This is the first post in a series called How She Does It. For this series, I’ll interview amazing moms – and maybe dads too. But instead of taking a step back and saying “I don’t know how you do it,” here we take a step closer and tune in to what that person is experiencing in their world. If you’d like to nominate someone you know for this series, please email me.
Kristin and I have been co-workers for years. She’s a mom with two little boys – Noble, 5, and Luke, 3. Her life took an unexpected turn last year, so I asked her if she would feel comfortable sharing her story here.
This is how she does it.
What happened last year?
I was shaving one morning and noticed a lump under my arm.
I wasn’t really good about breast exams to be honest with you, but I hadn’t felt any lumps before. By the time I felt it, it was the size of a golf ball.
What did you do?
My dad had died of esophageal cancer, and my mom had recently been diagnosed with stage IV breast cancer. So I made an appointment with the doctor to get it checked out.
That same day, I was getting ready to leave for a spiritual retreat where I was planning to give a talk. My talk was called Bloom Where You’re Planted. It was about choosing to let God use you no matter what circumstances you find yourself in. When I was working on that talk, I shared a lot about my dad and his fight against cancer.
Also at the same time in my bible study group, we were talking about the epistles – the letters that the apostles wrote. There’s a lot of suffering in those letters and how God refines you through that suffering. I remember asking God at the time: Are you preparing me for something? It seemed too coincidental, the overlap of my study with the subject of the talk I was preparing.
Then when I saw the doctor that next Monday, he said I should wait for a month. I was so young, just 35, so he kind of blew it off. He wasn’t worried.
I was kind of relieved at first. But I just had a bad feeling about it. I decided to get a second opinion.
At the next doctor’s office, they didn’t think they could do a mammogram since I was still nursing my son, at the time 17 months old. So they did an ultrasound and then a biopsy.
It came back as breast cancer.
You’re so young. You just don’t expect to have that happen at your age.
I ended up having the breast cancer gene. It’s rarer for someone our age to have breast cancer, but breast cancer is very prevalent – 1 in 8 women will have breast cancer in their lifetime. My mom didn’t have the gene, but my sister and I both have the gene, so we got it from our dad.
It’s just a coincidence that my mom also has breast cancer. Sounds strange to say.
But her diagnosis helped tip me off to move quickly on this. Otherwise, I may have listened to that first doctor. Given the progression of the disease from the first ultrasound to the time of biopsy, it’s clear that time was crucial and that month delay could have had a devastating effect.
What happened next?
To decide on treatment, my doctors had to determine what stage of cancer I had and how aggressive it was as well as whether it had any hormone receptors.
There are four stages of cancer and three levels of aggression – low, moderate, and high. Stage IV means the cancer has popped up in another part of your body, and that changes the whole nature of the disease. They can’t cure stage IV. They can maybe get the tumors to go away for a while. But once it’s stage IV, it’s just a matter of time before it pops up again.
From the very beginning, I prayed: May it not be highly aggressive and not stage IV. May it not be highly aggressive and not stage IV. May it not be highly aggressive and not stage IV.
And my diagnosis came back moderately aggressive and stage III. I should have asked more boldly: make it disappear overnight!
What was your treatment like?
My treatment was 6 months of chemotherapy, a bilateral mastectomy procedure to remove the breast tissue – they wanted to get rid of both because I had the breast cancer gene – a lymph node dissection (they removed 13 nodes), and then 6 weeks of radiation.
I was kind of shell-shocked walking into the chemo room for the first time. My room had 32 chairs. When you see it – how many people are sitting in the rows of chairs, and they’re all hooked up to IVs, all getting chemotherapy – it’s overwhelming.
What was life like during treatment?
Your life is kind of put on hold. I’m a mother and a full-time engineer, I’m active in my church, and I like to exercise. A lot of that got taken away from me.
My husband really had to become a single parent during the first 8-9 months of all this. When I worked, I was only able to work 60% of the time, and I had to pull out of projects I was leading. I wasn’t able to exercise at all like I wanted to. When I wasn’t working, I was in bed suffering from nausea due to the chemo, exhaustion, or recovery from a quite painful surgery.
