, Kyle can barely tell the rest of the story.
“When the fries come up, we give them to Zach to take back to Molly out on the beach. What we didn’t remember was that seagulls like to chase people with food on the beach. So here’s this 10-year-old little boy who starts walking across the beach. The seagulls start bothering him, so he starts running, French fries flying all over the place. He gets to his sister, who’s laying there on the mat, and he chucks the French fries all over her and takes off running. So now the seagulls are attacking her, and once Barbi and I were done laughing at the bar, we go to check on them.”
Having been through diagnosis and treatment three times now, Barbi knows how important a good support system is for this kind of journey. And part of that support system is her care team at Springfield Clinic. “You get that diagnosis of cancer, and you just think that’s the end,” Barbi says. “And Dr. Shaffer assured me, ‘You’re going to get through this, and you’re going to live a long, healthy life.’” John Shaffer, MD, a specialist in gynecologic oncology now retired from Springfield Clinic, was Barbi’s first doctor.
“I think it was Dr. Shaffer’s attitude that instilled in her the positive attitude that helped all of us,” Kyle agrees. “He said, ‘You can beat this Barb. This is not a death sentence. And you will do fine, and I won’t let anything happen to you.’ She and I just looked at each other and knew, ‘We’re in great hands.’”
“Dr. Srokowski is phenomenal,” Barbi says. “I can’t say enough good things about him. When I ask him questions, he finds out the answer—and not in a few days, usually within 24 hours.” Dr. Srokowski has always collaborated extensively with the Walters’ doctor at Mayo Clinic, something that amazed them further and makes Barbi feel like she’s getting world-renowned care with her own doctor here in central Illinois.
“When you’re going through something like this, that’s huge, I think. It’s huge to have a doctor that’s not just your doctor but your caregiver. They’re not just doctors, they’re caregivers, and they have to be. Especially when you’re going through cancer.”
Kyle feels like that care is exemplified in how he is treated by the Cancer Center’s whole staff. “If we’ve ever had a question, we got the answer. You don’t know how important that is. It’s different for cancer. For example, the doctor is taking a blood test to see if your cancer is still there, and if it’s on a Friday afternoon, it’s like, ‘Have a great weekend.’ No. There is no ‘great weekend.’ It’s constantly in the back of your mind. You’re worried.”
“And Dr. Srokowski knows that; his office knows that. Nine times out of ten, we will get a phone call before the weekend to say that everything is fine, ‘Have a good weekend.’ And we are going to, because it’s not weighing on the back of our minds.” Kyle thinks this kind of attention to people’s feelings also helps give Barbi and other patients motivation to keep going with treatment.
Barbi has also had nothing but good experiences in the infusion room at the Cancer Center. She actually calls it her “spa day,” because she feels pampered by the staff while she’s sitting for nine to ten hours a day for her treatment.
In addition to attentive care from the staff in the infusion room, Barbi is taken care of by her husband and friends. Her coven takes shifts to make sure someone is always there to keep her company and bring her lunch. “I had 30 rounds of chemo altogether,” Barb says. “And I was never alone. Not one time.” Barbi’s extensive support system has amazed her providers as well. “I think it speaks a lot to the kind of person Ms. Walter is,” Dr. Srokowski says. “It certainly makes my job a lot easier.”
Dr. Srokowski has cared for Barbi through her last diagnosis and treatment plan. He was also her doctor for her first diagnosis back in 2011. “I learned to admire her,” he says, “I learned to admire how strong of a person she is and how bravely she faced her problem.”
That strength in Barbi is also admired by her husband, who has realized that while this cancer journey has had its awful moments, it’s also brought around lot of good as well. “We’ve been blessed,” he says. “I don’t know if either one of us would be the parents that we turned into. I don’t know if we would have been the friends that we are, if we hadn’t had to go through this.”
"I had the rare opportunity of showing my girls how hard a woman can fight against adversity,” Barbi says. “And I want them to learn from me; I don’t want them to learn from some girl at college or some actress—I want to be an example, and I want them to learn how to be a woman and live life through me. And going through all this, I hope they have and they’ve learned how to do all that.”
Barbi also feels blessed by the new friends and relationships she’s been able to make through her cancer journey. She’s Facebook friends with a woman who she met at a restaurant—The woman was bald, and on a whim, Barbi went up to her. Now they send each other encouraging notes and presents through the mail and stay in touch. Barbi never would have met her if she hadn’t been diagnosed. “You have to take some positive out of the bad things,” she says. “Or you wouldn’t want to be here.”
Barbi wants to be here. And despite the threat of recurrence in the future, she knows that she’ll be able to overcome whatever with the love of everyone in her life surrounding her.