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Shirley Kaven defied disease to make 14 years of memories

By Jim Sheeler, Rocky Mountain News, August 19, 2004

JOHNSTOWN - Only a few months after the diagnosis, Shirley Kaven stood tall in the back of a pickup truck and decorated the entrance to her new horse ranch. As usual, she was smiling.

"This is a woman who's just been told she's going to die," said her husband, Jerry Kaven, as he looked at a photo of his wife.

The smiling woman in the photo would go on to travel the world and roll on the floor with new grandchildren. She would pilot a boat, fly in a glider and parasail. She would raise and ride horses and share her skills with other people whom nobody ever expected to sit in a saddle.

"For 14 years, you couldn't tell she was sick. Everyone would look at her and say, 'She doesn't even look sick,' " Jerry Kaven said. "But it was inside, eating her away."

Shirley Jean Kaven died Aug. 11 of complications from mesothelioma, a cancer caused by inhalation of asbestos. She was 66.

She spent the first part of her life in the shadows of the auto factories of Dearborn, Mich. She married her high school sweetheart, Jerry Kaven, and by 19 she had their first child. Neither would go to college; they would both learn life on the job.

For Mrs. Kaven, that didn't take long.

In 1968, amid racial turmoil in nearby Detroit, the Kavens and their four children moved to Colorado, and Jerry Kaven soon co-founded Accurate Plastics in Longmont. From the onset, Mrs. Kaven was an integral part of the firm, primarily in bookkeeping. Over the years the company grew to more than 140 employees.

In 1989 - only months after retirement - Mrs. Kaven said she had trouble breathing.

She may have been exposed to asbestos while she helped build the family's first home in Colorado, her husband said. The diagnosis: six to 18 months.

Shirley Kaven dug in, still smiling.

"She said if you don't start from your heart and have a positive attitude, your body's not going to follow," Jerry Kaven said. "She said, 'You gotta take charge and be the captain of your own ship.' She was not going to let it take her without a fight."

She began a barrage of therapies, both holistic and traditional.

For the first few years, she seemed to have kicked the cancer. The family moved to a 35-acre equestrian ranch, where she shared horses with her children and grandkids. She volunteered at the Colorado Therapeutic Riding Center, where the woman with the terminal disease was the one teaching disabled kids to ride.

Inside their home Tuesday, Jerry Kaven flipped through photo albums filled with memories that medical experts said she would never have - including nearly five years of living in a motor home while traveling across the United States. They eventually built a new home in the Florida Keys but returned to Colorado last year as she continued to weaken.

Soon she was also battling inoperable heart and lung conditions. Still, she refused to leave every doctor's office without one of her trademark hugs.

Hours before her death in the hospital, her family realized what was happening. She lived the last few hours of her life as she had lived since the first diagnosis.

"She looked up," recalled her daughter, Susan Stewart, "and she said, 'Am I that sick?' "