For me, that was the hardest part. Not feeling normal.
And of course, going through the chemo – I really didn’t think I was very attached to my hair.
At my diagnosis, I asked the oncologist if I was going to lose my hair.
She said: “Yes, you will lose your hair.”
I started crying when she said that. And that was actually the first time I cried.
After I lost my hair, I was very self-conscious walking around with scars on my head – it felt like a big flag saying “Hey, I have cancer!”
Were you angry?
I have the breast cancer gene but it’s still kind of like – really? What are the chances? My dad inspired me when this happened to him. During his struggle, I remember thinking, “If I ever have to walk through this sort of situation, I hope I can be an inspiration to others like he was to me.” I thought it was God’s sense of humor when this happened to me – I didn’t really expect him to give me the same situation.
But most of all, I was overwhelmed with gratitude. I cannot believe how many people jumped into action. Anything we needed. It seemed like all we needed to do was go to my blog, and someone was at my doorstep.
Like I mentioned earlier, I knew that God had prepared me to walk this path. It’s almost as if when I got the diagnosis – I was like, Oh, that’s what you were doing. I’m very thankful God’s brought me to where I am in my faith now. If this had happened 5-10 years ago, it wouldn’t have been the same. I wasn’t really afraid for myself. I felt God was with me in the fight. I think it’s much harder on other people, like my husband. It’s the caregiver that has to carry that burden and have that fear of loss.
You can almost see it in pictures. My best friend’s aunt Patty was going through chemo around the same time as me. Patty has always been like family to me. She posted a picture of her husband, her, and her son. They had all shaved their heads. In the picture, her face is stoic. Strong. But you could just see the pain in her husband’s face. I remember showing the picture to my husband – and him saying: “It’s really hard.”
How much did your kids know about what was going on?
My kids were so oblivious to the whole thing! At the beginning, Noble was 3 and Luke was 17 months. They weren’t really impacted.
Noble of course noticed that I didn’t have hair, and he got excited when my hair started growing back. Around the time it started growing back, Noble was at karate class and said to his (bald) instructor: “My mom’s hair grew back!” I guess Noble was trying to encourage him and give him hope about male baldness!
How has your body responded to the treatment?
Chemo isn’t necessarily a pat solution for cancer. We tend to think of cancer as all in one bucket. It turns out even within breast cancer, you have 9 different types with different stages and different aggressions. My particular cancer usually responds to chemo, but it’s rare – only a 10% chance – to have a complete response meaning all the cancer goes away.
I feel very blessed because I had a complete response to the chemo.
Many people have asked what my status is. Am I cured, in remission, done with treatment? None of those questions have a yes/no answer.
They call me “NED” – no evidence of disease. My doctor thinks I have about a 10% chance of recurrence based on my fabulous response to chemo and my continued treatment – 10 years of being on a drug called Tamoxifen. But with cancer, the approach is: wait and see if the treatment worked. Given my response and my doctor’s prognosis, I think we can feel pretty good about my results, though.
That said, we had a recent scare that triggered a biopsy. The experience made me realize that life will never look the same for us – any bump, headache, or pain must be quickly evaluated.
What is life like for you now, with the official status of “NED”?
I was happy to be done with chemo because it’s a big accomplishment and it sucks. But on the other hand, the bonds that you make in that room – the hours on end, the nurses, the patients – it’s rare to meet a cancer patient who’s negative. It kind of becomes a second home for that period. I remember when I went to my first 3-month check-up, I had a flood of emotion fill me when I walked into the office. It was so surreal. It’s like another world that you were in, and now you’re out and looking from the outside in. Strange.
I ended up making friends with another young mom, and we had the same schedules so we’d try to get chairs together. I’d look forward to going to chemo because I got to see my friend Rosie. She’s really close to my heart. Since I completed my treatment, I’ve actually gone to sit with her in chemo. I miss her tremendously and think of her often, but our paths just don’t cross much anymore now.
