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Originally published May 12, 2012 at 8:04 PM | Page modified May 15, 2012 at 4:18 PM

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Kathi Goertzen: a mother's strength, two daughters' inspiration

Softball bonds mother Kathi Goertzen and her daughter as the longtime KOMO-TV anchor bravely battles brain tumors that have required nine surgeries.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Her raspy voice strains for volume as she cheers on her daughter.

"Come on, Andrea!" mom yells, clapping. "Come on, girl!"

Poised in the pitching circle just a few feet away, Andrea Jewett hears no one. She zones in on the hitter, focused on leading her Ballard High School softball team to another victory on a rare sunny day at Lower Woodland Park.

And rain or shine, win or lose, there's no place mom Kathi Goertzen would rather be.

"It's hard being the parent of a pitcher, but I love watching her," Goertzen says. "It makes my day."

Many days are difficult for Goertzen, the popular longtime KOMO-TV news anchorwoman who has battled brain tumors since 1998. Just weeks earlier, she endured her ninth surgery.

The tumors have taken so much — parts of her vision, hearing and speech, even taken her away from the anchor job she adored for nearly 30 years. They've robbed her of her ability to eat and drink, and destroyed the nerves on the right side of her face, leaving her with a crooked smile.

But nothing can take Goertzen's inner strength and resilience. No tumor can shake her faith or the love and support she shares with her family, friends and more than 72,000 followers on Facebook.

What she sees in the mirror can't reflect the kind of mother she remains or the admiration her daughters share for her.

"She's taught me how to be strong," says Andrea Jewett, who turned 17 last week. "She's my role model, my hero. I follow in her footsteps."

A warrior princess — that's how Alexa Jarvis, Andrea's 22-year-old half-sister and best friend, often refers to their mom.

A family's escape

Softball started as a family activity, something to keep the girls active and their parents involved.

"Rick coached, the kids played and I watched," Goertzen says.

She met Rick Jewett in the late 1980s, when he worked as a freelance news photographer at KOMO. Alexa, her daughter from a previous marriage, was 6 when they wed in 1994. Andrea arrived the next year.

Goertzen, the second oldest of four daughters, was a swimmer at Seattle's Queen Anne High School, and Rick played baseball for Issaquah. Both are competitive, driven people, and their daughters quickly followed suit.

They excelled in softball, but Alexa gave it up her senior year of high school to pursue her passion for performing arts. She is an accomplished opera singer who graduates from DePaul University next month.

Andrea, who attends Seattle Academy but plays softball for Ballard because her small, private school doesn't offer it, tried other sports growing up. But the pitching circle kept pulling her back.

"That's my escape," Andrea says, "really being able to focus on one thing only and just do what I love to do and nothing else."

Her dad hopes she isn't holding too much in and is happy she has softball.

"It really does give her that release she needs, where she can just get out there and be herself and can sort of be in control, when life is really completely out of control," he says.

Like mom, like daughter

The first surgery was supposed to be the last. Andrea was only 2, too young to remember. But Alexa was 8 and recently wrote a touching piece about the 14-year journey, which is posted on the family's blog.

"Tonight, I have to say goodbye to my Mama before she goes to the hospital tomorrow to get surgery on her brain," Alexa writes of how she felt. "Will this be the last time I talk to her? Is she going to die? Why her?"

Goertzen and her husband were told that if she had to have a brain tumor, meningioma was the one to have. But hers is one of the extremely aggressive 10 percent. It multiplies and gnaws at her nerves, and eats away at her.

At least, what she looks like from the outside.

"I'm still me inside!" she writes in an email.

Andrea agrees. "She's still the same," she says.

The surgeries now come every 12 to 16 months and the most recent, a 13-hour ordeal in February, still has her staggering. After nearly a month in the hospital, her lack of balance forces her to use a cane she'd just as soon chuck into Puget Sound from a window of her Magnolia home.

Goertzen misses her job as an anchor, but mostly she misses simpler, everyday things. She misses solo walks with Oliver, a 6-year-old golden retriever, a rescue dog who rarely leaves her side.

She misses her chocolates and chardonnay, which she used to sip through a straw even after a feeding tube went in last year. Now, swallowing is too much of a struggle.

Goertzen carries tissues to dab at her mouth. It's all so frustrating, she says. But through it all, she hasn't lost her sense of humor.

"Do you drool, too?" she asks Andrea jokingly.

"Sometimes, when I sleep," Andrea replies with a smile.

Like mother, like daughter.

Line of strong women

Just days before the surgery in February of this year, Goertzen had her girlfriends over and a Ping-Pong tournament broke out. Despite wearing a patch over her right eye, she reached the final before losing — although the friend also put a patch over her eye to even the odds.

