Love, light and hope: Whitefish local faces cancer for second time

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TracI Stolte at Stolte’s Pet Stop south of Whitefish. (Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake)

Traci Stolte jokingly refers to herself as a jack of all trades — and the truth is, she’s not far off the mark. The longtime Whitefish resident is part nonprofit director, pet boarding house owner, pilates teacher, bartender, wife and mother of three.

Busy would be putting it lightly.

But recently, another title has found its way next to Stolte’s name, this one much less enticing: cancer patient.

She was first diagnosed with Stage IIA breast cancer in 2014 after she noticed abnormalities in her right breast. She had a hunch early on that it was cancer, and Stolte’s gut feeling proved true.

But even then, Stolte didn’t let the big C slow her down much.

She and her husband, Caleb, competed in the Glacier Challenge, an adventure race where participants paddle, run and bike their way over nearly 50 miles to raise funds for Flathead Youth Home.

The Stoltes took the win in the couple’s division and two days later, Stolte had a mastectomy. Due to the nature of her cancer, doctors prescribed 16 rounds of chemo to follow, with the first four being the most grueling. The potent chemicals also prevented her chest form fully healing after her surgery, so she underwent a second procedure, which caused further pain.

“I’m riding my mountain bike and my spacer comes out through my chest. It’s poking out, I can see it,” Stolte said. “I had to hold it once because it was coming out.”

Stolte opted to forget implants altogether and for a while, life went on.

That is, until 2016, when cancer struck again.

This time, it delivered a double whammy.

Stolte’s mom, Pat Kohl, was diagnosed with angiosarcoma — a cancer that affects the inner lining of blood vessels.

“I knew something was up and we knew things weren’t good, but we didn’t know the extent of it yet,” Stolte recalled.

Despite undergoing surgery and radiation therapy, Kohl died last year. And that’s when things turned south again.

“On the way to my mom’s life celebration … they called me and told me I had cancer again,” Stolte said. “I’m trying to deal with the passing of the person that brings you into this world and then I, in turn, am trying to deal with my own mortality and … the possibility of the loss of my life. I equated it to trying to brush your teeth with a mouthful of Oreos. It was hard, but I did it. Have I been pissed off? Have I wanted to say [expletive] you cancer? Of course. But what good is it going to do?”

Sadness is a place that Stolte visited, but she didn’t stay there. She had to kick cancer’s butt for a second time.

“You’d be surprised what you can do when you’re shoved up against the wall,” Stolte said.

In the second round, the cancer had metastasized to her bones, forming a tumor in her hip joint. Doctors were afraid that one fall could break her hip, so the day after her mother’s funeral, Stolte was on a plane to Spokane to meet with a specialist. She returned a week later for surgery, where doctors removed the tumor and installed a metal rod from her hip to her knee.

Follow-up scans didn’t reveal anything drastic, but Stolte’s oncologist wanted to rid her of the disease for good. She knew of a cancer drug trial at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston that she thought Stolte could qualify for. The drug, Xofigo, also known as Ra-223 dichloride, was specifically designed for bone cancer patients.

“It goes right to the cancer site and the cancer cells think it’s calcium and it attaches to them and it kills them,” Stolte explained.

The trial was limited to 36 participants and Stolte qualified for the final slot.

Finally, her luck was turning around.

She’s undergone two of the six injections and will travel to Houston for her third treatment on President’s Day weekend. The drug comes from Sweden and is also radioactive, but Stolte said side effects have been minimal.

“The last year of my life, I feel like I’ve been in a raft, and it keeps having all these poke holes and [then] I get a big one so I get the patch kit out, but meanwhile that other one is still filling the boat,” she said. “That’s how I feel, but I know it’s still going to keep floating. I’m never going to sink.”

Her positive attitude, coupled with a supportive local community, has made the weight of her second diagnosis easier to bear.

“My big mantra last year was love and light,” she said, “and this year …. [it’s] hope.”

Reporter Mackenzie Reiss may be reached at 758-4433 or mreiss@dailyinterlake.com.

HOW TO HELP: Visit www.gofundme.com to contribute. Support Traci by ordering a “Love and Light” beverage at Amazing Crepes or Traci’s Mule at Spotted Bear Spirits, both located in Whitefish.

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