A Refuge from Cancer
Patient: Diane K.
Diagnosis: February 16, 2011
Types: Invasive Lobular Carcinoma and Invasive Ductal Carcinoma
It’s a hot March, Saturday afternoon and patrons begin pouring into the cozy confines of Refuge Brewery. Diane Kucera stands in her usual spot behind the sleek, concrete bar, filling pints of IPAs and Belgians for thirsty guests.
But today something’s a little unusual. Even for a brewery things are a little more festive and, well, a lot more pink. Two shades of pink balloons decorate the shiny, steel barrels. The beer menus are printed on pink paper stock.
Pink brewing boots with letters spelling out ‘donations’, sit on the bar. Michelle’s Place coasters and pink sunglasses are strewn about. And all the brewery employees, Diane included, are decked out in special edition black, T-Shirts, emblazoned with the Refuge Brewery logo in pink on the front and a “brewing for the cure” pink beer bottle on the back.
The reason for all this celebrating: for this 54-year-old brunette, March 15th isn’t just another date on the calendar, it’s the day she finally heard the words: cancer free.
A Subconscious Feeling
Diane knew something was wrong. She had a feeling. Although she’d followed all the proper medical advice and her regular mammograms never showed any irregularities, she just couldn’t shake the feeling. She didn’t have the energy she used to and was tired all the time. Also, she had noticed dimpling, one of the signs of breast cancer.
One January morning, she woke up suddenly, with her hand pressed on a section of her breast. And that’s how she remained, until the sun rose and her doctor’s office opened.
“I woke up and I said ‘I know something is wrong. I just subconsciously knew,” she said during a recent interview at Breastlink in Murrieta.
The Temecula resident was immediately sent to Breastlink by her obstetrician-gynecologist. Like before, the results of the mammogram were normal. Because of Diane’s dense breasts, which often mask tumors in mammograms, further tests were conducted, including: biopsies, ultrasounds and an MRI. And eventually her worst fears were confirmed: multiple tumors were found.
“When Amy (Dr. Bremner) called I remember thinking “I knew it. And then it was all the decisions on how to handle it.”
Ready to Fight
Although Diane wasn’t surprised when she heard Dr. Bremner say the words, she couldn’t shake the feeling that this was it.
“At first I was really scared. I remember feeling sorry for myself, thinking ‘here it is, I’m gonna die, I’ve got cancer.'”
She called her two sons and let them know about the diagnosis.
Her then 22-year-old, who was attending college in San Luis Obispo, drove down right away. When he walked into their house, laid his head in her lap and sobbed, Diane’s resolve quickly shifted.
“I remember when he did that, looking down at him and going like ‘I’m gonna fight it, it’s not gonna take me.'”
And fight it she did. Diane heeded Dr. Bremner’s advice to battle the cancer with surgery, followed by radiation, and a lot of patience. Three years later, she’s healthy and cancer-free.
When Dr. Bremner walks into Refuge Brewery and sits down to order a pint of Illusion IPA, Diane can’t hold back.
“That’s the person that saved my life,” she’ll immediately tell other patrons at the Temecula-based brewery she co-owns with her husband Curt Kucera and business partner Glenn Wichert.
Trusting Dr. Bremner was the hardest hurdle for her to jump. With multiple tumors and two types of cancer that were invasive, there were times Diane envisioned her cancer was getting worse and almost “buckled”.
But her husband and she poured over all the research Dr. Bremner provided and they went with the doctor’s advice.
“It’s neat with Breastlink (because) you have the whole team look at it. You have a lot of people, you just didn’t rely on one doctor.”
Due to her dense breasts, the cancer wasn’t detected on imaging, presenting itself with subtle skin dimpling. Dr. Bremner told her she was probably walking around for some time with the disease.
Yet, Diane doesn’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing.
“To me, subconsciously, it’s because Breastlink is so awesome that it was meant to be,” she says. “So there’s part of me that is thankful that it wasn’t detected until Breastlink opened here.”
In 2010, Dr. Amy Bremner joined Breastlink as a breast-dedicated surgeon and opened up the new center in the Temecula Valley.
Radiation, Surgery and IPAS
If it wasn’t for breast cancer, Refuge Brewery would never have existed, Diane says matter-of-factly while manning the bar.
Her husband Curt quickly echoes that sentiment.
“That’s probably true,” he says, “Because that kind of was the motivation because I stopped traveling and was around the house and it kind of dawned on me.”
High school sweethearts, the two grew up in Nebraska, married shortly after graduation and then relocated to Corvallis, Ore., to attend Oregon State University.
Two sons. 35 years of marriage. Cross-country moves. Multiple businesses. Curt’s constant international travel. The two had already weathered quite a few journeys, but not cancer.
“We realized there’s no guarantees and we wanted to spend time together if it was only a year or the next 30 years,” Diane says. “I enjoy a good beer and I enjoy the process of it and it was something we could do together.”
After her diagnosis, Curt, who is also an engineer and owns another company, quit traveling. He let his hair get a bit shaggier and even grew some facial hair, vowing not to cut it until his wife’s results were back. That was quite a change for the previously clean-cut engineer.
He also picked up an old hobby: brewing beer. Setting up shop in the garage of their Temecula home, Curt’s brew quickly became popular. Neighbors would stop by to enjoy his latest and beer became a sort of refuge from the cancer.
“I remember sitting out there watching him brew, recovering from surgery and relaxing from radiation,” says Diane.
It didn’t take long for Curt and his friend Glenn Wichert, co-owner of the brewery, to decide that they should brew, bottle and sell their beer. A year after her diagnosis and six months after her treatments ended and the cancer was gone; Refuge Brewery opened its doors.
That’s how Diane ended up celebrating her third year of being cancer free with a barrel of beer.
Now an annual tradition at Refuge, each year they brew up a special batch of beer in the name of Breast Cancer Awareness and open it up in March to celebrate Diane’s survival anniversary.
This year’s brew? A Saison, with notes of pink peppercorns and strawberries with the apropos name of Trois, or three in French.
The anniversary celebration is in collaboration with Michelle’s Place, the Temecula-based non-profit breast cancer resource center, and will continue until April 13th. Cash donations from patrons and proceeds from the T-shirts will go to Michelle’s Place. Refuge will also make a donation.
Diane wipes down the counter and places a bowl of pretzel mix in front of some customers and arranges some of the pink sunglasses. She works long hours at the brewery. These days, her time is filled up with pints, growlers, barrels and happy beer drinkers.
But she still has a lifelong bond with the doctor who helped her through it all, a connection that made all those surgeries and treatments a little easier to bear.
“That was a great connection, here we’d talk about my treatments and what we were gonna do and those two would be talking about IPAs,” Diane says with a heartfelt laugh.