Sarah Kaehny defies the odds. At age 32, Sarah, a triathlete, experienced intense pain during her runs. She sought physical therapy but eventually the swelling and soreness in her leg prevented her from competing. An MRI revealed a tumor the size of a baseball in her hamstring. Doctors diagnosed her with sarcoma, the same rare disease that took her father’s life when he was only 48-years old.
“My first thought was, ‘Oh my God, this is like death,’” says Sarah. “But then I channeled my anger into determination. I knew my fight had to be different than his, it had to be my own,” says Sarah.
For Sarah, that meant not only did she continue to cycle, hike, kayak, and snowshoe throughout her cancer treatment, but she decided to push through the pain and start earning a bachelor’s degree in health and wellness so she could help others manage their health.
A Focus on Wellness Education
Sarah already had a bachelor’s degree in secondary education from the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. Her career path took a different direction, however, due to her passion for living a healthy lifestyle. She created her own fitness center, where she taught fitness classes at night, provided one-on-one personal training and health coaching, and developed a 10-week course on healthy eating.
“I started a group on their wellness journey and found that teaching these life lessons came naturally to me. It’s so rewarding to help people become healthier and happier.”
When her cancer treatment became too much, Sarah had to close the fitness center. She began to research careers in wellness and learned about companies that design and implement wellness programs for corporate clients. She was stunned to learn she could be paid well and earn benefits, all while doing what she loves.
Sarah enrolled in the online UW Health and Wellness Management bachelor’s program, choosing University of Wisconsin-La Crosse as her home campus. Throughout her treatment, Sarah managed to continue her online coursework.
“There’s a lot of waiting around when you’re in chemo treatment. So I would do classwork or listen to lectures or write papers while I was there.”
Sarah’s sarcoma worsened, metastacizing into her lungs, with tumors near her heart and esophagus as well. With surgery no longer an option, Sarah opted to participate in an experimental drug trial at Froedtert Hospital; a treatment combining traditional chemotherapy with a new trial drug. The results were promising. Sarah moved to the Milwaukee area to be closer to the treatment center, and began working at Interra Health as a health coach. Based on her health and wellness coursework, Sarah quickly carved out a new role within the organization.
“I was always able to apply my course projects the very next day at work! Eventually, I proposed a new job description, playing more of a liaison role. It worked! Today, I’m a wellness program manager. I evaluate programs, tweak existing programs to make them more effective, and create new ones. I still do health coaching, but in addition, I have a lot of autonomy to develop strategy and design my own materials, incentives, and lesson plans.”
Three years after starting her degree, Sarah graduated in May 2017 with a Bachelor of Science in Health and Wellness Management.
“Getting the bachelor’s degree helped shape my position. It was an awesome outcome. Now I have a bright future. Clients value my degree; it makes a difference in terms of credibility and confidence–more knowledge is better.”
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Finding Fulfillment Helping Others Live Healthy
Sarah continues to fight stage four cancer. She has several small nodules in her right lung but these have not grown or changed in several years. Despite her five-year battle, Sarah maintains a positive spirit. She feels energetic and continues to teach fitness classes four days a week. She documents her ongoing treatment through a humorous lens with Chemo Cam, celebrating milestones such as her 100th chemo treatment and poking fun at her clinical coordinator. She jokingly calls herself the Cancer Poster Child, because of her nonstop efforts to drive more research, treatments, and ultimately, a cure.
When she’s not launching fundraisers for sarcoma patients, speaking out at public events, and generating news coverage in the fight against cancer, Sarah is advocating for the wellness industry. She recently shared her perspective on health careers with the UW Health and Wellness program’s advisory board, which includes organizations such as Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin, Kimberly Clark Corporation, Willis Towers Watson, AdvantageHealth Corporation and Wisconsin Department of Health.
“I believe in wellness. I love what I do and I want to do more. It’s mind over body. I’m not going to stop doing what I love just because this has happened.”