Colleen Puch is working hard and keeping her spirits up as she battles cancer.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
When bus driver Colleen Puch found out she had cancer, she may not have known the lengths her friends would go to show their support.
She's not going through treatment alone not by any stretch of the imagination.
The day she took up bus driving on the Kenai Peninsula is the day she met one of her closest friends, Tanny Miller, who started work that day in 1985, too.
"We hit it off immediately. She was really kind of quiet. But I found that we have a very similar sense of humor," Miller said. "She shares everything with me, and if I could take some of the pain away from her, I would. But I can't, so I show her how much I'm willing to give."
She wasn't kidding.
Last week, Miller convinced other bus drivers and mechanics to shave their heads in solidarity, to show Puch the support they feel for her.
Alfonso Wingster, Sharon Carle, Tanny Miller, Dustin Vasicek and Tom Nazarov pose for a photo on a Laidlaw Transit school bus earlier this week. They are among a group of coworkers who shaved their heads in support of bus driver Colleen Puch.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
"We're her crew of screw-ball cue-balls," Miller said. "It was so hard to keep a secret because we share everything, and her reaction was that she couldn't believe it. She would laugh and then cry again, she was so touched by it."
Though, none of them was prepared to deal with cancer, it has only built up her existing friendship.
Puch recalls when she first realized something was not right, and Miller has been with her every step of the way.
"I was putting away the Christmas decorations, and I had this pain in my back and my stomach. I thought it was because my own doctor had increased my thyroid medication, which is probably why they found it so soon," Puch said.
She learned she would need a hysterectomy. Ten days later her phone rang.
Doctors at Providence Hospital in Anchorage said they needed to see her immediately. They found an aggressive type of uterine cancer and were able to contain, she said.
"I was in shell shock. My friends I don't know what I would do without them," Puch said.
"When I came home from surgery, they had brought a whole bunch of food and were cleaning and vacuuming. They wouldn't let me do anything. And that Tanny, she'll just tell you how it is. She told me to sit down and rest, and it helped me heal faster."
In one of the first doctor visits, Miller kept her promise to be there, every step of the way.
"She had told me she had appointment, and I told her I would be there. I just walked right in the clinic, and I told her I would not have her go through this alone. There was no way in hell I was not going to not be there for her," she said.
Puch said the many trips to Anchorage are costly, while insurance has not reimbursed her for the trips. When the bus crews revealed their freshly shorn heads, Miller revealed another gift she'd been working on during her off hours.
"Tanny went around town and collected donations to help pay for travel expenses. I couldn't believe it," Puch said. "They were all wearing these T-shirts that said 'Colleen's crew of screwballs.' I was crying so hard I couldn't think."
Miller wanted to help because she said she is proud to call Puch her friend, because she is "such a very strong person."
"I really would take a part of her pain if I could, the next best thing is to help her out emotionally. She's like a sister to me, and I love her. She's a pretty awesome friend. I am not at all surprised she is going through treatments and still going to work," Miller said.
Puch has been a bus driver for 30 years and drives the longest route 134 miles every week day and she won't let having cancer slow her down.
"I've been a strong person all my life. I worked just as hard as the men and then came in and cooked dinner while they were sitting under a tree drinking beer. They say this gets harder with every treatment. The doctors tell me I must be a tough cookie because I should be sick. And they can't believe I still drive my bus," she said.
Her toughness becomes obvious as she describes her experiences with treatment so far experiences that would deaden most spirits.
"The first chemo was God-awful terrible. I was scared to death. It all just happened wham bam," she said.
Her first treatment was in Anchorage an experience she did not care to repeat.
"They came at me with all these IVs and needles. I was crying and shaking. I told them I needed to be treated in Soldotna. The people are wonderful here, you're not just some number. You're a human being and they remember you, and they are easier to deal with."
Puch holds seniority over all other drivers, and those beneath her are 100 percent behind her as well.
"Not a day goes by they don't tell me they love me or tell me I'll lick this, and the kids have been great, too. They're all really great kids. They're all so uplifting and comforting in so many ways," Puch said.
Things aren't so bad for Puch. She has a host of dedicated, supportive friends. She's tough and energetic. What's more, she's getting a new deck.
"For 15 years I've been asking Ken (her husband) to build a deck. Well, he started on it this week and was out digging in the rain last night. I'll probably spend a lot of time sitting on it this summer," she said.
As summer approaches, Puch and Miller haven't changed their usual plans of taking full advantage of the weather cancer or no cancer.
"We have a lot to do and there is no better place than the Kenai for camping, hiking and fishing," Puch said.
Until then, Puch will continue to drive her bus route and take radiation treatments following the final cycle of chemotherapy.
"You can either sit around of get out there and just do it. You can't be stagnant," Miller said.
Puch remains upbeat about her life and beating cancer.
"Sometimes it takes a sickness to make you realize how important people are to you. We're going to lick this," she said.
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