Andrea shows similar grit on the softball field, shaking off an occasional home run or error.

"I am not at all surprised that Kathi's daughters are growing up to be very strong women like their mother," says Dan Lewis, Goertzen's longtime co-anchor and close friend.

Victoria Martinsen, who has known Goertzen since they were 7, concurs.

"Kathi gives her best effort to whatever she does," she says. "She gives her best at being a friend, at being a mom, at being a sister and a wife, and she gives her best living with this disease she has. That's been consistent throughout her life, just giving everything her best, and you can see that legacy in Andrea."

Goertzen comes from a line of strong women. Her mother, Irma Goertzen, is a former registered nurse who became administrator of the University of Washington Medical Center — the first female in the country to run a major teaching hospital.

She and Goertzen's father, Don, a retired elementary-school principal, live just a few doors away. Irma Goertzen helps with her daughter's home care since the surgery.

Irma's mother, Alice, was an accomplished musician who had one strict rule for her seven children.

"We were never allowed to say, 'I can't,' " Irma says. "She would say to us, 'There's no such word as can't. You just haven't tried yet.' "

She passed the adage down. Last year Andrea and Alexa helped design support bracelets for their mom that say "Never Say You Can't" on one side and "Pray 4 Kathi," the KOMO mantra, on the other.

Sales of the bracelets and ensuing donations led to the establishment of Kathi Goertzen Foundation. The mission is to fund research designed to cure brain tumors. Maybe Goertzen's tumors.

"Never tried to hide"

Goertzen already has outlived most with her type of tumors, which is usually less than 10 years, according to her neurosurgeon, Dr. Marc Mayberg of the Swedish Medical Center.

Her body cannot handle any more radiation, he says. Two trips to Switzerland to seek alternative treatment in 2010 didn't produce desired results.

Goertzen is trying a new chemotherapy drug, and one of Mayberg's colleagues is working on a vaccine that would allow her body's own defense systems to kill the tumors.

Just before her last surgery, Goertzen said in an online interview with KOMO that she hopes "I can hang on long enough" to find a cure.

Those are scary words for Andrea and Alexa.

"We try to keep those thoughts out of our heads," Andrea says.

Goertzen rarely complains or shows a vulnerable side. "I've lost so much of who I was, but crying and whining about it really doesn't help much," she says. "I've got the greatest family and a ton of support in the community, so I'm pretty good."

The daughters admire their mom's openness. Even though it's not easy to look in the mirror, Goertzen won't hide.

"I let people into my life and I went into their homes (via TV) for so many years," she says, "so I've never really tried to hide myself."

She made a public appearance at the YWCA "WE Inspire" luncheon last month, an event she has MC'd since its inception. This time, Lewis handled most of the lines, but Goertzen spoke as best she could. She received a standing ovation and seemed overwhelmed when Lewis led the crowd of more than 2,000 in singing her "Happy Birthday."

"There was a lot of love in that room," she writes in an email.

On April 30, she turned 54.

Alexa sometimes gets mad and wonders why her mom can't be the healthy one bringing cookies over, like a friend's mom.

"But they don't have what I have with my mom," she says.

Her daughters' time

While Goertzen is happy to share her story, she wants this one to be about her daughters. This is their time.

It's why she encouraged Alexa to follow her dream to DePaul, despite mom's health. They talk or text daily.

Goertzen tells Andrea to be a teenager and not to worry about her. She participates in as many mother-daughter rituals as possible, like shopping together for school dance dresses earlier this year. They still watch "Gossip Girl" and "Modern Family" in bed together or in the living room with those magnificent views of the water.

Goertzen is proud of her daughters. Alexa has accepted a position with the Seattle Opera Company this summer. Andrea, who led the KingCo 4A Conference in strikeouts (and innings pitched) as a sophomore last season, is a 3.9 student who hopes to play softball in college. She features a 60-mph fastball and is Ballard's top hitter. Coach Kyle Gray calls her a "coach's dream." Other coaches credit her largely for the Beavers' run to the playoffs.

"She's really good," her mother says, "really good."

Watching Andrea play brings some normalcy. Even a bad day on the softball field counts as a good day for mother and daughter, because Goertzen is there, sitting next to Rick while he records stats on his iPad.

On this sunny afternoon, Andrea doesn't have her best stuff, and Bothell hits her hard. Irma Goertzen can't bear to watch. Kathi shakes her fists and grimaces as the game slips away.

"Arrgghh!" she growls.

Afterward, she greets Andrea with the usual hug and kiss. "I'm proud of you," she says.

Andrea's proud, too. Proud to be the daughter of a mom like Kathi Goertzen, who continues to swing at every curve life throws her.

Sandy Ringer: 206-718-1512 or sringer@seattletimes.com

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