Lincoln East teacher, in third bout with cancer, keeps fighting

Andrea Kabourek always defined herself as a runner. But, when she was faced with an obstacle she couldn’t outrun, Kabourek transformed into a fighter.

Since she was six-years old, Kabourek has mixed running and school, first as a student and now as an English teacher and cross-country coach at Lincoln East. Starting with her first cancer diagnosis in 2009, her routine became one mixed with treatments, therapy and pain.

“Sometimes cancer really just cramps my style,” Kabourek said.

Five years ago, Kabourek’s doctor diagnosed her with breast cancer. She wasn’t about to give up.

“It was like, okay, I’ll deal with it,” Kabourek said. “I’ll figure out a way to get around it and we’re going to make it kind of a fun experience.”

Kabourek didn’t even cry when she was diagnosed the second time. She said she wasn’t depressed until her doctor told her she couldn’t go to China like she was planning to. Lincoln East Principal Susan Cassata said examples like that are testaments to Kabourek’s resilience.

“I don’t know many other women or many other people who have the kind of inner strength to be willing to face a first, a second and a third cancer diagnosis head on,” Cassata said.

Cassata thinks that many people would have fallen into self-pity if faced with Kabourek’s circumstances.

“There are others in our lives who are overtaken by the simplest of battles,” Cassata said. “Andrea is not one of those people.”

One trait that especially stood out to Cassata was Kabourek’s willingness to share her fight with the world. She has a blog and Facebook page that she updates regularly.

“I’m very open about (my cancer) so I get a lot of attention,” Kabourek said. “But I like attention so it’s okay.”
Perhaps the easiest way to keep informed on her fight is to approach her in the halls of East High. Kabourek can be easily spotted by her crocodile hat or her ‘I Can, I Will’ shirts, both symbols of her fight.

The crocodile theme began in 2005 when Kabourek was vacationing in Australia and an aboriginal woman told her that her animal totem was a crocodile. Originally, Kabourek was confused because she doesn’t consider herself aggressive or intimidating. But over time she embraced being a crocodile because of their creativity and tenacity.

“Now I tell people that I am going to use my crocodile strength to conquer cancer,” Kabourek said.

Her ‘I can, I will’ motto has much deeper roots than the crocodiles. Kabourek adopted the saying as her own when she, as a runner, was a part of four state championship cross-country teams at Lincoln Southeast High School.

“It’s a really simple phrase but it’s repetitive and gets you into a positive state of mind,” Kabourek said.

Kabourek repeated the phrase when she was a runner, going up hills or hitting the backstretch of a marathon. Now, as a fighter, she uses it when going through an MRI or a bone marrow biopsy.

“Repeating that phrase helped me through the awful times,” Kabourek said. “You know what, we can get through this, I can do it, I can I will.”

Former Lincoln East runner Eajan Hsu said that the phrase helped motivate the teams Kabourek coached. During Hsu’s senior year, the team ended their pre-race prayers by saying ‘I can, I will’.

“It motivated us by reminding us, if Mrs. Kabourek can do this with all she’s been through, then why can’t we,” Hsu said.

Hsu said the biggest sign of Kabourek’s fighter mentality was how she still ran and tried to keep up with the team in practice. They would pass her and finish the workout, but then go back and finish it with Kabourek.

“(Her running) showed us that she had a strong will and that really inspired us,” Hsu said.

After five years and three battles, Kabourek is still fighting. Her cancer is now considered metastatic breast cancer, meaning that it spread to other parts of her body.

One of the organs it spread to is her lungs, making it even more difficult for her to continue her favorite hobby.
However, Kabourek is persevering and still teaching, coaching and running.

“Running is what keeps me sane,” she said.

Cassata said she thinks Kabourek will keep fighting the disease with her positive attitude. Cassata is grateful for the skills Kabourek has taught her students and athletes, but feels Kabourek’s approach to living is the most valuable advice she has given East High.

“She has taught us a lesson of resiliency in the face of cancer and illness that many of us wouldn’t have learned otherwise.”

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