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Kathy’s Story: Fight. Stay positive.

This entry is part 3 of 7 in the series Breast Cancer Awareness Month

Last year, I had my first mammogram. Although my two co-workers, Kerry and Kathy, assured me that I would not be greeted by an enormous vise when I entered the exam room, I was still a little nervous. I had no idea what to expect. Was it going to hurt? Would the test results reveal a problem?

In an effort to ease my concern, my two friends not only talked to me (endlessly) about the process, they also accompanied me to the appointment and had mammograms on that day, too! I couldn’t believe it when they told me they were coming to the appointment – what an incredible demonstration of support. And to have a mammogram, too? These two women are truly amazing, and I’m so blessed to call them my friends.

With the exception of a few moments of slight discomfort, the mammogram itself was uneventful. My friends were correct. I was nervous for no reason, and after a second appointment (so the doctor could re-check an area that could not be clearly seen on the first test), I received a clean bill of health. Kerry received a clean bill of health, too.

We were fortunate. According to BreastCancer.org, about 1 in 8 U.S. women (or just under 12%) will develop invasive breast cancer over the course of her lifetime.

Kathy had invasive breast cancer.

This next part is not my story to tell – it’s Kathy’s story. And I know I could never do her journey justice, so I thought it would be best to hear a little bit about it in her words.

Kerry, Kathy and Jenn: happy and healthy.
Kerry, Kathy and Jenn: happy and healthy.

 

Where did you get diagnosed?
I had my mammogram at Great Basin Imaging (GBI) in Carson City. They were wonderful. The facility is nice and comfortable. The technicians were friendly and knowledgeable.  One of the things I found most impressive about GBI was that, based on my medical history, they did not make me wait for the results. Once the mammogram was done, I talked to a radiologist they had on-site, and then to a doctor they had on-site. In my experience, waiting for test results is standard protocol. I really felt like they went above and beyond.

How did you feel when you heard the news?
I was pissed. This was my second time fighting breast cancer. The first time I was 30. I think deep inside I knew the results before they were given to me. I knew that I was overdue for a mammogram. I had also felt a lump, but didn’t want to face what that meant.  This time, the second time, I had a different type of cancer. Learning and understanding that it wasn’t a recurrence somehow helped my anger subside.

This was your second time. How did your family respond to the news?
They were scared – not as scared as the first time I’d been diagnosed, but they were still scared. At the same time, my family was brave. They were there for me, even when I tried to push them away. My husband was especially brave. He weathered the storm with me the first time, and was there for me the second time, too. I have a granddaughter, so as a family we decided that genetic testing was probably a good idea. We wanted to know if this was genetic or just bad luck. I was tested for BRAC1 and BRAC2, both of which came back negative, which was good news during difficult time.

How did you select a doctor?
The first time I fought cancer, I was living in Washington, so I didn’t have an oncologist in Nevada. I contacted my primary care physician, whom I’d really never seen before, but found to be a great resource and support despite that fact. My primary physician referred me to an oncologist. Both my primary doctor and my oncologist ensured that I received the care I needed.

What happened next?
I had a double mastectomy, followed by chemo and radiation. My primary physician called to check on me after surgery and stayed close to my case, even though at that point I was under the care of the oncologist. I liked that my primary stayed informed and checked-in periodically.

You also mentioned that you had a nurse navigator. Can you tell me a little about him/her?
Yes, I had two, actually. One was provided by the hospital and one was provided by my health insurance company. I met the nurse navigator assigned by the hospital following my surgery. She helped me through the process. She served as a sort of advocate for me – making sure that I understood what was happening and why. She called me periodically at home, and when I was in the hospital she stopped by to say hello. She always remembered who I was – even at the time I remember thinking “wow, if the hospital expects her to remember everyone, that is expecting a lot.” But I really did appreciate it. The nurse navigator from the insurance company was similar, but interactions were via phone. This nurse would call to check-in on me following surgeries, procedures, and appointments. She’d ask how I was feeling, and would ask questions to gauge whether I was getting the right care, and going through the right protocol. I highly recommend finding a nurse navigator, should anyone find themselves in this circumstance. They are so knowledgeable.

How did you feel when they told you that you were cancer-free or in remission?
They haven’t told me that; if you have cancer surgically removed like I did, you simply don’t have cancer anymore. It’s not like you’re in remission. I still need to go to my regular follow-up appointments and have clinical evaluations. And I’m taking medication that essentially blocks estrogen from forming a lump, this time on my chest cavity or somewhere else. I’ll take the medication for five years – it helps protect you against getting cancer again.

Part of your rehabilitation has been at Saint Mary’s in Reno. Tell us about that experience.
Estrogen is produced mainly in the ovaries, but it is also produced by fat cells. The medication that I take to block estrogen from forming a lump happens to cause weight gain, so the oncologist suggested that I participate in Saint Mary’s Cancer Wellness Program to help me lose weight which would help prevention of cancer long term. I love this program because the personal trainers – who are always available – are certified in how to help women who have had breast cancer surgery rebuild muscle. They make you feel comfortable and they don’t push you too hard like a regular trainer might be inclined to do. They have a greater understanding of how different cancer treatments affect energy levels and strength. Plus all of the women who are part of this program are in the same boat – every participant has recently undergone surgery or chemo and is struggling to regain their health – together. 

What advice would you give to others who have just learned they have breast cancer?
This is a hard question because everyone handles crisis so differently. But I’d say that my advice to others would be, “don’t panic.” It feels like the end of the world, but it doesn’t have to be the end of the world. Yes, your mortality is staring you right in the face, and you might die – but you don’t have to die. Fight. Stay positive. Find the best thing in each day, because this helps make a successful treatment plan. If you can’t find any positivity – because yes, it’s hard sometimes – fake it till you make it.

What advice would you give to others who have just learned their friend has breast cancer?

Don’t abandon your friend because you’re afraid. Your friend with cancer is likely afraid, too, but is trying to put on a brave face. To do that, sometimes they might push you away because they don’t want you to see them struggle or to see them feeling or looking so vulnerable. Learning that you have cancer is such an emotional thing, and it’s hard to process. There are good days and bad. But know that they still need you. A few people I told started to cry. I understood their reaction, but crying didn’t help me.

You actually did one of the best things, Jenn. You didn’t know what to say or do, so you were authentic and honest and just said to me, “I feel like I should do something, but I don’t know what.” No one had ever said that to me before. That actually meant a lot to me.  And you didn’t look scared when you said it.

My eyes welled up with tears more than once during this interview, and it struck me when she said that I didn’t look scared –  because the truth is that I was scared for her. But I also had faith, and I knew that she was going to win this fight (yet again). I’m so glad she proved me right, and I’m so incredibly grateful that I can say my friend is a survivor.

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About Jennifer Woodbury Duval

Jennifer Woodbury Duval
A right coaster now living on the left, Jennifer Duval is a mom to two rambunctious boys, and works full-time in the communications department at a Fortune 500 company. Fueled by logic, she is a no-nonsense type of gal who doesn’t buy into the latest trends, but does like to try new, trendy restaurants. An avid reader, she also loves coffee, chocolate, Zumba, and discovering new places.

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