Survivor Stories: Kim ‘The Worst is Over…I Hope’
As we get closer to 'Cans for a Cure 2016' we wanted to focus on the survivors of breast cancer. Meet Kim Hartley...a survivor.
This is Kim's story. It runs the gamut of emotions and when I finished reading it..I felt like I had survived breast cancer.
Kim’s Cancer Story
I had my first mammogram when I was 26 years old. The doctor did not want to do it because I was so young but my mother had just finished her chemo and radiation and I had found a lump. It was nothing, my doctor said, but I insisted. As it turned out, it was nothing, just very dense breast tissue.
I waited fourteen years – until I was 40 in August 2015 – to get my next mammogram. A few days after my appointment, I got a call – they wanted me back. I knew. I just knew. This wasn't them not being able to read the pictures, this was because they saw something.
I went back and was poked and prodded, had another mammogram and an ultrasound. Then the radiologist came to speak to me. They had seen something (I could have told them that). They needed to do a biopsy. Tears just fell from my face. Time stopped and my stomach was in my throat. He said a few things that I didn't hear.
I called my mother, my father, my husband, and my sister. They all said that it would be nothing. But I knew. Since I was 26 years old I had been preparing myself for this diagnosis. I went in for the ultrasound-guided biopsy. I tried to act normal while I waited for the results.
I get my diagnosis
I was sitting at my office when the phone call came. I knew. It was my gynecologist. I had breast cancer. Just as when the call came from my mother telling me she had breast cancer, I fell to the floor. I needed to get out. I couldn't move. Where was I? What the fuck? I ran out of my office and headed to Deering Oaks Park. I sat on a bench and called my mother. She cried, I cried. A squirrel stopped and stared at me. I called my father, my sister, and tried my husband (the best lobsterman in Maine). All the mental preparations I had done did not prepare me. I was a mess.
As the week went on, I told my friends. I asked them not to cry. I needed strong people around me, not ones that were scared and blubbering (this proved to not be the healthiest coping mechanism).
What followed for the next few months is kind of a blur. They speculated that I had Stage 1 breast cancer but they couldn’t be sure until the tumor was removed and studied. I was connected with Dr. Lisa Rutstein, the surgical oncologist who would remove my cancer.
I was also connected with a plastic surgeon. After surgery to remove the tumor, did I want my right breast built up to the size left one or did I want to take the opportunity to have a reduction? Huh? What? Um, it was all happening so fast. Since I always crammed myself into a DDD bra, I thought I could benefit from a reduction. Surgery was scheduled for three days before Thanksgiving.
Surgery came and went. Dr. Rutstein was confident that all my cancer was removed and my margins were clear. Recovery sucked. It hurt. Friends and family stopped by frequently. My husband was a gem. I lived in a haze of pain killers and disbelief. My body had just been ransacked like a garbage can after a raccoon has been through it.
I met my oncologist, Dr. Chiara Batelli in December. She was from Italy and spoke with an accent; I liked that. (My step father is from Italy and has a similar accent). She was a hot ticket. She insisted that we needed to have more testing. She diagnosed me with Stage 1, Grade 3 breast cancer. Apparently, my tumor was very aggressive. She said that it was on fire and running. So many more tests followed. I met with a genetic counselor. Did you know that if a person is of Ashkenazi Jewish descent they have a higher likelihood of possessing the BRCA gene? Really? I prefer pasta to matzah – doesn’t that matter? Turns out despite my mother and I both having breast cancer, I did not have the gene.
Dr. Batelli felt uncertain about prescribing chemotherapy without further testing. More tests were ordered on the tumor which I was told was now in a lab in California. Great, my tumor has traveled to place I have always wanted to go. Hopefully it wasn't in Napa or I would really be pissed.
I met with Dr. Batelli and she showed me a bunch of charts and test results which ended up with her making the determination that four chemotherapy sessions followed by twenty-eight radiation sessions, followed by five years of Tamoxifen would be the recommended course of action.
I was pushing my friends out of the picture at this point. I would get through this. I would be a great patient. I would take this as an opportunity to make changes in my life. Don't cry around me. Don't feel bad for me. I got this.
