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THE ADVOCATE
Advocate staff photo by RICHARD ALAN HANNON

The Gallery Salon & Day Spa stylist Alejandra Kipf gives ovarian cancer patient Kelli Richmond her first haircut since chemotherapy forced her to shave her head. Her new treatment does not affect her hair growth.

Cancer patient relishes support, good news
Editor’s note: This is the third in a series of stories following 28-year-old Kelli Richmond’s fight against ovarian cancer. BY PAM BORDELON
Advocate staff writer

LOOKING UP

Kelli Richmond, 28, describes the past nine months since she underwent surgery for Stage III ovarian cancer at Woman’s Hospital as an emotional roller coaster ride. Several weeks into her initial treatment plan, her oncologist, Dr. Jacob Estes, had to deliver the news that it wasn’t working. He sent her to M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston where one of its specialists told her to get her affairs in order; there was no hope. Richmond’s inner “Kung Fu warrior” refused to believe that, so she pressed the doctors at M.D. Anderson to develop a protocol Estes could oversee from Baton Rouge. It involved taking the pill Cytoxan every day and six rounds of Avastin. In the middle of all this, her longterm boyfriend proposed and then broke their engagement. On what was supposed to have been her wedding day, Richmond got the best news of her life. “What I thought was going to be a sad day ended up being the best day of my life, and will forever be the day I found out I’m not dying,” she said, the enormity of that statement still not completely comprehended. Still, she confesses she wasn’t totally surprised by the news. “Since that second article came out (in The Advocate), lots of cool things in general have happened,” Richmond said. “God gave me all kinds of signs it was going to be OK.” That story, which ran May 13 (the first story ran Feb. 26), painted a rather bleak picture. But Richmond was inundated with calls, letters, prayers, e-mails and people coming up to her to wish her well. “If I could get a message to people out there, it’s that you reap what you sow, you absolutely reap what you sow in life,” she said. “I spent all my life doing for others, maybe too much, putting myself aside, and the one time in life I needed it in return … I just got such outpouring of love from people I haven’t seen in like 20 years — friends

Advocate staff photo by PAM BORDELON

Kelli Richmond, seated second from left, and friends celebrate good news from her most recent PET scan. Also pictured at an impromptu get-together at French Quarter Daiquiris are friends, seated from left, Renee Davis and Sean Byrne; and, standing from left, Sarah Godley, Liesel Batz, Chris Walker, Nicole LeGlue, Per Holmgren, Allison Shaheen and Matt McAlister.
from elementary school, from middle school, from high school, friends of friends. The number of my friends on Facebook jumped to more than 800. “Strangers come up to me in bars and ask, ‘Are you the girl in that article? I’m rooting for you,’” Richmond continued. “I found out I have a priest in the Vatican praying for me; people traveling to the Holy Land praying for me. People send me messages on Facebook that they saw me out somewhere but didn’t want to bother me — I tell them, no please come and speak to me. I want to meet all these people rooting for me.” Some people might find sharing such a personal experience terrifying; Estes even asked her if she didn’t find it scary. “Well, yes maybe, but I have gotten so much positive from the experience,” Richmond explained. “I don’t think I’m doing anything special. Heck, people battle cancer every day but if I can inspire someone to keep their head above water no matter what they’re going through, I’m just going to keep doing it.” One of those who contacted Richmond after the second Advocate article was a young man from Leesville. He contacted her friend, Nicole LeGlue, who organized the successful Assassin fundraiser. Touched by Richmond’s story, in particular her broken engagement, the stranger told LeGlue he wanted to make a donation. He explained that at one time his mom thought she might have ovarian cancer, and he, too, had experienced a broken engagement. Eventually he and Richmond communicated via e-mail. As she recalled, he kept asking if she had received his package yet. Well, as Richmond was headed out of town with friends, her mother, Patsy, called. “She said, ‘You’re never gonna guess what came in the mail today!’” Richmond said. The package contained an engagement ring and wedding band as well as an antique diamond ring his fiancé gave back to him when she broke their engagement. “He sent a four-page letter along with appraisal,” explains an
➤See RICHMOND, page 2D

RICHMOND

Continued from page 1D emotional Richmond. “He said he wanted me to use them anyway I saw fit; that he wanted me to have them so that something positive could come from his negative.” Still flabbergasted by the gesture, Richmond said it has restored her faith in humanity. “It’s the coolest story I’ve ever heard in my life,” she continued, “and I wear this ring (the antique diamond) around my neck every day to remind me there are amazing people out there.” Another of those amazing people is Richmond’s “chemo angel.” This anonymous person sends Richmond a gift before each chemo treatment, and right before she left for her trip to visit friends in Austin, Texas, she got a huge box. “I wasn’t going to open it but then I did. It had a 150 handmade cards from elementary school students,” Richmond said. “Here were all these strange kids saying they prayed for me every night. One little girl drew a frowny face on the front and said ‘This is you sick,’ on the inside was a big smiley face and ‘This you when you’re well.’ I bawled like a baby.” Then there was an e-mail from a former boss with a phone number for Sister Dulce, the nun who is credited with healing abilities. “I’d heard about Sister Dulce but I knew it was very difficult to get in to see her,” Richmond said. “But I picked up the phone and called that day. I told the lady who answered the phone the details of why I was calling and she said, ‘Oh honey, you need to get in here today!’ So, I did. I sat with her and she asked what I had. I told her and she prayed over the tumors. Then she told me, ‘You’re not dying, you’re scared you are, but you aren’t.’ ” Richmond relayed the diagnosis from the doctor at M.D. Anderson and, in light of that, yes she was afraid she was dying. “She said, ‘Well you’re not; you’re going to be OK. Your medicine is working.’” According to Richmond, Sister Dulce also sensed something else major was going on in her life. The nun asked her assistant to leave the room as she questioned Richmond further. When she told her about the broken engagement, she said Sister Dulce told her, ‘Honey, you’re going to find the right person to be by your side, even if this comes back. I see you getting

