Cancer is Hard & Scary. It Can Also be Amazing
Two 57-year-old female professionals meet for the first time at a sushi bar in Omaha, Nebraska. It sounds like the beginning of a bad joke. It’s not. Kathy and Terry quickly learned they shared triple negative breast cancer.
At a patio table in the late day’s sunshine, they tossed medical jargon around like others discuss politics or sports. They laughed while sharing baldness tales. They empathized with one another while listening to how cancer affects loved ones more than themselves.
Repeatedly, they blasted the negativity of cancer information. Neither ever found a book or article that was “positive about what an amazing journey cancer can be if one keeps the right attitude.”
Despite this, these women stayed focused on the positive aspects of cancer during and after treatment.
I marvel at their strength, frankness and sense of humor. Each will inspire you, or a loved one facing a cancer diagnosis.
If someone you know or love is facing cancer, SHARE this story with them. Even if you don’t have a cancer diagnosis, these women and their positive approach to life are inspirational.
Meet the fantastic Kathy & Terry
Kathy and Mike, her husband of 35 years, recently moved to Omaha from the Pacific Northwest. She’s the Senior VP, Chief Operating Officer for CHI Health. Their two married sons, a daughter and four grandchildren remain there. Her general health was “amazing” before her 2015 cancer diagnosis. Today she still describes it as “awesome.”
She should know. Kathy has both a masters and a bachelor’s degree in nursing.
Kathy’s mother died from her second breast cancer at age 61. Her grandmother died from the same when Kathy’s mom was just 9 years old. This strong family history had Kathy doing monthly breast self-exams at a young age and starting mammograms at age 35. In 2002 she was genetically tested and was negative for BRCA1 and BRCA2.
“When I was diagnosed with cancer in 2015, I was genetically tested again for all of the genes known, and I was negative for all of them, again.”
Hearing You Have Cancer
“I had a very hot, sharp pain in my right breast on November 29, 2015. My husband urged me to be seen. So, I had diagnostics the next day.” Kathy’s general surgeon delivered the cancer diagnosis to her. “Hearing it is a surreal out-of-body feeling. I was probably less scared than my family and friends because I had so many things I had to do.” Her surgeon didn’t give her any prognosis. Instead, they got to work and jointly planned action steps “to take care of business. I was sad and scared for my family, more than anything.”
Kathy had both breasts removed 11 days after diagnosis. The tumor was so close to the surface that the circulation in her right breast was compromised. She spent six weeks in a hyperbaric chamber. Doing this five days a week, seven hours a day healed her.
In early February 2016 she started 22 weeks of chemotherapy and ended five weeks of radiation therapy in August 2016. She had reconstructive surgery to remove spacers and insert implants in April 2017.
A month later she contracted an infection behind the right-side implant and was hospitalized for five days on IV antibiotics. She also took oral antibiotics for another six weeks.
Today, she’s infection free and feeling “awesome.” She has oncologist appointments once every quarter. “She checks labs for abnormalities and any symptoms that might indicate a recurrence. Recurrence is my greatest fear.”
Head Shaving Party
Kathy’s family, friends and caregivers surrounded her with love and comfort upon hearing her diagnosis. Each continues to check in regularly. As one would expect, when hearing the diagnosis, they had the normal emotions of sadness, thoughtfulness and support.
They drove her to appointments and offered to help in other ways. “I tried hard to stay independent. It was nice to be able to let loved ones do something.” It made them feel part of her journey.
“I’d urge family members to learn about the diagnosis, don’t baby the patient.” Rather she’d encourage them to exercise daily and stay connected socially. She did both.
She’s a hot yoga fanatic. She did it every single day throughout treatment. “The people there were with me every day. I couldn’t have asked for more love and kindness.”
Kathy hosted a head shaving party for 53 people. “It was amazing to watch the emotion in the room. I was doing great. I know it was hard for everyone. It was a very special evening. Being bald was amazing and I love that.”
Hopefully any cancer patient has a list of those who provided comfort through treatment. Kathy does. Husband Mike was “positive and encouraging.” Her kids were amazing. Her daughter was like a nurse to her-hopping in the shower with her mom to ensure her safety when she was weak.
Her brother and sister-in-law and girlfriend, Jennifer, were rock solid in their support.
She’d award a gold star to her chemo nurse Krystal. Krystal took care of her every Monday for 22 weeks. “I fell madly in love with her. She could not have provided me more positive care.” Krystal became a good friend and a great teacher.
Blessed by Cancer Lessons
Kathy is an administrator in a large healthcare system. Her personal cancer journey has changed the way she leads.
It caused her to re-think about what their patients deserve.
She’s quickly irritated hearing stories about how other women were not taken care of in the way they should’ve been. She fully understands not everyone’s journey was amazing as hers was.
