Professional Water Skier Overcomes Leukemia Diagnosis

 

Erin Kalkbrenner, 34, of Kansas City, Mo., has been a water skier her entire life. She’s also an avid runner and competitive triathlete. In 2013, Erin was training in Florida for the national water ski championship. But during a run, she felt unusually fatigued, as she had most of the season.

Sharing this with others, Erin was encouraged to see a doctor when she returned home. Erin drove back to St. Louis, where she was pursuing her doctorate degree, and met her friend, an emergency room physician at a Lake St. Louis hospital. After running some tests, he decided to keep her overnight. Erin met with a hematologist the next day. She was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) and was referred to Siteman Cancer Center.

“When they told me I had leukemia, I knew it was cancer, but I knew nothing about it,” says Erin. “And I really didn’t want to know much about it. I just wanted the doctors to take care of it.”

Erin immediately began ten weeks of in-patient treatment under the care of Keith Stockerl-Goldstein, MD, an oncologist at Siteman Cancer Center.

Keeping in the Right Headspace

Adjusting to hospitalization was difficult for Erin given her lifestyle. She was adamant about staying active, even receiving her first dose of chemotherapy as she ran on a treadmill. She practiced yoga in her room every day until treatment made her too tired.

Erin training next to her sister Grace while she received her first round of chemotherapy. See Erin’s photo gallery.

Despite this, Erin did all she could to aid in her healing. A friend worked with her on spiritual healing, guiding her in meditations and performing reiki, an energy practice. “The doctors do what they do, and I wanted to do what I could,” says Erin. “When you’re going through treatment, you feel horrible. It’s hard to keep your mind from going into a dark place — but this helped me so much.”

30 days after diagnosis, Erin was in remission, but she still needed additional treatment. Following weeks of chemotherapy and radiation, Erin had a stem cell transplant; her sister was her donor. “My sister and I were already very close, but now we have a unique bond — it’s something we will always have,” says Erin.

Throughout treatment, Erin found support from her family. Her husband, Cole, stayed in her room every night, despite working full time. Her mom took a leave from work to be with her, and her dad and sisters visited often.

Never being hospitalized before, Erin didn’t know what to expect, but she couldn’t have been more comforted by the care she received.

“My care team was unbelievable. They were so helpful and respectful of what I needed — including communicating with my family,” says Erin. “And Dr. Goldstein and his nurse coordinator have been amazing in their follow-up care.

Championships Unhindered by Challenges
Erin crossing the finish line of the 70.3 Ironman in Taupo, New Zealand, in December 2017.

After a few months of recovery, Erin restarted her doctorate studies. She eased back into water skiing and training again. Though she faced some struggles with graft-versus-host disease, Erin is now symptom-free as she continues on one chemotherapy medication.

Despite the challenges, Erin hasn’t been stopped by her diagnosis. Over the past five years, she has completed three half Ironmans, another 10 triathlons and has won the national water ski championship for the last four years. She also just completed a four-year stint as coach for the Under 21 World Australia Water Ski team, which has taken her and her husband, a fellow water skier, around the world.

Erin with her husband (left) and friend at a tournament dedicated to Erin and another waterskier diagnosed with a blood cancer.

Back in the United States, Erin continues the sport and plans to compete in a full Ironman next year. “It was hard in the beginning to not be able to do what I wanted to do, but I finally feel like I’m back to where I was before in terms of my athletic ability,” says Erin. “It’s definitely a struggle at times to get out there and run for three hours. I just have to put my head down and go after it.” 

Erin doesn’t let her leukemia diagnosis define her or any parts of her life, and she encourages others to do the same. She says, “Take a step back and mentally overcome all those negatives. You have the ability to overcome it in your mind. You can recover. You can move forward.”