On a seemingly normal fall day last October, Kelly Fosso-Rodenberg was cutting an apple for breakfast in her Chaska home. She sliced her thumb but didn’t feel a thing.
It was around the time she started noticing typing mistakes in her admin job, something she’d done for over 30 years with ease. Thinking she had a pinched nerve, she called her doctor to share her strange symptoms.
Eight days later, Fosso-Rodenberg was diagnosed with an aggressive brain tumor — stage 4 terminal glioblastoma. In the months and year to follow was a whirlwind of brain surgery, frequent doctor visits, radiation and chemotherapy.
It came six years after her husband, Bob, had a rare blood disorder and stem cell transplant.
“I was the caregiver for my husband, and now I’m the patient,” Fosso-Rodenberg said.
But she isn’t labeling her situation as dismal. Instead, she’s used humor and gratitude, using her one good hand to pack her experience into a book. “There’s Something Going On Upstairs,” was titled after words a doctor said before her diagnosis. It was Fosso-Rodenberg’s form of therapy, letting her reconnect with life-changing teachers and life itself.
ALL IN THE ATTITUDE
In her early 50s, she’s cheery and full of energy, her friends say. Fosso-Rodenberg doesn’t know how many months or years she will live, but she’s even able to find the humor in that.
“Some beat [the diagnosis] five or seven years in. That’s not the norm, but I’ve never been normal in my life, so why start now?” she said with a hearty laugh.
Fosso-Rodenberg’s glioblastoma appeared seemingly out of nowhere above her right ear. The cancer never really disappears and there is no known cause or cure. But other than dull headaches and, in her words, “a funny-looking haircut,” her illness hasn’t caused seizures or partial paralyzation commonly associated with it.
Still, she describes part of the journey as a “dreary, dark and depressing” diagnosis. She sees a doctor at the Mayo in Rochester every six weeks to check that the tumor hasn’t re-sprouted, which is common.
“At age 52, finding yourself on disability with a terminal diagnosis — it kind of felt like a forced retirement 10 years too soon,” Fosso-Rodenberg said about the job she loved.
Doctors suggested she try palliative care that incorporates the mental aspect of a shocking diagnosis such as hers. Adults with glioblastoma typically live 15 to 18 months after diagnosis, according to the American Brain Tumor Association.
A medical professional noted Fosso-Rodenberg seemed like she was in a good place, to which she responded with, “Well, I’m here!” She went once to palliative care but didn’t return, saying her book and support system were the best forms of therapy.
“Uniquely, it’s not a sad emotion,” she said when asked about the unknown time she has left. “I feel privileged to have the warning signs. There’s people that are taken this afternoon that don’t have that time.”
After working on the book almost every day for a year while on disability leave and going through treatment, she felt it was time to wrap it up. She described her first book-signing as a “cozy” event at her mother’s home.Finding the bright spot yet again, she said the signing was like a class reunion.
“It was so fun,” Fosso-Rodenberg said of reuniting with her small-town friends. “I saw people I hadn’t seen in 30 years.”
TEACHING IN FULL-CIRCLE
Clarence Welch, who goes by Kelly, was Fosso-Rodenberg’s creative writing teacher back in her Willmar Senior High School days. She remembered the note “Mr. Welch” had written in her senior paper:
“A+ — This is college material.”
Fosso-Rodenberg calls Welch, 79, a hero and a teacher impossible to forget. Welch shares the sentiment about her.
“I love her as a person,” Welch said. “Everyone remembers her fondly for what she gave to them.”
The two reconnected after over 30 years, one of many silver linings Fosso-Rodenberg says she has surrounding her diagnosis. After completing the book, written in four months and published this October, she decided to send copies to those who helped her along the way. Some were doctors, some were friends, and one was a very memorable former Willmar Senior High School teacher.
“Not that they ever wondered how Kelly Rodenberg is doing, but just to let them know this could have all been different,” she said.
Fosso-Rosenberg said her mother Helen looked up Welch’s address in the phonebook. Neither knew if he still lived there, or if the book, which mentions Welch’s influence in Fosso-Rodenberg’s writing and life, would even be delivered to him.
Luckily, it was. Within a week, Fosso-Rodenberg was holding a letter with Welch’s return address on the envelope.
“I had to set the letter aside for a day,” she said tearfully.
Inside was five back-to-back pages of a neatly handwritten note from Welch, something Fosso-Rodenberg says she’ll treasure for the rest of her life — no matter how long or short that may be.“A++ — This is professional material,” the letter began.
