MAHOPAC, N.Y. - Debbie Kilmer calls herself a warrior. It’s hard to argue. The Mahopac native and longtime Somers teacher has overcome insurmountable odds to beat back a rare and insidious form of cancer.
Five years ago, Kilmer, the mother of two, was taking classes in Krav Maga, (Israeli streetfighting self-defense). During a workout, she felt something wasn’t right.
“I was just 36 and I was very tired. I was in training and Krav Maga was pretty hardcore,” she said. “We had to jog, and it was almost impossible for me because I felt so weak, and my arms were going numb.”
Kilmer decided to go for a physical, figuring her GP would discover something routine, like an iron deficiency.
Her physician, Dr. Rajneesh Uppal in Jefferson Valley, told her that her liver enzymes were elevated, and she would need an ultrasound. The ultrasound revealed a 9-centimeter tumor on her liver, which prompted an immediate MRI.
“The next morning, I went to work and at 9:05 my phone rang,” Kilmer recalled. “They told me to come in as soon as possible and to bring a family member with me. They said the MRI showed a highly suspicious malignancy—cancer.”
With the help of her friend and fellow teacher, Kim Gordon, Kilmer discovered Dr. William Jarnagin at Sloan Kettering in New York City. She called him one of the best oncologists in the country.
“He told me I needed a liver resection; part of the liver needed to be removed to get the tumor,” Kilmer said.
On May 31, 2014, Kilmer had almost half her liver removed, as well as her entire gall bladder.
“The pathology report showed that I had intrahepatic cholangiocarcinoma—a rare cancer of the bile duct,” she said. “They have no idea what causes it.”
Late-stage cholangiocarcinoma, her doctors told her, is not survivable. However, for Kilmer, there was a slight glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel.
“The only way to live with it is if you have a liver resection, which I did, but most of the time it’s found too late,” she said. “When I had my symptoms, I ran to a doctor. But most [people] don’t go until their eyes turn yellow and then it’s too late—not a single person survives it.”
They did catch Kilmer’s cancer relatively early—stage 2B—and she had the liver resection. Still, she faced an uphill battle with odds even the boldest gambler would shy away from.
“At that point, statistically, I had just an 8.4 percent chance of being alive in five years,” she said. “But I said I would move the decimal point over one space to the right and make it 84 percent. I said I have to start living life to the fullest. It was devastating because of my children, but I always remained positive, which is what people say they admire about me.”
Kilmer went through six months of chemotherapy.
“It was stage 2B and it did invade the vascular system, but I had clear lymph nodes,” she said, “and the doctors thought [the chemo] could kill that cancer.”
Since the chemotherapy in 2014, Kilmer has returned to the hospital every six months for a chest-to-pelvis scan. They’ve all been 100 percent clear. In a few months, she’ll have reached the five-year mark—a point doctors were doubtful she’d ever see. She had indeed moved the decimal point.
“My next scan will be in about three weeks and I will have made it to five-year point. Most people don’t make it that far,” she said.
Kilmer grew up in Mahopac and graduated from Kennedy Catholic High School. Her dad was a New York City firefighter and her mother was a stay-at-home mom. She has one sister, Chrissy.
“I had a wonderful childhood, amazing friends and all that good stuff,” she laughs. “I played softball and was kind of a tomboy. They called me Roughhouse Rosie. I was spunky and fierce.”
That spunk and fierceness would serve her well in her battle against the cancer and she credits her father for passing those traits on to her.
“My dad has always been my hero,” she said. “He used to come home with his face covered in soot [from fighting a fire]. He was a hero and I hope that I can be one too.”
Kilmer didn’t set out to be a teacher. In high school, she went to BOCES and got her hairdresser’s license.
“But I realized that was not what I wanted to do; teaching was where I wanted to be,” she said. “I wanted to work with kids.”
She got her degree from Mercy College and landed her first teaching job in New York City in 2001. She came to Somers in 2005 and has been there ever since.
She said her colleagues at school could not have been more supportive.
“They were amazing to me,” she said. “They collected money and came to visit and told me to take as many sick days as I needed,” she said. “They started a meal train, taking turns bringing us food every day for about five months.”
On March 16, Kilmer, her husband, Brian, and her two children, Gage and Taylor, held a celebration with friends and family at Villa Barone Hilltop Manor in Mahopac that was a long time in coming. The idea was not only to celebrate Kilmer’s victory over the cholangiocarcinoma, but to raise money for research and raise awareness of a disease that affects only about 1,000 people a year.
“It was a celebration of life, instead of just raising money for cancer,” she said.
Still, they collected about $10,000.
“It was the best night of my entire night,” she said. “The entire evening was magic. It was such a vibe! Even the maître d’ said he’d never felt such light and life at an event that he ran.”
Kilmer said that throughout her entire ordeal, she’s been open and honest about what she was going through, even with her children. That, she said, made all the difference in the world.
“It was way beyond them, but I was always honest with them,” she said. “There was no ‘Mommy has a boo-boo.’ They didn’t know the odds were against me and they didn’t need to know the saddest parts, but being an open book is the most important part because people can connect with you that way. That’s my biggest takeaway from all this.”
As it turns out, Kilmer got her wish. She got to be a hero after all.