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On the Move: Cancer Hasn’t Stopped Marjorie Kittle From Traveling the World

To say Marjorie Kittle has traveled all around the world isn’t an overstatement.

Kittle’s journey includes two South African safaris, an Alaskan cruise and a European tour — to name a few. At 81 years old, her love for travel has allowed her to see the world in a way that few have the pleasure to experience.

When her cancer diagnosis threatened to put her vacation plans on hold indefinitely, she vowed to be well enough to take a planned trip to the Polynesian islands in December. The answer to the question of whether she made that trip that can be found later in this story. Marjorie Kittle

For now, Kittle’s story begins in Carrollton, where she spent 25 years teaching fourth-grade elementary school students. She and her husband, who was also a teacher, enjoyed spending the summers and holidays camping with their two children.

“We had a camper, and we camped everywhere,” Kittle said. “Our children saw the Grand Canyon before they saw Stone Mountain. My daughter started camping when she was a year old. We had a large group that went camping together, so that was a lot of fun.”

As the children got older, they began going to Disney World every year for about 13 years. As time went on, she and her husband had covered all 50 states and even gone on a European tour. Sadly, her husband passed away in 2006.  

She thought her traveling days were over, but a decision to join the Sportsplex Health and Athletic Club in Carrollton eventually showed her that was not to be. A shoulder injury prompted her to sign up for a water aerobics class where she became friends with Donnie Kittle and his wife, who also liked to travel.

Unfortunately, Donnie’s wife passed away a year later. She and Donnie remained friends, and that friendship later evolved into a deeper relationship. The two got married in June 2008, and their first trip was to the Holy Land that same year.

In 2010, the couple found themselves taking part in a different kind of journey — a health journey.

“My husband’s doctor told him that he was heading to type 2 diabetes if he didn’t do something about it, so we really got serious about our health,” Kittle said. “It took about a year, but he lost 75 pounds, and I lost 40 pounds.”

Not only did Donnie Kittle lose the weight, but he also came off all the medication he was taking.

“We joined the Silver Sneakers class at the time, too,” Marjorie Kittle said. “We exercised three times a week and started a walking plan for the other three days.”

The Kittles also began eating healthier. They ditched fried foods, sweets and white foods like bread, pasta and rice. They have successfully kept the weight off but admit they may yoyo a bit when they’re on vacation.

“We still wear our Fitbits to get our steps every day,” Donnie Kittle said. “We try to keep up with our calories and all that good stuff. We just made a lifestyle change.”

Over the years, people have asked them what their favorite trip was.  

“I used to tell them the last one I was on, but I enjoyed all of them,” Marjorie Kittle said.

But if she had to pick a favorite, it would be their two-week trip to South Africa in 2018.

“We had two animal safaris that were really fun,” Kittle said. “We have traveled to all the continents except Antarctica. We had planned to take care of that next year, but I don’t think that’s going to happen now.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many people to put their travel plans on hold, leading to canceled flights, cruises and road trips worldwide.

“We had actually averaged going somewhere once a month for 12 years until the pandemic hit,” Donnie Kittle said.

Even before the Kittles embarked on their health journey, Marjorie Kittle was always good about going to yearly checkups with her doctors. She even voluntarily got a mammogram in her mid-30s.

“The results were sent to my OB-GYN. When I went for my regular checkup, he asked me why I did it, and I told him I needed a baseline to look back on,” Kittle said. “It was just something I wanted to do for myself.”

She admits that she never dreaded having a mammogram until 2010 after an automobile accident caused contusions on her left breast.

“About two years ago, I became aware that they were looking more closely at the right breast,” Kittle said.

Following a screening mammogram, she was asked to return for further evaluation. She had six-month follow-up mammograms for an area in her right breast. These studies led to a bilateral diagnostic mammogram in May 2019, where a new area of concern was noted and a surgical evaluation was recommended.

“I never did ask what they were looking at because they’d tell me what I needed to know, but I dreaded those appointments,” Kittle said. “I didn’t look forward to going, and it was always a relief when I was told to come back in six months. I felt like I had gotten a reprieve.”

