Mesothelioma Survivor Kasie Coleman Has Bright Business Future
BATON ROUGE, La. Kasie Coleman is like a buzz saw without a stop switch now, whirling from one task to the next, leaving dust in her wake and anyone trying to follow, two steps behind.
She doesn’t slow anymore for negative thoughts, chemotherapy side effects or behind-schedule doctor appointments. Too busy for that.
Coleman has children to raise, a husband to love, parents to help, a God to worship, a blog to write and a burgeoning bakery business to build. She’s charging through a life that hardly acknowledges the peritoneal mesothelioma cancer now in remission, but still quietly brewing within her belly.
The 38-year-old businesswoman opened her third Sugarbelle Bakery in Baton Rouge last month, only a year after inaugurating the first store. She’s expanding quickly with a can’t-miss concept: The best made-from-scratch, all-natural, melt-in-your-mouth goodies originating from her grandmother’s personal recipes.
“The plan now is to help this thing [business] grow,” Coleman said during a short, catch-her-breath, late afternoon lunch break at a nearby Cajun seafood shop. “I’ve been asked if I’m going to franchise it, but I’ve been too busy to even research that yet. For now, I just want to build something that is going to last here.”
Coleman this day doesn’t look, act or even sound like a person hit with a cancer that has no definitive cure. Yet there are times when the burden overwhelms her, which she details in her blog for Asbestos.com.
She is more concerned now with building this Bundt cake boutique, making gooey Whoopie Pies, Gourmet Pralines and scrumptious Tea Cakes that are unmatched in Baton Rouge.
“I try to live now like it [the cancer] never happened, as much as I can,” she said. “I don’t think about it too much. Just give me 60 more years of living to get everything done, and I’ll be happy. I’ve told my oncologist a few times that I don’t have time for all this stuff he wants to talk about.”
Dealing with Life’s Ups and Downs
Coleman was diagnosed almost four years ago, twice underwent major cytoreductive surgery and hyperthermic intraperitoneal chemotherapy (HIPEC) procedures.
She also has been through multiple post-surgery chemotherapy cycles that made her miserable, and later a hypochondriac stage where every ache or pain caused a panic attack that gave her a shingles-like skin rash.
Coleman still travels to Cancer Treatment Centers of America in Tulsa, Oklahoma once every 90 days for a precautionary tuneup, making sure no new disease is growing. She is still learning to block out the worry until just before each trip. She does it by staying busy.
“Around day 88 or 89, that’s when I think about it again, almost obsess over it. It’s frightening. And when I get to Tulsa, I’m like a car pulling up to the pump on empty. I’m on fumes,” she said. “But when I leave there, and the results are good, I’ve got a full tank and I’m ready to roll. I’m the Energizer Bunny again.”
As a business owner, her days start early and usually end late. Although her bakers arrive first at the stores, she isn’t too far behind after getting her two young sons, 11 and 6, off to school.
A Baker Who Wears Many Hats
She could be in the back sifting flour, cracking eggs and wearing an apron. She might be wiping down the counter out front, taking a special order by phone, or filling out staff schedules at her desk. She drives from store to store, but uses her cellphone to stay in regular contact with each one.
“I don’t have a manager or assistant manager. I pretty much do everything. I’m HR, marketing, baker, cashier, customer service, runner,” she said. “I try not to micromanage, but it’s in my nature.”
Her husband, who works for AT&T, also serves as an after-hours maintenance man for Sugarbelle. He built some of the furniture at the newest store, which opened in a more upscale neighborhood. They also are adding homemade ice cream and doughnuts to the menu.
“I’m used to working. I’ve worked all my life. I worked while in high school. I had three jobs at once while going to college. I’ve worked at fast-food places, at drug stores, a utility company, clothing stores,” she said. “I’ve probably had 40 different jobs in my life. You name it, I’ve done it.”
Grandmother Set the Stage
The bakery idea was innocently planted long ago, although she never intended to do it professionally. As a child, she grew up baking cookies with her grandmother, leaving her with fond memories and an appreciation for old-fashioned, southern-style baked goods.
After graduating from Louisiana Tech University, Coleman started a promising career in pharmaceutical sales and marketing, taking advantage of her outgoing, personable nature. She was a natural at charming and disarming medical professionals.
But then came the stomach pains, multiple rounds of misdiagnoses and eventually, the news that this rare aggressive cancer had attacked her out of nowhere.
The typical mesothelioma patient is 30 years older, has a history of asbestos exposure, and doesn’t survive as long as Coleman already has. And they don’t have their lunches interrupted by an urgent phone call wondering what type of liquor should be used in a special-order Booze Collection Bundt Cake.
“I’m particular with the ingredients we use,” she said. “And I’ve been known to improvise.”
After her first surgery at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, she was laid off from her pharmaceutical job, even though her recovery time was half that of the typical patient. Needing an outlet – and a job – she discovered a folder of recipes that her grandmother had compiled before she died.
One of those handwritten recipes – for Butter Pound Cake – is proudly displayed in each of the stores, alongside the photo of her grandmother. After tasting the real thing, customers often pause to read it, jotting it down before leaving.
“I know that the original Sugarbelle, Mary J. Davenport, is in heaven, beaming with pride, because I’m still baking, sharing her with everyone, and following in her footsteps ” is part of the framed tribute Coleman wrote.
The Sugarbelle menu includes categories like Bundt Cake Signature Classics, Fruitful Fantasies, Booze Collection, Junk Food Classics and Chocoholics Anonymous, along with a rotating menu of other favorites.
“Some days this is really fun. It’s great to see customers smile and tell you how much they love what we made. Some days, the business side can be frustrating. It can wear you down,” she said. “I’m an impatient person, and I wonder when it might get to the point where I can actually take a day off and not worry. That’s why I burn the candle at both ends now. I’m still looking for the light at the end of the tunnel, but I don’t see it yet.”
Her goal is to continue expanding, design more creative packaging and move into outside retail outlets. She also remains committed to having the best and freshest cakes anywhere outside the home.
“Being in business has helped me mentally with this [mesothelioma],” she said. “The first thing I’d tell someone else facing the same thing is ‘Have your pity party.’ It can freak you out, but then surround yourself with people who believe you can fight it. We’ve all got an expiration date, but I’ve never felt like I was dying. I’ve got too much going on.”