LIFE’S DESIGN

Written By: Robert Cocuzzo | Photography By: Brian Sager

The perseverance of Nantucket resident Karli Stahl.

Karli Stahl possesses an uncommon kind of positivity. With her radiant smile and upbeat attitude, the mother of two gives off an undeniable effervescence when you’re in her orbit. This warm presence, along with an exquisite eye for detail, has helped Stahl become one of the most sought-after interior designers on Nantucket where she and her builder-husband Chip have created some of the most striking homes. Yet what makes Stahl’s positivity so remarkable is that it shines through a dark personal cloud that most people on Nantucket are completely unaware of.

Six years ago, Stahl was diagnosed with stage three colorectal cancer. The news was utterly shocking. As a long-distance runner who prided herself in leading a healthy lifestyle, Stahl wasn’t overly concerned when she went in for a colonoscopy after noticing blood in her stool. Yet when she awoke from the procedure, the doctor standing in front of her couldn’t hide the look of dread in his face. He had discovered a very large mass—so large, he said, that he could just about guarantee that it was cancer. “I was totally blindsided,” Stahl said. Doctors at Massachusetts General Hospital later confirmed that she had colorectal cancer—stage three. “That’s when I started getting really scared.”

Stahl immediately underwent eight rounds of chemotherapy. She then moved to Boston to undergo eight weeks of radiation. “That was really tough because my kids were little at the time and I had to be away from them,” she said. Stahl returned to Nantucket and spent the summer recovering so that she could undergo surgery in September to remove part of her colon. Lying in the hospital bed fixed with a colostomy bag that she would need for the next eight weeks as she recovered, Stahl was told by the doctors that the surgery had been a success. Unfortunately, that positive news only lasted for as long as it took for the pathology report to come back, which revealed that all fourteen lymph nodes surgeons had removed tested positive for cancer.

More and more rounds of chemo and radiation followed, throughout which Stahl continued working. “I didn’t bring it up to my clients unless I had to,” she said. “Because I didn’t want them to think that I wasn’t up for the task.” Indeed, Stahl kept her cancer treatment relatively quiet, only telling her inner circle of friends and doing so with her trademark optimism. In fact, when she first broke the news to them during a dinner at Pi Pizzeria, Stahl’s positivity was so convincing that pretty soon they were all laughing. Noticing the commotion, Pi’s owner, Maria Marley, came over to their table and asked what they were celebrating. “Oh, Stahl has got cancer!” one of Karli’s friends blurted out.

Flexing her positive mindset was a decision Stahl made from the very beginning when she told her children about her diagnosis. While committing to being fully transparent with them, she also realized that her children—and her friends for that matter—were looking to her for cues on how they should process the experience. “My mantra is that the only thing I can control is my attitude and I’ve chosen to be positive,” she explained. “There’s data that shows that positivity promotes healing, so I don’t accept negativity.” She added, “I’m essentially living everyone’s worst nightmare. Everyone fears cancer. But if you look at me, you’d never know what I’m going through.”

Staying positive in even the best of circumstances is a challenge for most people. Stahl was able to do so in the face of a grim cancer diagnosis, thanks to her husband Chip, who helped bolster her mindset. “We’ve been together for thirty years,” she said. “We were high school sweethearts, went to two proms together…he knows me better than anyone. And he’s an eternal optimist.” That’s not to say Stahl doesn’t grapple with the grim realities of her situation. “Every day it’s constantly on my mind,” she said. “There are days that I think about when I am going to die or I’m planning my own funeral…One thing that I struggle with is that I loved my life. I didn’t need this reminder to appreciate my life. That was never a lesson I needed to learn. So when I learned that the cancer had spread, it was a real slap in the face.”

After keeping her cancer at bay for fourteen months, Stahl was shocked to learn that the cancer had spread to her lungs and it was stage four. “Anytime you hear ‘lung cancer,’ you immediately think ‘death sentence,’” Stahl said. “But what I keep in my mind is that my treatment is a marathon, not a sprint.” She and her family continued to dig in, undergoing surgery to remove part of her lung and more rounds of chemo while doubling down on their commitment to living fully. “Buy the shoes, eat the cake, take the trip—that’s how I lead my life,” she said.

When she and Chip were presented with the opportunity to hike Peru’s Salkantay Trail to Machu Picchu, Stahl refused to let her cancer hold her back. She spent hours at Steps Beach, going up and down the flight of stairs over and over to try and strengthen her lungs for the high altitude in Peru. Yet no matter how hard she trained, her lungs only felt weaker and weaker. She finally went in to see her primary care physician who thought she had pneumonia. Still Stahl remained undeterred, getting herself healthy enough to board her flight to Peru. Over the course of those ten days climbing upward of 15,000 feet, Stahl labored on the hike, her lungs in agony, but she never gave up and reached the fabled heights of Machu Picchu. When they were at the top, Chip turned to their guide and said nonchalantly: “Did you know she has stage four cancer?”

When Stahl returned home, she hoped that being back at sea level would make her lungs feel better, but the pain persisted. She finally went into the hospital to discover that she had done the entire hike in Peru with a collapsed lung. “The whole upper quadrant was collapsed,” she said. “It’s pretty crazy what you can do when you set your mind to it.” While her lungs have prevented her from running like she used to, Stahl continues to push her body however she can. This winter, she and Chip took their family to Stowe, Vermont, where she skied hard for four days. All the powder turns ended up landing her back in the emergency room where doctors once again found that her lung had collapsed and required surgery. In total, she’s been medevacked twice to Boston with a collapsed lung—just this past winter. Today, the right side of her lungs is permanently collapsed, but Stahl said that she now does breathing exercises to strengthen the left side to compensate.

Some might question the way in which Stahl is leading her life by refusing to slow down, continuing to work and jumping on every opportunity to jet off on an adventure. But she insists, “I’m not going to let cancer get the best of me and prevent me from what I want to do.” If anything, cancer has brought a deeper level of clarity for her, which is reflected in everything from what interior design projects she pursues to how she prioritizes her time with her friends and family.

That clarity is matched with gratitude. “I see so many people who have to go through cancer alone,” she said. “I’ve been so lucky to have so much support. Nantucket is one of those rare communities where if you need anything, they’re there in a second. From my infusion team who has become a second family to me, to all my friends, and to my family who has been amazing through this whole thing, strong and positive. I’m really lucky.”

For those who have encountered cancer in their lives, a major question they often grapple with is why. What is the lesson that cancer is teaching them? How should their diagnosis be reflected in how they lead their lives? For Karli Stahl, who insists that she already cherished her life prior to cancer, perhaps it’s not a lesson for her to learn but rather one she is teaching others. Stahl’s six-year battle reveals the profound power of positivity. Though we might not be able to control life’s design, Karli Stahl is a testament to the tools we all possess to shape it to our will.

Listen to our Nantucket Sound podcast episode with Karli Stahl on Apple Podcasts here and on Spotify here.

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