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‘I know he’s OK’

Two years after the loss of her husband an Arispe woman advocates for male breast cancer awareness

Men get breast cancer, too.

Approximately 1% of the breast cancer cases in the U.S. are in men. But because men are not typically looking for breast cancer, they are often diagnosed in a later stage of the disease.

When Kurt Kiburz of Arispe was diagnosed with breast cancer March 11, 2015, he had a lump that was only the size of a pencil eraser. But the doctors said it was already at stage 4, giving him a 22% chance of surviving for five years — the milestone where breast cancer patients can breathe a little easier and be considered cancer free.

Kurt did not make it to that 5-year mark.

After chemotherapy, a mastectomy and radiation treatments, the doctors declared on Nov. 8, 2016, he had no evidence of the disease.

“We rode that high for six months,” his wife Amy Kiburz said.

Kurt went back to farming, the job he loved. He went back to taking care of his cattle and readying his fields for the next planting season after renting out the fields for two years while battling the disease.

“He loved calving,” Amy said. “Calving was his favorite season. He loved baby calves. He’d get giddy.”

After spending two years away from the tractor, the pain that developed in Kurt’s back wasn’t all that unusual, they thought. He went to a local doctor, who prescribed him pain medicine, but that did not help.

More trips to the doctor, including back to the Iowa City Veterans Administration Hospital where he had received much of his previous treatment, the answer was clear — and not what anyone had hoped for. The cancer was back and had spread to his bones. Lesions on Kurt’s spine had fractured it.

The next year was about pain management and getting the most out of the time Kurt had left. Spending time with family became very important to him. When it came time for his 50th birthday in April, he wanted to see as many friends and family as possible.

“I want to stay home in my recliner and see as many people as I can,” Amy quotes him as saying.

He got his wish with 48 friends and family attending. They officially count the number as 50, for his 50 years, since two of the 48 were pregnant at the time.

Within days after the party, Kurt went downhill, Amy said. One month later May 6, 2018, he passed away.

Amy doesn’t dwell on the treatments and doctor’s visits that filled their lives for four years. Instead she focuses on the good that came from it, the support they received and the faith that became deeper and more sustaining for them both.

His sisters

Kurt’s breast cancer diagnosis claimed his life, but it saved the life of two of his sisters. Anita Williams and Sheryl DeLoach both decided to get further testing after Kurt was diagnosed. Although they had mammograms that came back “normal,” they weren’t comfortable with the results. Within 90 days, they had both been diagnosed with breast cancer, as well. Their tumors were larger than Kurt’s but in an earlier stage and treatable.

“They both said the same thing, ... they both said that Kurt saved their lives ... by his diagnosis and being open about it,” Amy said.

Both women are now cancer free and have reached that magic number of five years.

Celebrating life

In the six months between Kurt’s “no evidence of disease” scan and the new scans that would say the cancer was back, family was more important than ever to Kurt.

“He really made the time to celebrate life,” Amy said. “That fall we went to weddings in ... California and North Carolina and Nebraska and Duluth. We were all over the place celebrating weddings ... birthdays. ... It really became important to celebrate with family.”

He made a point to go to state wrestling because a nephew made it into the tournament.

While in Duluth for a wedding, Kurt celebrated by doing a “survivors plunge” — in Minnesota in November.

Support

Kurt and Amy’s two children, Elizabeth — now Elizabeth Emmons — and Keith Kiburz were able to spend time with their father after his diagnosis. Although Elizabeth lives in Florida, she was able to come home eight times that first year.

Keith was living in What Cheer but moved to Winterset during that time. He came to help on weekends, Amy said.

Kurt was able to attend Keith’s wedding in 2017, bringing the audience to tears with his speech, saying the most important crop he ever grew was his family.

During his last month when Kurt was unable to attend church, his mother Janet Mayer would come to the farm house to hold a service with the family, with prayers, reading and music.

Other friends, family and church members stepped up to help as well during Keith’s illness. Two stand out in Amy’s mind: Mike and Hunter.

Mike was the farm’s hired hand before Kurt’s diagnosis. Afterwards he took on more and more duties so that Kurt could concentrate on his treatments. At some points he was working seven days a week to keep the farm running.

Eventually Mike went beyond the role of farm hand and became a sort of nurse’s aid to Kurt, helping lift him and turn him when he was too weak to move on his own. This allowed Amy to keep him at home throughout his battle.

“I couldn’t have done it without Mike,” she said.

A young neighbor, Hunter, was there when Kurt needed help staying active on the farm. He would come over on Sundays — Mike’s day off. At 12 or 13, Hunter couldn’t drive, but at that point, Kurt still could. He would drive the truck and Hunter would get out to open gates and do things that were difficult for Kurt.

“Hunter was a big, big help,” Amy said.

Faith

Kurt was a lifelong member of the Afton Assembly of God church, having been saved when he was 16. After his diagnosis, he became “bolder” in his faith, Amy said.

Before he was a church-goer and believer, afterward he was a missionary — taking every possible opportunity to share his faith with those who would listen.

“He just got bolder with it and didn’t hold back telling people how important it was to have faith,” Amy said.

In a 2016 speech to a group of military veteran cancer survivors, Kurt compared his and his sisters’ ordeals to Daniel chapter 3. They were standing in the fiery furnace, but they were not alone.

He liked to say he was in a “win, win” situation: he would be healed or he would get to go be with Jesus.

The romantic

Amy and Kurt were high school sweethearts who got married when they were both 18 and stayed married for nearly 32 years.

Amy said Kurt was a romantic.

The 6-foot tall, 265 pound, “big, strong, macho farmer,” Air Force and Air National Guard veteran loved to whisk her away to somewhere whenever he could. They were able to spend their 30th anniversary on the beach in Florida.

“He was very much an ‘I love you’ man,’” she said.

Life goes on

Just before he died, Kurt was working to preserve his memories in a journal one of his sisters gave him for his 50th birthday. The journal came with a list of questions he would paste in and write down the answers. When he was no longer able to write them himself, family members would write them down for him.

One of the questions asked if he had any regrets in life. The only one he could name was that he didn’t get to become a grandfather. He did get some of the joys of grandfather-hood by “borrowing” a baby from a cousin who had just become a grandmother. She shared her granddaughter to give him the “grampa experience.”

Amy now gets the real deal with Kamden, Keith’s 15-month-old son that she watches two days a week.

“He’s my joy,” she said.

Amy said she is doing OK now, although reliving that time in order to speak about it has been “grueling.”

“I’m an optimist; that’s why it was hard, (now) I knew what the end was,” she said. “When you don’t know the end, you can be optimistic.”

But Amy said she wanted to do it because breast cancer in men gets so little attention.

“I want to bring awareness to male breast cancer and its prevention,” she said.

Men should not be embarrassed by this “girly disease” as Kurt called it at first. Once he had a complete diagnosis, he “owned it,” she said and talked to everyone about it. If they asked how he was doing, he would tell them the truth — “I’m not so good; I’ve been better.”

I’m all right

Right up to the end, Kurt maintained his faith and his optimism with that realism built in.

Amy said it had been years since she heard Kurt answer the question, “How are you?” with anything but the reality of his disease.

That makes his last words a source of comfort to her.

A cousin had come over to see Kurt, who had been unresponsive all morning, and asked Kurt how he was doing.

“I’m all right,” Kurt replied.

“With him being alright when he was actively dying, it helps me,” Amy said. “The faith in knowing that he’s in heaven with Jesus ... I could not imagine coping without faith. Because I know he’s OK.”

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