- Asks employers of cancer patients to be sensitive and let them keep working as able.
- Tells oncologists to stay positive and encourage their patients to do the same.
- Urges patients to accept the love and support of family, friends and caregivers.
- Reaches out to newly diagnosed women.
- Participates in a California study specific to triple negative breast cancer.
- Serves on the Susan G. Komen Advisory Board.
- Wishes for a world without breast cancer.
- Feels beyond blessed to have experienced breast cancer. “I know it sounds odd but this diagnosis has changed my life for the better, in so many ways.”
Terry, a recently retired Disability Management Director, was in excellent health when she learned she had breast cancer. Equally annoying was the fact that there was no family history of breast cancer.
“I was showering one July 2015 morning and felt a large lump in my left breast near the armpit. I called my gynecologist and therein began my cancer journey.” Several referrals and appointments later, she learned it had already become Stage 3. It wasn’t until after Labor Day 2015 she heard it was Triple Negative Cancer.
Self-Exams & Mammograms
A native of Northeast Arkansas with a master’s degree in rehabilitation counseling, Terry is a mother of two adult children and grandmother to a 17-month-old. Baby Lyla is expected in December 2017.
She learned to perform breast self-exams at the Baptist Health Breast Center in Little Rock, Arkansas.
“They have videos and sample breasts with lumps for patients to palpate.” This teaches women what a lump may feel like on her body. Terry admits she was not vigilant about performing monthly self-exams, but she did perform them every so often. She did have mammograms yearly.
Steps to Wellness
Terry’s initial screening (mammogram and ultrasound) was in Arkansas. “The technician returned to the room with a pale and sick look on her face. I knew it was cancer even though she couldn’t confirm it.” Terry was alone when the gynecologist called to share the results and initiate a plan.
She returned to Omaha where she lived and worked. Her primary care physician referred her to a breast surgeon who performed a biopsy and reported the triple negative diagnosis.
She started chemotherapy in early September and became terribly sick, losing 12 pounds along with her hair 16 days after starting. She felt extreme fatigue.
In February 2016, she had a lumpectomy and began radiation, which lasted two months. [Her lymph nodes weren’t removed. Instead her chest, breast and armpit were radiated.]
Follow Ups to Health
After completing radiation, Terry was seen every three months and had repeated mammograms.
Today she’s seen every six months by a breast surgeon, oncologist and oncology radiologist. Like Kathy, she’s also participating in a research study. Hers is for patients who choose not to remove lymph nodes.
She’s happy to report she’s clear and returning to health.
Faith & Comfort
As expected, when hearing her diagnosis, her children cried. They offered love and support throughout. “Most embraced the hope of recovery and survival.”
Terry has a deep faith in the Lord. “He provided my friends and family, as well as my church family, to minister to me and take care of me. Even though I lived alone, someone was with me every time I had chemotherapy.”
Her best friends visited, brought food and kept house. Her children came. “I had enough drugs in me from Friday treatments that I felt well enough to show friends and family around Omaha. Unfortunately, I was always sickest on Sundays-the day everyone left to go home or back to school and work.”
Simple Bit of Food Advice
In their wanting to help, many brought food Terry couldn’t eat. Unfortunately, she had to dispose of it and sometimes didn’t have a prepared meal as scheduled. For instance, she couldn’t tolerate onions and garlic. So, she’d recommend asking the patient or her caregiver about food tolerance before you drop food off for the patient. She doesn’t want someone’s thoughtful and kind gesture to go to waste.
Terry singled out the chemist who mixed her chemo drugs as a superstar through her cancer journey. “He was fabulous in giving me all kinds of helpful tips on caring for myself and managing the nausea, constipation and fatigue.” He even put stickers on her papers and directions for her medication schedules. Simple touches go a long way.
- Click on the green live links throughout this article.
- Pink it Forward
- Susan G. Komen
- Breast Cancer Research Foundation
- CHI Breast Cancer Support Group
7 Simple Ways to Help Someone with Cancer
- Treat them as normally as possible.
- Offer rides, meals (see above), chores, phone calling, etc.
- Plan an outing with flexibility in case patient doesn’t feel well.
- Keep your troubles to yourself. Your friend has cancer. Don’t ask her to fix your life at the moment too
- Stay positive. If patient is prayerful, pray with and for her.
- Stay in her life even if you feel like you don’t know what to do for her.
- Organize a scheduled support group around her. Schedule ride, food delivery, companionship, bathing support, etc.
SHARE this article. October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
©Copyright. October 2017. Linda Leier Thomason
All Rights Reserved.
Linda Leier Thomason is a retired CEO who writes freelance business and travel stories, along with feature articles. Her work experiences include a Fortune 500 corporation, federal government and small business. Find out more about Linda by clicking the “Meet Linda” tab above. If you’d like her to write something for you, contact her by filling in the form below.