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Local kumu hula on the road to recovery

Clackamas hula teacher Mahiai-Hess is doing well a year after battling breast cancer

Kaleialoha Mahiai-Hess has a message for women: 'Just do a breast exam and be aware of what to look for. Make sure you get checked.'

October is Breast Cancer Awareness month, and Mahiai-Hess has a reason for her message - in August of 2005, she found a lump on her breast.

'I had just come home from Hawaii, and it was the strangest thing - I just rubbed up against it-it was a surprise,' she said.

She was not scheduled for a mammogram, but her doctor was worried about the lump, and insisted she go to Good Samaritan to have it checked out.

'After the mammogram, they told me I needed a biopsy. At the time, I had no insurance, so I said, 'That sounds expensive. I can't have a biopsy.'

'But they wouldn't let me leave. They found a program - I was really fortunate that they contacted them, as they covered the cost of the mammogram and the biopsy.

'They gave me a packet of stuff, and said, 'Don't open it until we call you.' Two days later they called me and said it was cancer, and I should open the packet,' Mahiai-Hess explained.

She had a double mastectomy on Aug. 30, 2005, and they started reconstruction surgery at the same time.

The cancer was only in her left breast, but because she was only 36 years old, the surgeons recommended that she have both breasts removed.

'I decided to have them take both, because at my age there is a 99 percent chance of the cancer returning,' Mahiai-Hess noted.

After the surgery, she had 16 weeks of chemo treatments, every other week.

'I was sick the whole time. Right when I started to feel better, it was time for another treatment,' she said.

And there was a more-lasting side effect from the treatments, and tamoxifen, the drug that she takes now.

'The chemo put me into menopause - I'm not enjoying the hot flashes and the night sweats,' Mahiai-Hess said.

She will continue with the tamoxifen treatments for the next five years, so she'll continue to have menopause symptoms for that length of time, she noted.

Looking back on the past year, Mahiai-Hess said it was her family that kept her going, as well as Halau Hula 'O Mahiai, her hula school in downtown Milwaukie.

Her energy level is not quite back to normal, but, she said, 'My passion for hula is still there. I have to limit myself now - I was burning the candle at both ends. I have to live a balanced life - I'm learning how to say no.

'Before the diagnosis, I didn't think about it - I just took my health for granted. I had never gone through an illness, and I didn't feel sick when I was diagnosed,' Mahiai-Hess said.

She added, 'I'm grateful [for the experience]. I wouldn't change a thing. I have a lot of blessings - my family and I are so much closer and we all spend a lot more time together.'