WHITEFISH – When facing down a dragon, the archetypical hero tends to choose the sharpest sword, strongest shield and shining armor. In Kelsey Timothy’s case, she’s calling on her own dragons to back her up in battle.
Because for Kelsey, 25, the beast she’s fighting lies within her brain, a cancer woven into her gray matter and growing at an unpredictable rate: glioblastoma multiforme (GBM). It is an aggressive and deadly form of brain cancer, malignant and deeply invasive.
It rarely strikes young women, Kelsey notes while sitting on the back deck at a Whitefish bakery. She has short, sand-colored hair, the front of which is covered by a pretty headband. While stylish, the headband also serves another purpose: it covers the scar from her craniotomy, during which surgeons cut open her skull to remove the cancerous tumors.
Kelsey is straightforward about her battle. She has a sense of dry humor, constantly cracking jokes at her cancer’s expense and, sometimes, aiming at her mother, Betsy Funk, who sits across from her on this August afternoon.
It’s all in good fun, though, and they both laugh when Kelsey playfully harasses her mom for being too sentimental. Betsy asserts that it’s her job as a mom to get worked up about her daughter’s diagnosis, which caught her off guard.
“I was spinning,” Betsy says.
But the spinning quickly turned to a call for action, to raise money for her daughter’s medical bills, because that’s something she could do.
“You do what you can,” Betsy adds.
That’s where the dragons come in. To help combat the monster in Kelsey’s head, Betsy has organized two dragon boats in the upcoming races to raise money for Kelsey’s GBM fund and to raise awareness for brain cancer.
The Montana Dragon Boat Festival takes place at the Flathead Lake Lodge on Sept. 8. The event will feature over 50 teams comprised of 22 people paddling boats over 40 feet long, adorned with dragon heads and tails.
The festival is expected to draw over 1,000 people to the area. Entry for Kelsey’s boats, each costing $400 to enter, was financed through donations. There are also T-shirts supporting her fund.
“Do you know what color the brain cancer awareness ribbon is?” Kelsey asks a visiting reporter.
When the reporter doesn’t answer immediately, Betsy chimes in, “It’s gray.”
“Mom, I was having her guess!” Kelsey says. She’s trying to make a point, that everyone knows that pink ribbons mean breast cancer and that cancer usually affects children or older people.
“There’s another group of people who get cancer,” Kelsey remarks.
Young adults with cancer, especially types that affect the brain, rarely get any play in the press, she says. According to the National Cancer Institute, 70,000 adolescents and young adults, ages 15 through 39, are diagnosed with cancer each year. Kelsey’s diagnosis is extremely rare; the average age for people with brain and nervous system cancers is 57.
The possibility of brain cancer wasn’t a thought in her mind when she and her boyfriend were visiting from Bozeman during the Whitefish Winter Carnival. They were walking home when Kelsey slipped and hit her head.
Worried about a potential concussion, she went to the hospital.
“They said, ‘No concussion, but there’s something else,’” Kelsey says.
In two weeks, she found out she had stage-4 cancer and had the craniotomy, with her medical team informing her she has a 12 percent chance of living for two years. That’s a lot for a young woman to take, she remarks.
“You take it really hard, like being punched in the face,” she said.
Since then, she’s been on the offense with chemotherapy and radiation treatments, and back at work at Montana Coffee Traders for three months now, while Betsy has transformed into a fundraising machine. Kelsey tells about getting massive medical bills – $24,000 at one point and $40,000 at another – which she hangs on her fridge.
“Cancer is debilitatingly expensive,” Betsy says.
Kelsey is on Betsy’s health insurance until April. After that, neither is quite sure what will transpire, so they might as well start raising money now, Betsy says. And, in true Flathead Valley fashion, the community has responded with exceeding generosity, they say.
But more than finances, Kelsey is interested in getting her story out there to put a face on a disease many don’t know exists. People don’t like to talk about brain cancer because it kills people, she says, and while that’s scary, it’s still a reality.
“It’s terrifying. I’m terrified because I’m 25 and I want to get married and have 20 babies,” Kelsey says, her sense of humor once again smoothing over deeper, rougher feelings.
“OK, maybe not 20,” she adds, smiling. “More like three.”
For more information on the upcoming Montana Dragon Boat Festival, visit www.montanadragonboat.com.
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