Wife, sister, giver
ABOUT KATHERINE, IN HER OWN WORDS:
- If I have to choose between work and loved ones, I choose my loved ones.
- I described myself as “30, flirty, and thriving!”
- If I learn of someone in a similar situation, and I can offer comfort or support, I push myself to do it.
My Change Of Plans
I believe there is good in every situation—gifts we find if we open our eyes to see them. Even when life goes nothing like what you had planned, there are gifts you can find along the way.
As a kid, I planned to grow up, get married, have children, and be a stay-at-home mom. But by age 27, I’d been through a devastating divorce, had zero kids, and had been working for six years in a string of unfulfilling jobs. By age 30, I rebuilt my life in a city I loved, made the best friends of my life, and found a job I excelled at. I also traveled to Guatemala, Uganda, and Kenya to help orphans, and became an instant “mother” by sponsoring a number of children through various organizations. I described myself as “30, flirty, and thriving!” I loved my life and recognized all these things as the gifts they were. The future seemed incredibly bright.
The First Diagnosis
In the spring of 2011, what started as a sharp pain in my left breast led to my first mammogram, an ultrasound, a biopsy, genetic testing, and ultimately ended with finding out I carried the BRCA2 mutation and a diagnosis of Stage II breast cancer. Until then, all I had known about breast cancer was pink ribbons. Now my doctor was telling me that, even after surgery, BRCA2 meant I had an 80% chance of the cancer coming back in any remaining breast tissue. I got a double mastectomy to remove the cancer.
There were still gifts to be found after my diagnosis: I actually worked as a data analyst at a respected medical center, which gave me access to some of the best oncologists in the country. Plus, my recent move had brought me much closer to home, enabling my mom to spend an entire month with me post-surgery.
I didn’t know what was next after surgery, but I was nervous about what my treatment would be. A friend had just finished her PhD research in breast cancer treatment for hormone-receptor positive breast cancer like mine, and she was co-authoring a paper with none other than MY oncologist! I appreciated that my friend could translate the “doctor speak” for me.
It turned out I didn’t even need my friend to help me—the doctor got me with the numbers. I’m a data analyst, so numbers speak to me. I couldn’t argue with the odds he presented and agreed to eight rounds of chemo. Since chemo could affect my fertility, my doctor recommended harvesting some of my eggs for the future, but I had to decide quickly if I wanted to delay the chemo and take the hormones needed to do the harvesting—the same hormones that were feeding my cancer. I made what could have been an agonizing decision with only a second’s hesitation: I didn’t want to delay treatment.
The next few months were some of the most difficult of my life, but my new friends brought me so many gifts—organizing meals, bringing groceries, cleaning my house, and helping me shave my head. There were other gifts, too: I was an English major working as a data analyst, so I rarely got to write until I started blogging about my experiences to keep my friends updated. Which led to another gift—a platform for connecting to others and sharing experiences. Everyone seemed to know someone with breast cancer and wanted to connect us, so I went on a lot of “blind dates” with these women, which brought me new friends and new perspectives on life.
One of the biggest gifts throughout this whole cancer journey was the great guy I’d started dating six weeks before my diagnosis. He stayed with me through it all. He didn’t run when I got cancer. Instead, he drove seven hours each way to visit me, didn’t balk when I had my boobs cut off, and still told me I was beautiful when I had no hair. He gave me the gift of unconditional love. When he proposed several months later, I accepted.
I thought I’d dodged the bullet; beaten cancer. For the next three years I had regular checkups, but everything always looked good.
Being Diagnosed With MBC
In the spring, I began having pain in my upper back. I chalked it up to stress, but no matter what I tried, the pain remained.
Once you’ve had cancer, you worry that every little ache and pain is a recurrence. And then you worry that your doctor thinks you’re a hypochondriac. I was sure that when I emailed my nurse to ask about my back pain, they would tell me I was overreacting. Instead, they scheduled me for imaging. The scans were scheduled for the day before my best friend’s wedding. So I went to the CT scan in my party dress, hopped off the table, and raced from there to the bridesmaid luncheon.
By the time the luncheon ended, I had a voicemail from the doctor’s office. Something was wrong.
Online, I read the radiologist’s report from my morning scan. The words all seemed grim. And I was right: When I looked them up, words like “incurable” and “terminal” were what I saw. I was going to have to call my husband and tell him I was going to die—and we’d only had three years together. That afternoon, I sobbed in my car because I didn’t think I’d live to see my 40th birthday.
I called my sister. But when I had to spell out to her what the scan results meant, I lost it. All I had wanted was an ordinary life, and all I’d gotten was anything but.
The next week, my doctor confirmed what we both already knew—my cancer had returned, and it was in my spine. My doctor said, because I was HR+ and HER2-, he thought I was a good candidate for IBRANCE.
My doctor talked to me about what to expect: that IBRANCE taken along with an aromatase inhibitor, like letrozole, is a first-line treatment for postmenopausal women with HR+/HER2- metastatic breast cancer like me. We also discussed the possible benefits and common and serious side effects of IBRANCE.
I have experienced common side effects, including my hair thinning, fatigue, weight gain, and low white blood cell counts. My dosage was reduced to help manage some of my side effects and I’ve made a few accommodations. I found I couldn’t work as aggressively as before and I made the difficult decision to go out on full-time disability. This is my experience, and yours could be different. Other patients might experience common side effects, including low white blood cell counts, infections, and nausea.
A New Perspective
Even in metastatic breast cancer, there are gifts. Before me, there was no history of breast cancer in my family. I didn’t realize how many people originally diagnosed at an early stage go on to develop metastatic disease. Neither did my sister, who is also BRCA2+. Because of my diagnosis, she decided to move forward with a prophylactic double mastectomy; she had just turned 30. She claims I saved her life—I hope that’s true.
Living with metastatic cancer is difficult. You have no idea how much time you have left or how much longer you’ll feel well enough to enjoy life. But you do get the gift of knowing your time is limited. Yes, life will end for all of us, but we don’t all live as if today could be our last day. Today, I make different decisions about how I spend my time. A life that previously revolved around work now revolves around what I want to do and what I feel up to doing. I’m able to give back by using my time to offer comfort or support to others in similar situations. My life remains full of joy and faith. Keep looking for the good and you’ll find it.