Then there’s my friend Kristie. She has stage IV breast cancer, and she has two little children. But she’s always smiling, even when she’s going through chemo. I’m not stage IV, but if I cross that line, it’s good to see that there are people who are happy and doing good and living life to the fullest. You never hear her complain, and she’s always upbeat. Those are the people you want to surround yourself with.
But I feel like I’m trying to reclaim everything I’ve lost over the last 18 months. Getting back into a groove at work, exercising, being able to play with my kids how I want to.
Now, I’m much more in tune to when someone is in need. Like when a friend has a baby, or when my friend broke her foot earlier this year – I was ready to jump into action and bring them a meal. Before, I would have thought: I’m too busy to help this week.
I want to be one of those people who jumps into action.
I like that. I’ve been feeling the same way. I want to be the type of person who chooses to engage. Someone who reaches out to others. What can someone like me do to help people going through cancer treatment?
There’s one thing anyone can do to help – go sit with someone in chemo. You can just chat with them. I saw a lot of people at chemo who didn’t have anyone with them. Also, people shouldn’t be driving after chemo because sometimes it makes you really sleepy. So having someone to drive you is helpful.
Some people won’t ask for help. I had to tell my friend Rosie I was coming to sit with her. It’s hard for people to learn to ask for help. I was told early on: By not receiving help, I’m denying someone the blessing they get from giving help. It helped me to see that I’m being selfish by not letting them help.
If someone’s going through something, keep offering because they may be embarrassed to accept on the first offer. They may just feel funny asking for help. If you’re persistent enough, they may say yes at one point.
If you want to donate, the Breast Cancer Resource Center of Central Texas was really helpful to me. They have people called patient navigators. When you first get diagnosed, you don’t know the first thing. Even though I had cancer in my family and I knew what the stages meant, I didn’t really know. The doctors don’t have time to sit down with you and explain everything. And you’re kind of afraid to go look on the internet because it’ll really freak you out. So it’s helpful to have someone you can ask questions – like where do I go buy a wig?
I also met my awesome support group of other young women with breast cancer through this organization. We are called the Pink Ribbon Cowgirls. It’s like the sorority I was never in, wouldn’t have chosen, but am blessed tremendously to now be a part of.
Breast Cancer Resource Center has a fundraiser every May called Art Bra Austin. It’s about having fun and celebrating life despite cancer. I participated this year – I designed my own bra and even got to model it. This is my favorite picture from that night. The emcee had just announced that I completed chemo.
Is there anything else you want people to know?
Know your body. Listen to your instinct. Had I listened to that first doctor who told me to wait for a month, we may be having a different conversation right now. Early detection is key for cancer. At this point, I have no evidence of disease, and hopefully it will stay that way. But if I had been starting at stage IV, I may not have been that lucky.
Also: If you’re doing a breast exam, feel under your arm too.
You’ve had an amazing journey the last 18 months. You just exude strength and confidence. You’re glowing.
I feel like I was tested on not letting circumstances deprive you of your joy and your hope. I was very thankful that I have the faith that I have. That’s really what sustained me so I don’t live in fear every day. Also, my faith has multiplied abundantly through this journey. God is in charge and completely faithful – no matter the circumstances – He sustains you. I don’t mean that the outcome is going to be what you want it to be all the time, but just knowing God is in it with you gives you tremendous peace and joy.
Sure, there’s a chance of recurrence. I think of my friend Kristie who always has that smile on her face. I want to be thought of as someone who’s a joy to be around and a light in the world. I think our inner strength really shows when we’re faced with trials and how you respond in the face of trials. Not to say you wouldn’t go through moments of fear and depression – that’s normal.
It’s not the circumstances that make joy. The circumstances of this world are, as we all know, not ideal. My hope is that people see that there’s more to life than circumstances.
For more posts like this one, follow my Pinterest board The World’s Okayest Parents.
Do you have anything you want to share with Kristin or ask her? Please post a comment below.