Florence Kurtilla was in the fullness of life - at the peak of her career, enjoying her children, grandchildren, and time with her husband, active in her church. It was all working for Florence. Until she felt a pain in her side.
"My husband and I were in the habit of taking a three-mile walk every night," said Florence. "It was our only downtime. One day I was really winded. There was pain in my left side - a different kind of pain. It didn't go away with Motrin."
Florence went to work the next day, but the pain was more intense, so she made a lunch-time doctor appointment. By then the pain was so bad she could barely allow the doctor to touch her.
"Before I knew it I was in the hospital," said Florence.
She had been invited to speak at an international conference in Toronto in just two weeks. "I'd worked so hard to get on the agenda. It was such a great career opportunity," said Florence.
She was involved in local industry associations, had finished her masters degree, achieved her certification in human resources, and was working on continuing education units. She was involved in getting people at work to participate in community action efforts, and was an active volunteer at her church.
"It was a wonderfully full life," said Florence. "It still is."
But it took awhile for life to get back to its fullness. After several days of tests, including a biopsy, the doctor came to Florence's room just before midnight with the diagnosis - colon cancer. Surgery would be the next day. She had no family history of the disease, no other symptoms, no warning signs.
"Once the doctor left the room I was violently sick," said Florence. "It hit me like a bomb. I didn't know what this meant. How long did I have? Did I need chemo? Would I need an ostomy bag? Would I see my children graduate? I have to cancel everything I worked for. Everything started crumbling."
The family gathered in her room the next morning - her husband, children, grandchildren - before the surgery. "They were all very upset," said Florence. "All crying or fighting back tears - to be strong for me. Personally, I was too afraid to cry."
Her brother, who was suffering from lung cancer, called from the East Coast, and stayed on the phone with her until they wheeled her into surgery. Surgeons took out two-thirds of her intestines and 11 lymph nodes.
Her cancer was diagnosed as a stage 2. It's not a death sentence - that's what her doctor told her. Still, Florence wanted to do everything she could to be sure she continued to have a full life. So when an oncologist told her she did not need chemo, she fought to get a second opinion, and took things into her own hands.
"I wanted to be sure I did everything as proactively as I could," said Florence.
She went through 26 weeks of chemo - half a year - while still working full time. She had chemo treatments on Friday afternoons so she'd have the weekend to recover. During her fifth month of chemo, she lost her brother to lung cancer.
Then, on the fifth anniversary of Florence's being cancer-free, she and her husband made the decision to place him into hospice care. He had been diagnosed with non-small cell carcinoma of an unknown origin that had metastasized throughout his body. Just a short two months after being diagnosed he was gone.
"Now you've got a real wild woman on your hands," said Florence. "This made me an even more intense cancer warrior."
"You can handle something like that happening to you, but you're really, really in fight mode when it happens to your husband, your children or your family. Once something like that happens - you become so determined that you will do everything to fight that your kids are never going to go through something like this."
Florence is involved in cancer fundraising and advocacy - as a legislative ambassador with American Cancer Society and as a board member of the California Colorectal Cancer Coalition (C4). She was also recently appointed to the C3 (Colorectal Cancer Coalition) Grassroots Action Committee.
"I never thought I'd live to see the day where I'd be pounding on the doors of congressmen, said Florence, "but there's a good feeling of satisfaction knowing that you're actively doing something to fight the disease."
Florence's words of wisdom: "I encourage people to pay attention to their bodies. Get checked. Work with your physicians and healthcare teams. Know your family history. Ask questions. Do research. Don't worry about being a hypochondriac. Follow your own feelings and just do it."