At age 42, cancer isn’t something Lisa Kierenia pictured for her life — or for her family.
But colorectal cancer is now a part of the Winter Garden resident’s story. And believe it or not: It’s not all bad.
“There have been so many blessings in the last few weeks,” Kierenia said. “My friends and family have shown up for us, loved us, prayed for us, cried with us, researched with us. I’ve seen why God has placed certain people in our lives, in part to help us navigate this overwhelming news.”
The symptoms started last year, when Kierenia started to notice blood in her stool.
“Life was busy, and I chalked it up to maybe being something not as serious,” she said. “I never thought I had cancer.”
Her father-in-law, who had some of the same symptoms, was diagnosed with colon cancer in January. About a week later, Kierenia’s hairstylist said one of her other clients, who was 42 years old, also was diagnosed with colon cancer.
Kierenia decided to schedule an appointment with a gastroenterology doctor. She had a colonoscopy, which revealed a tumor. She received her official diagnosis at the end of January.
The news shocked her whole family, including her parents, who attended the appointment with her; her husband was helping his father recover.
“They (her parents) said too, you don’t expect your child to have cancer, obviously,” she said. “I’m 42, but for them — they expect themselves to have cancer before me.”
As of 2023, the American Cancer Society estimates the number of colorectal cancers in the United States to include 106,970 new cases of colon cancer and 46,050 new cases of rectal cancer. Overall, the lifetime risk of developing colorectal cancer is about one in 23 for men and one in 26 for women.
Kierenia said she has remained positive and attributes her strength to God.
“I’ve had my moments of sadness, madness and whiny, but I really have kept a pretty positive attitude,” she said. “Everybody has different beliefs, but for us, I think not having faith would be very difficult. I think it’s very easy to say, ‘Why me?’ I’ve thought those things, and yes, your faith is tested, but there have been so many positives that I think could not be if there wasn’t God. When you’re talking to people (at the hospital), and they’re asking me if I need help with transportation, or if I need foundation money, or other things, I honestly realize how blessed I am. I go to treatments, and I see all these other people. …There could be worse, and there’s so many people (who) don’t have the support that I have. … I just feel like there are a lot of blessings that have come from it that you don’t think about until you’re going through something hard.”
Kierenia started her treatment last week at AdventHealth in downtown Orlando.
The process will start with 28 sessions of radiation, Monday through Friday. This 15- to 20-minute process is paired with oral chemo, which she takes through six pills per day. She will then have a two- to four-week break to give her body time to recover before she receives a port and starts infusion chemo for 12 to 14 weeks.
A small percentage of patients have complete recovery after treatment and do not need surgery. Kierenia hopes she is included in the statistic, but doctors have reminded her to remain realistic.
She said she thinks there is a lot of stigma associated with colorectal cancer — and even cancer in general. Many of her friends reside in the same general age range as her, causing her to encourage them to prioritize their health.
“Even with rectal cancer, I mean I’ve never even known anyone who has had rectal cancer,” she said. “Once I was diagnosed and started doing research on it … I thought, ‘OK, I can either keep this to myself, or I can use this to educate people.’ I’ve had so many friends schedule their colonoscopy. … I think as a mom, we’re busy doing all the things and you put your health on the back burner. Unfortunately, sometimes we need a wake-up call. … Also, we know people can have cancer at any age — even if you’re younger. But I get so many comments about me being too young or that I don’t ‘look’ like I have cancer. … I don’t fit the mold, so I think it’s important that people take care of their health and make that a priority.”
So far, Kierenia said the treatments have taken more of a mental than physical toll. However, she has been told as she gets more radiation and chemo, she will start to be symptomatic.
As a pharmaceutical sales representative, Kierenia said she will need to make some adjustments to her work schedule. She is trying to keep things as normal as possible for her family. She has had to adjust, learning that although she wants to continue to do everything, she should take help when she needs it. She is trying to be both patient and kind to herself.
SO MANY BLESSINGS
On World Cancer Day, Feb. 4, Kierenia decided to take to social media to share her diagnosis.
“I debated sharing on social media but decided that God wants me to use this to point others to Him and to be a reminder to others to take care of your health,” she wrote on Facebook. “Cancer doesn’t discriminate. If you have been putting off your health, let this be a sign to put yourself first. I’m not sure why this is part of my story yet, but if I can inspire others to schedule a doctor’s appointment you have been putting off, that’s a good start.”
Kierenia said her family and the community’s support has also kept her strong.
“I feel like I’m always the one that’s asking, ‘What can I do for you?’ or ‘How can I help you?’ and to be on the receiving end of things that people are doing for us that I would have never thought of is so incredibly special,” she said. “This really stinks and it’s going to be hard, but there’s so many blessings.”
Her friends, who she fondly refers to as her “Support Squad,” threw a party for her at LiveTrends in downtown Winter Garden where they all wore “Team Lisa” T-shirts.
When Kierenia woke up on Friday, March 3 — also known as Dress in Blue Day to support Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month in March — she noticed her neighbors in Bronson’s Landing had blue ribbons tied around trees in their front yards. She counted close to 80 blue ribbons.
“How can you drive into this neighborhood and not feel overwhelmed by all of the support when you see the ribbons?” she said. “The ribbons have given me not only the opportunity to raise awareness for colorectal cancer but also to meet more of my neighbors. We wanted to thank people for their love and kindness so we put up a ‘Thank You’ sign in our yard to let them know how much we appreciate their thoughtfulness.”
The effort was organized by four women in the neighborhood: Christy Rivera, Shirley Rodriguez, Freyda Pagan-Smith and Nicky Calvert. The ladies came together to figure out ways to support the Kierenia family.
Rivera said she has known Kierenia for seven years and said she has a huge heart.
“She is always one of the first people to support others,” Rivera said. “In a group conversation, she goes out of her way to engage everyone and make sure they are acknowledged and have a voice, even interrupting to fill someone in if they’ve just joined. She sees the good in others and looks for the silver lining in everything.”
Rivera said she believes it’s important to support one another and that community is essential.
“With her vulnerability and openness to bring her family, friends and neighbors through this journey with her, she is bringing awareness to an important issue for the sake of helping others,” Rivera said. “Neighbors who do not even know her have stopped to ask me how they can help. It started with one group of four ladies texting ideas and has expanded into neighborhood group chats that include over 30 people; and it keeps growing. I’ve lived in the neighborhood for almost 10 years, and to see the amount of compassion people have for a family they may not know well is so touching and speaks volumes of the type of families we have in Winter Garden. It really has been a community effort.”
Other acts of kindness Kierenia has received include a friend who has started to make lunch for her daughter every day for school; a meal train; numerous baskets and gifts being dropped off; a prayer shawl; a blue and white quilt; and even a jar of hope filled with jokes and positive messages.
In addition, Kierenia’s husband, Scott, coordinated their children’s soccer teams — Landon, 12, and Ava, 10 — to all wear blue in support.
“I feel like if I could write a book on how to care and support somebody going through something hard, I would have the most amazing story to share,” Lisa Kierenia said. “There’s so much negativity in the world, and I think we can easily get caught up in it. It’s hard when it takes something that’s really sad or negative to go through for people to bring out the good. I feel like this has given not just us, but other people the opportunity to see that there’s still good in the world.
“It’s not about just the things, but it’s about realizing how we can bless other people when they’re going through a hard time,” Lisa Kierenia said. “I think as women and moms, we don’t ever put ourselves first. We can’t feel selfish. We need to take care of ourselves. Make yourself a priority. Colorectal cancer can be preventable. You don’t need to go through things alone. There’s people that want to love and care for you. Just remember: Everything happens for a reason.”