“Kelly Welch at a loss for words — can you believe it?” Welch continued in the note. “Here in this letter while reading your book is me in those times when I feel lucky to know people like you, to actually have worked with you and see the fruits of our working together. It is just fantastic. I thank you.”
Shortly after, Fosso-Rodenberg was being interviewed for her new book and happened to be near a funeral Welch was attending. Fosso-Rodenberg’s mother was at that funeral, saw Welch, and told him her daughter was just a few miles away.
“She said, ‘I’ve never seen someone leave a funeral so quickly,” Fosso-Rodenberg said, remembering the words her mom told her after-the-fact. “He ditched out the side door to the funeral and came to the coffeeshop.”
From there, the two caught up and reminisced.
“I couldn’t talk for a minute or two,” Welch said. “And then I couldn’t stop talking. We hardly ever talked about the cancer … but more about life, more about what we’re going to do and what we’ve done.”
Turns out, Welch and Fosso-Rodenberg had more in common than one class three decades ago. Unknown to Fosso-Rodenberg upon sending her book, Welch and his family had their own bouts of cancer.
Within the past 12 years, Welch lost a son to kidney cancer, his wife had three types of cancer, each of his children were diagnosed, and he himself had prostate cancer.
“I probably wouldn’t have sent [the book] to him had I known that,” Fosso-Rodenberg said, though she’s grateful to have reconnected.
When Welch received the book, he didn’t recognize the “Rodenberg” last name since Kelly’s maiden name is Fosso.
“I started looking at it a bit and I thought, well, I’ve received so many books and pamphlets that are inspirational from different people and they tell their stories of survivorship, especially cancer,” Welch said, dismissing the book at the time.
But a few days later when Welch’s wife said he was mentioned in the book, Welch immediately read it and was added to the list of those Fosso-Rodenberg touched with her story.
“It went right to my heart,” Welch said. “It became personal to me. Her illness became personal to me, because it helped her give her feelings with this tragic and terrible situation in her life. [The book] gave it a voice; a way of showing other people that you can get through this. And sometimes it’s hilarious fun.”
HOW LOW CAN YOU GO?
“Hilarious fun” seems to be just what Fosso-Rodenberg was going for in her book, with an accompanying business card that reads: Keep spreading the cancerous brain tumor/caregiver love.
Chapters in her book include “Attacking the Floor” — referring to three brain-swelling-related falls in February — to “Platelet Mambo: How Low Can You Go?” about chemotherapy complications.
“She looks at the world and, out of adversity, she is a glass-half-full as opposed to the half-empty girl,” said she-Rodenberg’s childhood friend, Kari Thompson.
Included in some book copies is a bookmark reading, “We can’t always choose the music life plays for us, but we can choose how we dance to it.”
And is she ever dancing — at least theoretically, both Thompson and Welch said.
Thompson calls the book very Kelly, written with humor sprinkled with heart-touching moments.
“It’s not about dying. It’s about living,” she said.
The book itself is very personal, but so is the work that went into creating it. Fosso-Rodenberg’s childhood friend, Lois Wallentine, helped send the book from its drafting days to a final print, now sold both as an e-book and a paperback. They were the only girls in their sibling groups growing up, so the two spent a lot of time together.
“Who better to edit this hot mess of a memoir than someone who has known me my entire life?” Fosso-Rodenberg joked in her book.
Twenty copies were even sold in the UK in less than a month, she said, nodding to her online support group and the help of social media. She said it was easy to write the book because she was already living the story.
“People are taking bits of this book and saying I need to share this with every family I know that’s affected by cancer,” she said.
All-in-all, Fosso-Rodenberg hopes the book will help caregivers and patients alike see their world a little differently — perhaps a little brighter. So far, it seems like it’s working.
“The book is really inspiring and it inspired me,” Thompson said. “It was hopeful, but I think it was a lesson and reminder to always ask for help. Learn to ask for help.”
Welch agreed, comparing her story to a character in “The New Woman,” a novel by John Hassler.
“[In the novel] life becomes impossible to them, so she makes it so it’s not impossible. She steps in and becomes everything. A force. A new woman,” Welch said. “[Cancer is] horrible but it can be a good thing. You can come out and learn and be a different person.”
Friends say her book isn’t forced or unnatural — it’s just who she is.
Fosso-Rodenberg’s story is one of two worlds: A life that can change instantly right alongside one that passes both the test of time and high school writing class.