Her Story: Katie Schertler on Cancer, Grief and Marrying Her German Husband

Katie was a normal elementary-aged girl. She had sleepovers with her friends, argued with her older brother, danced like no one was watching, and loved her dad with all of her heart. Then, when she was eight years old, every parent’s worst nightmare became reality for the Madsen family: their baby girl was diagnosed with cancer.

Katie woke up in the middle of the night with severe, excruciating pain in her hip. After a trip to the emergency room and a misdiagnosis of a virus, Katie went to a pediatrician to get to the bottom of her pain. She was diagnosed with leukemia and sent straight to Texas Children’s to begin chemotherapy that same day. At eight years old, Katie couldn’t really grasp the gravity of her situation; more so, she saw that she was suddenly being poked and pricked and she had to miss out on all the fun with her friends. She was angry.

Katie said she knows how lucky she was. Her doctors caught her cancer early, and although she had to endure two-and-a-half years of chemotherapy, the cancer was gone after one month and she was in remission for the remaining time she spent undergoing chemo. It was tough, and she knows how difficult it was for her family to watch what her little body had to go through, but she is extremely grateful her cancer was detected and treated early.

Those early years taught Katie a lot about handling grief, whether her own or grief her friends were experiencing. Through loss, personal struggles and typical teenage girl problems, she pretty much has advice for anything, and as her friend I can attest to that. How many of us are great at giving our friends advice, but struggle to take our own? Well, Katie can dish it and take it.

However, no one can prepare themselves for dealing with the grief that comes with losing a loved one. Katie’s godmother passed away when she was 10, and she was still going through treatment at the time. She dealt with a bout of survivor’s guilt: why her and not me? Why does she have to leave this earth while I only had to battle my cancer for one month? She firmly believes that everything happens for a reason, and she tries to remind herself of that, but she says it’s difficult keep that perspective when so many people get cancer, and some make it and others don’t.

Katie was always close with her dad. They shared a love of good beer, concerts and history. Katie had him wrapped around her finger from the very beginning. So, when Katie’s dad relapsed and his cancer aggressively worsened, Katie, and her whole family, felt as though their world was crumbling right beneath them. Katie dealt with survivor’s guilt again. She wondered why her cancer was gone within a month and why in 15 years it never returned. Why did her dad’s come back after he beat it, as well? Why did he have to go through this again?

Katie didn’t need a huge, extravagant wedding, but there were certain things about a wedding she wanted: she wanted to feel pretty in a dress and she wanted her dad to walk her down the aisle to her groom. So, when her dad’s health worsened, she asked her dad if he approved of Julian, Katie’s boyfriend at the time, as his son-in-law, and he said he did. So, they decided to get married three weeks from then; however, her dad could tell his health was depleting by the day, and he told her if she wanted him at the wedding, she would need to move it up.

This revelation came with some logistical issues. Katie’s sister-in-law’s brother was getting married the following weekend, so their only option was that weekend. It was Wednesday. Thus, their three-day engagement commenced. They picked up La Madeline, got a two-tiered cake from a local bakery, Katie grabbed a wedding dress off the rack from David’s Bridal, and Katie and Julian got rings the day before the wedding (which Katie admits was difficult because she and Julian “aren’t exactly sample sizes”).

When Katie arrived at her parents’ house the night before the wedding, she found out that her dad hadn’t spoken or eaten in two days, and he wouldn’t be able to walk her down the aisle. Katie’s biggest fear was that something would happen during the ceremony, and she couldn’t bear the thought of not being by his side in case something did happen. But they went through with the ceremony, complete with a bouquet toss at her friend’s house before heading back home for a family celebration. Surprisingly, the most beautiful part of the wedding day wasn’t the exchange of vows; instead, it was Katie’s dad mustering the strength necessary to tell his newly-married daughter, “wow, you’re beautiful.” This exchange proves that even the most devastating situations carry a sense of hope and splendor with them, and Katie will hold these words in her heart for the rest of her life.

The day after Katie and Julian’s wedding, the family was hanging out in the backyard when her brother decided to go inside and check on their dad. Everyone followed, and it was obvious to them that her dad’s time on earth was coming to a close. Katie grabbed her dad’s right hand, her brother grabbed his left, her mom grabbed his feet, and Katie’s husband and sister-in-law surrounded them while their mom recited the Lord’s Prayer. As her mom said the final word of the prayer, her dad drew his final breath. Katie said knowing her dad entered Heaven in the most beautiful way possible, surrounded by his loving wife, devoted children and cherished daughter- and son-in-law, made her grief and anger a little more bearable.

It sounds like it was easy: marry the love of your life in a quick turn and all is well. In actuality, Katie and Julian had to go through quite a few hurdles in order to officially call themselves Mr. and Mrs. Schertler. Julian is from Germany, so they had to go through all of the legal processes that come with becoming a U.S. citizen through marriage: applications, forms, more applications, approvals, and then finally, the interview process and all of the expenses that come with it. In addition to the immigration process, Katie dealt with negative external voices: people thought they were getting married because she was pregnant, some thought they were rushing it, and Katie was worried her own friends and family wouldn’t approve. It wasn’t easy, but she and Julian have now been married for one-and-a-half years, and as a friend, I know Julian has been the ultimate love and support system that she so desperately needed.

Katie has always been devoted to bettering herself in a variety of ways, and education has and will always be one of those avenues. She was diagnosed with “chemo brain” during her sophomore year of college—basically, there are shadows in her brain that affect her short-term memory, and she wanted to prove to all of those doctors and to herself that she can accomplish anything, despite what the studies say. She worked her tail off to earn a Master of Professional Studies (MPS) at the University of Denver, and even though her dad couldn’t physically be there to watch her walk across the stage, she knows he couldn’t be more proud of his little girl.

Katie’s proudest moment from her time in grad school was at graduation. As she was walking across the stage to accept her diploma, the dean of her college shook her hand and said, “I am so impressed by you. I know it’s been a tough road, and I am really proud of you.” Moments like this remind Katie that no obstacle is too big, she is capable of doing whatever she sets her mind to, and no matter what, her dad is always going to be her number one fan.

If you’re interested in learning more about organizations that advocate and raise money for childhood cancer awareness and research, check out these helpful links. Additionally, you can get involved through volunteering at hospitals, whether that’s playing with kids or volunteering for special events. There are many, many more organizations and hospitals to get involved with, but these are a start.

St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital

Texas Children’s Hospital

Cure Childhood Cancer

Sunshine Kids (Katie was involved with this when she was younger)

My friend Grant is currently battling cancer at eight years old. Check out his Facebook page here.

If you have specific questions for Katie that stemmed from reading this piece, leave a comment below or email me directly at becca@herstoryblog.com.