SIUC professor in a chess match against cancer


By Autumn Douglas, @ADouglas_DE

Nothing will stop her, not even cancer.

Senior lecturer Kathy Chonez has traveled to more than 10 countries, worked in more than five career fields and has spent the last 17 years teaching Spanish at SIUC.

Chonez is a two-time cancer survivor, and, although the disease has returned, she refuses to let it overpower her.


“I want to suck the most marrow out of the bone of life, and I’ll feel great that I have it still,” Chonez said. “If you feel great then you can’t feel bad.”

Chonez was diagnosed with lung cancer for the first time on May 19, 2012. She had the tumor surgically removed, and her doctors chose to not put her on chemotherapy.

In fall 2014, she was diagnosed for the second time with the same lung cancer. It had come back much sooner, she said, but the doctors missed it.

One of her doctors told her she was not sick enough to be as tired as she was, but on Feb. 24, she got a second opinion. She found out the cancer had metastasized to the bone marrow in her right arm.

This doctor told her she may have anywhere between two months and two years to live.

“The first thing I thought was, ‘I’ve always wondered what it would be like to be told that.’ And, I was still wondering what it would be like, because I couldn’t get a hold of my reaction,” Chonez said.

Lung cancer leads in cancer deaths in America with an estimated 158,040 deaths in 2015 and a five-year survival rate of about 18 percent, according to the American Lung Association.


Chonez said she believes if she had been on chemotherapy after the first tumor was removed in 2012, the cancer might not have come back so soon. She may not be able to get the cancer surgically removed this time, but started chemotherapy in the summer.

Chonez began her life in Detroit. She grew up with three older sisters and parents who were ahead of their time, she said. They urged her to lead a physically active life, see the world and learn about other cultures.

She spent much of her young adult life traveling the world: She studied in France and Spain, worked in Iran as an English teacher and visited many other countries across Europe.

Although she graduated college with a degree in Spanish, she has worked as a medical social worker at Bellevue Hospital in New York City, a public relations director for a housing development corporation, a deputy director of a community development block grant program in Indianapolis and an urban homesteading officer for U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in Washington, D.C.

She began teaching Spanish in 1967 at the University of Iowa and continued at the University of Louisville and Indiana University at Bloomington before coming to SIUC in 1998. 

“Learning is a joy, even when it seems like a burden,” Chonez said. “One of the reasons I like teaching is because I always feel that I learn when I teach.”

As if this weren’t enough, she stays busy at home with one cat, two donkeys and eight dogs, one of which is her medical alert dog Pas Touche — meaning “don’t touch” in French. This well-mannered, chocolate poodle can be seen glued to Chonez’s side between classes in Faner Hall.

After being diagnosed with cancer, she said she came to the realization that she had become one of those little old ladies she saw as a medical social worker when she was young, with her tray of assorted prescription pills, and was struck with the question of how it happened so fast.

“I think on the whole, I’m handling it pretty well. I intentionally try to see the light in everything,” Chonez said.

She can’t go for more than five minutes without cracking a joke about her own situation.

“There’s a lot of humor in being a cancer patient,” she said.

As she adamantly points out, she is not dead yet, and does not intend to live like she is. She said staying positive and passionate about what she does is necessary and definitely more enjoyable than giving up all hope.

Living with stage-four lung cancer, Chonez finds many ways to keep herself otherwise healthy and active.

She tries to drink three cups of Japanese green tea per day, which must be steeped in water for 10 minutes before ingested for optimum effect. Her top cancer-fighting foods include chopped garlic, broccoli, ground Brussel sprouts, cabbage, rosemary and turmeric mixed with black pepper or ginger.

“I don’t see it as a fight; I see it as a chess game,” she said.

She certainly appears to be a worthy competitor with a strict strategy.

To many of her students, Chonez is a role model and an inspiration. Many of them joke that she should write a book about her life, because she is the most interesting person they have ever met.

“She takes the time to address issues in class and make sure we understand not only why things are the way they are, but appreciate the simplicity in the Spanish language as an intelligent and well-thought-out language,” said Franchesca Alejo, a junior from Joliet studying aviation management and business management.

Teaching is one of the things that keeps her going. Being able to see her students gives her fewer bad days, she said. She’s thankful her students are so tolerant.

No matter what she is going through, she comes to work most days to teach, because it is what she loves and wants to do for the rest of her life, she said.

“She sees all of her students as an opportunity to cultivate a mind, a brain, and improve that person in every way she can,” said Dimitrios H. Karayiannis, spanish section head and undergraduate advisor.

Autumn Douglas can be reached at [email protected] or at 536-3325.