But that feeling of relief ended on May 21, 2019.

Another six-month mammogram — one intended to get Kittle back on her annual schedule for the screening — revealed a new area of concern. Robert Hyslop, MD, a board-certified radiologist, recommended following the mammogram with an ultrasound.

As he watched the ultrasound technologist work, he was able to show Kittle what was worrying him and why he was going to recommend a surgical evaluation.

“He asked if I had a preference for a doctor,” Kittle said. “I heard a lot about Dr. Zunzunegui, so I asked to have an appointment with him.”

Raul Zunzunegui, MD, FACS, — “Dr. Z” to his patients — is a board-certified, Susan G. Komen fellowship-trained breast surgeon at the Comprehensive Breast Care Center in Carrollton.

“Even though Ms. Kittle didn’t have a family history of breast cancer, she did the right thing in getting screened every year,” Dr. Zunzunegui said. “By taking a proactive approach, we can find and treat cancer in the early stages, which improves the patient’s chance of survival.”
The appointment was scheduled for July 8. Instead of sitting at home waiting for her first visit with Dr. Zunzunegui, the Kittles went on a cruise to Alaska from June 17 to July 1. When she returned and went to her appointment, Dr. Zunzunegui recommended a biopsy.
“When we had a biopsy, he told me it was cancer,” Kittle said. “It was small and slow-growing, but it hadn’t grown any while they’ve been watching it.”
Dr. Zunzunegui scheduled her for a partial mastectomy to remove the cancer and a sentinel node biopsy to stage it. Kittle’s treatment also included radiation treatments at Tanner’s Roy Richards, Sr. Cancer Center.
“It was a pretty rough week, but it gave us the time to sort of come to grips with it and decide this is something that we needed to do and needed to take care of as soon as we could do it,” Kittle said. “We came back home and started canceling trips.”

She had the procedure about a month later and got another shock: a margin on the edge of the lumpectomy site was not completely clear of cancer.

Dr. Zunzunegui scheduled a re-excision of a very close lumpectomy margin that showed no further evidence of cancer.

“We canceled two more trips,” Kittle said. “It was a bad time. I just wanted to get it behind me.”

Breast cancer nurse navigator Nicolle Rooks, RN, MSN, played a big role in helping her through the treatments. No matter where her appointments were – in the doctor’s office or hospital – Rooks was there. She was also there for her radiation treatments to answer any questions.

“But I was so numb I couldn’t think of questions to ask,” Kittle said. “Even though I didn’t have any questions, she was there. She sat with my husband during those visits, and it was a comfort to have her there.”

Her radiation treatments began on Oct. 28. She didn’t know what to expect after being told the treatments make some people weak. But she didn’t let that get in the way of her vacation plans.

“We had a trip planned to the Polynesian islands on Dec. 7, and I was determined I was going to go on that trip,” Kittle said. “I didn’t mind going to treatments, which took maybe 15 minutes every other day. I was just so grateful I didn’t have to have chemo.”

She completed her treatments the week of Thanksgiving 2019. She felt blessed for all the support she received from her husband, family, friends, doctors and nurses. Her medical team included Dr. Zunzunegui, Bradley Larson, MD, a board-certified medical oncology and hematology specialist with Northwest Georgia Oncology Centers and a member of the patient care team at Tanner Cancer Center, and radiation treatment at the Roy Richards, Sr. Cancer Center.

“I feel so grateful for everything that was done for me,” Kittle said.

She is also thankful for the support she has received through her church’s cancer support group ministry. Our Journey of Hope meets every third Wednesday of each month from 6 to 7:15 p.m. in Room 256 at Tabernacle Baptist Church in Carrollton.

While she loves to travel, she is thankful that she didn’t have to go to Atlanta to get good quality health care. Her journey from diagnosis to recovery has been long, with a few bumps along the road, but she did receive some good news after her last mammogram in June 2020.

“All is well,” Kittle said. “I’m back on annual checkups now.”

And did she end up going on her trip to the Polynesian islands?

“I did go on that Polynesian trip, and it was great,” she said.