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She's ‘writing her own book’ in a fight with cancer

Faith, family and a fighting spirit help Polo teen defy the odds

POLO – Kaitlyn Marschang has defied every medical textbook since her fight with cancer started in November 2018. 

After a large tumor was removed from her abdomen, the 17-year-old was diagnosed with small-cell ovarian cancer and given a less-than-10-percent chance of survival.

She underwent chemotherapy, the side effects of which nearly killed her, and now she’s in remission.

Her story just isn’t by the book, “because I’m writing my own book,” Kaitlyn said. 

The night of Jan. 12, 2019, Kaitlyn was taken to American Family Children’s Hospital in Madison, Wisconsin, with abdominal pains. Her chemo treatment had killed her bowel – a condition called necrotizing myonecrosis – her white blood cell count had plummeted, she gained 90 pounds of fluid and multiple organs were failing.

Kaitlyn’s mother, Rebecca, a nurse in Freeport, was told to gather the family at the hospital, where Kaitlyn underwent surgery on her large intestine, then nearly died, twice. She spent 3 months there.

“They’ve never seen anyone survive a necrotizing myonecrosis in 20 years,” Rebecca said. “Basically, her surgeon sat me down outside of her room in the [pediatric intensive care unit] and told me that, and said that she was defying all odds. That she shouldn’t be here.”

Kaitlyn’s father, Ray, and her mom stayed at the hospital all 3 months, taking leaves from their jobs. They stayed in an 8-by-8-foot sleep room near the PICU. Rebecca refused to leave the floor for fear that something would happen to Kaitlyn. 

Kaitlyn’s sister, Allissa, also stayed for 6 weeks, managing to do her seventh-grade homework and still get straight A’s. She decorated Kaitlyn’s room with get-well cards.

On occasion, Ray and other family members stayed at the Ronald McDonald House on site, which provides services for a donation. He called it a godsend. 

Despite the odds, Kaitlyn got better. 

“Everybody knew her,” Ray said. “We had doctors stopping us in the hall and asking us about her. She was the talk of the entire hospital.”

After Thanksgiving, Kaitlyn missed her junior year at Polo High School. She did some summer school before returning in the fall as a senior, starting off with half days.

When she was named homecoming queen, she and her mom camouflaged the port through which she gets intravenous treatments under her dress.

Community chips In

Support from the community came in the form of banquets, bake sales, benefits, and the sale of ribbons, bracelets, and shirts. “Team Kate” was on the signs at the Shell station, the bank, the grocery store and a downtown marquee. Casey’s made teal donuts. A GoFundMe account was set up.

Once her hospital stay was over, police, fire and ambulance workers gave her an escort back into town.

“This town is like something that would be in a Hallmark movie,” Ray said.

The first time someone came to the house to drop off a donation check, the Marshangs were too proud to accept the help, but they soon came to understand the community’s need to help, and to appreciate the outpouring of support.

“Once the checks started going out to the medical bills and the ambulance rides, it was a good thing, because we probably would have lost our house very easily,” Ray said.

The events of the past year have strengthened their faith. Ray didn’t used to be outwardly faithful. Now, his daughters say he talks about it a lot more. When things would get bad at the hospital with Kaitlyn, Rebecca would put out a prayer request on Facebook. 

“And things would just turn around, in sometimes 15 minutes, sometimes 20,” she said. “Everything just got better. And no explanation other than it was God’s hand in all of it.”

Kaitlyn said she had trouble believing before her near-death experience. Then she saw something while she was unconscious. It was one of the first things she told her mom about when she could speak again. 

“I told Mom that God came to me while I was unconscious and told me to fight it,” Kaitlyn said. “And I did.”

Planning for the future

Kaitlyn’s unique case and the aggressiveness of her ovarian cancer means she will have a tumor marker test monthly, and a CT scan of her lungs and an MRI PET scan of her abdomen and pelvis every 3 months.

Until her doctors are more sure about her cancer, Kaitlyn must stay close, and so plans to attend Sauk Valley Community College for starters after graduation. She wants to be a teacher.

She also helps at Centennial Grade School in Polo for course credit, where the children know her story.

“ ... I’m like a famous person to them,” Kaitlyn said. “Yesterday, I autographed someone’s art project.”

She has seen changes in her personality since November 2018. She’s no longer shy, and she’s a lot more outgoing. She wasn’t a hugger before, but she is now.

She used to keep secrets from her mom, but now the entire family knows all of her secrets.

She’s and her dad have grown closer. They went deer hunting this fall, taking time from school and work in a way they wouldn’t have before.

She and Allissa don’t argue over who is the favorite anymore. 

“In the past when they used to fight, we’d get frustrated and upset,” Ray said.

“Now, when they fight or Kaitlyn is doing something she’s not supposed to do, Rebecca and I are just like, ‘Well, that’s kind of music to our ears.’ Because we can still hear it. And we still have her.”

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