Advocate staff photo by PAM BORDELON

Kelli Richmond, who has gone blond since her first post-chemo haircut, shows off the ring sent by a stranger who read about her battle against ovarian cancer.
married. You will meet the right person and it’ll be after you’re cancer free.’ “Then she said, ‘You’re not over him, are you?’” Richmond recalled. “‘You will be, and a lot quicker than you think,’ she said and, literally, the next week it was all gone. I can’t even explain it — I believed her. I believe God puts people on earth to channel his messages. Everything changed when I went to see her.” The visit with Sister Dulce took place in April, right before Richmond left on her trip to California to visit friends. She lived in Los Angeles for a while after college. “I had a great time!” she said. “We went to some of my favorite places and saw the season finalé of ‘Lost’ at the Orpheum; it was really, really cool. I even got to see Big Ben (actor Michael Emerson) do an interview; that was really fun.” After a short return home, Richmond headed to the Austin, Texas, ranch of friend Danny Mundinger. She made the trip with mutual friend Matt McAlister, and they were soon joined by friend Amanda Hammonds, who drove out from Dallas. “Within a week’s span, I got to see California friends, Austin friends, Dallas friends, Houston friends, Baton Rouge friends,” Richmond said. “It was totally what I needed, to be with friends and away from everything.” Back from that trip, she headed to the beach with her family and, while she “definitely felt more at peace about everything that had happened,” she had two weeks of “emotionally exhausting” waiting until her PET scan to determine if the treatment protocol was working.

Meanwhile, there was another round of chemo scheduled. Two days before that, Richmond went to see Sister Dulce again. “Sister prayed over me and said she didn’t feel anything,” Richmond said. “This was the second time she’d told me that she felt very little (cancer present) so I was very confident it was working, but there was still this doubt, this fear that crept up on me.” Then came yet another blow. While chatting with a fellow chemo patient, Richmond learned that Estes, the doctor she was trusting to save her life, was moving. When the nurse came to check on her, she asked Richmond what was wrong. “I started to cry — he’s leaving, he’s leaving us,” she now recalled with a chuckle. “I sent him a text message and he texted back that he wanted to tell me in person.” A couple of days later the two met and discussed Richmond’s future treatment. He assured her that even though he was moving to the University of Alabama Hospital in Birmingham, he would stay involved in her care. But he added that he didn’t think that would be needed. “He said, ‘I’m not hesitant to say this; it has to be working. Four months ago you looked sick, now you look amazing; it just has to be working. You may not be all clear but you’re on the right track.’ ” Then came the day the truth would be known. It was time for Richmond’s PET scan. Estes arranged for her to have it done on a Saturday at Mary Bird Perkins Cancer Center. He even told her that if there was a radiologist on duty, he would try and get the results that day. Well, it took Estes until Sunday to get to his office to access the results but it was all worth the wait. “I was all packed ready to go to New Orleans with my cousins, Nikki Richmond and Alesha Hartsfield, when Dr. Estes called,” Richmond said, getting emotional at the memory. “I could tell by the way he said, ‘Hey,’ that it was good news. He said is was exactly what he thought, almost a complete response, just a little residual disease by the bladder — all the stuff near my spleen, liver and kidneys was gone.” While she readily admits she doesn’t think the news has fully hit her yet, Richmond did immediately go into celebration mode. “I was jumping on my bed, crying with my dad,” she recalled. “It was like nine months of getting your face

dragged through the mud is the only way I can describe it and there’s finally an end in sight. It’s like emerging from a dark tunnel; the scary part is you don’t know for sure what’s at the end of the tunnel.” Whatever is there, she didn’t let that stop the party in the Big Easy. Friend Amy Lowry joined Richmond and her cousins in New Orleans and they celebrated. “I rode a mechanical bull for the first time and I have the bruising to show for it,” Richmond said. “I also got hit on, which was nice. Now that my hair’s grown back some and I don’t look sick, guys notice me. It’s like, wow, people find me attractive — I’ve still got it; this is cool. “My confidence is back,” she continued. “I’m ready for the dating world but no relationship.” There are still two more rounds of treatment to undergo, which is actually four more chemo sessions two weeks apart, before what is hopefully the final PET scan. “If it’s all gone, we’ll take a break,” Richmond explained. “I’m not sure what that means, but I’m pretty sure I’ll have to be on some kind of maintenance treatment, but in two months it’ll be all gone and, if it does rear its ugly head again, we know what works.” The euphoria after the initial good news is tempered after a week’s time. The fear of the cancer coming back is beginning to set in. “My mom said she feels like she can breathe again, but I don’t feel like I’ve hit that spot yet. I’m still suffocating a little — I have gasps of air that provide me a little relief,” Richmond said. “The more time I spend alone … so much has happened in the past nine months and I finally have time to process it all — it all happened so fast. Now I look back at all I went through and I amaze myself … I can’t fathom how I survived all this. Thank God for my therapist, digging into my Bible and going to see Sister Dulce. “All heartache went away between her, therapy and surrounding myself with friends and family,” she added. “My sad days with happy moments turned into happy days with sad moments, into happy days.”

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