I start chemotherapy
My chemotherapy treatments began on January 25, 2016. I would have treatments every three weeks, along with shots to boost my immune system. I told my boss that I would work as long as I could. I did not plan to take time off, but needed some flexibility with my schedule. He understood.
I met with the nicest nurse practitioner, Dixie who did my “What to expect during chemotherapy” meeting. What? I shouldn't drink wine? Huh? Great, my tumor is off vacationing in Sonoma but I can’t have a glass of Cabernet.
My mother and husband came with me for the first treatment, which took about two hours to drip into me. Three days after my first chemo I felt like I had been hit by a truck (I have been hit by a truck so I know what it felt like). I was tired, achy. I hadn't pooped in four days.
I returned on day seven for my immune booster. I still hadn’t pooped and was advised to take Miralax for my constipation. That night, I woke with a fever of 101. I was freezing and sweating. My head wanted to explode. My husband rubbed my head for hours in the middle of the night. The on-call doctor was not very worried. I went into the office the next day and had IV fluids. That helped a little. The headaches continued and I took Tylenol like it was going out of style. I returned to the doctor’s office. They drew blood. My liver was not in good condition. I needed fluids.
It turns out I was having a reaction to the immune booster shot and not the chemo. Next time, they would give me a smaller dose and spread it out. I was flat out refusing the shot at that point. After another week, I started to feel a little better.
I cut my hair in preparation for week three when my hair would fall out. And then it did. Clumps. It looked like a gorilla had shaved its body in my shower. Where did all this hair come from? I came out of the shower with a razor and asked my husband to take it all off. I was lucky they say, I had a nice shaped head.
I was driving to my second chemo appointment when I noticed that my sister had called a few times. I ignored the calls. I needed to mentally prepare myself. I heard a beep indicating a text. Despite driving and mentally preparing, I looked at it. It was from my sister and it read, “Megan is dead.” What? What the fuck is Danielle trying to say. Damn auto correct. I called my sister who was crying. There was no mistake. My 43-year-old stepsister had fallen down the basement stairs and was dead. My niece found her. No, no, no... I had a cancer, I would be the most likely to die. Not her, not anyone else. No, no, no. All mental preparations went out the window and I entered the treatment room looking like a full blown mess.
My second chemo was a complete blur. Dr. Batelli was worried about me going to Connecticut for the funeral as I would be highly susceptible to infection. I agreed to certain conditions – no hugging, no handshaking, no close talking. My husband learned how to give me the immune booster shots, which I couldn't refuse. I knew I was putting myself in jeopardy by going.
I continued to feel horrible through my chemo. I rocked my bald head despite having wigs and scarves and hats (thousands of dollars out the window). Everyone said I was such an amazing fighter. What they did not know was that my bowels were a mess, I had constant headache, I was experiencing menopausal symptoms, sores in my mouth, hemorrhoids the size of mount Everest – and I was fucking tired.
I start going to the Cancer Community Center
I began using different complementary therapies – Reiki, acupuncture, reflexology, massages. I did whatever I could to feel better. I became a frequent flier at the Cancer Community Center. I was going to the treatment room three times a week for scheduled hydration since I couldn't get enough fluids in me. I focused on my upcoming trip to Florida to celebrate my “survival.” Just get me to that beach, dammit!
My final chemo was on March 25, 2016. I had cooked lobster the night before and made two trays of lobster rolls for the staff in the treatment room. They are awesome and I am forever indebted to them for their kindness and generosity. As one of the nurses withdrew the IV from me for the last time, my eyes began to tear up. I hugged some of the nurses and as I walked down the hallway I began to sob. I cried for about a half hour sitting in my car. It was over (so I thought).
As my last chemo faded, so did many of the symptoms. But what was this depression sneaking up on me? Why all of a sudden was I thinking about the fact that I had breast cancer? Why was I so emotional?
I start radiation
In May, 2016, after my Florida break, it was time to start radiation treatment. Some people say that radiation is nothing compared to chemotherapy. I beg to differ. Every day, for six weeks, I had to leave my office, change my clothes, lie on a cold metal table, be left alone for eight minutes in a large room while I was being “zapped.” It was a constant reminder of my cancer diagnosis, which was really hard. My skin began to burn despite me using every remedy recommended (I liked chaga mushroom balm the best). I wanted it to end. I could barely sleep as I could not bear to have the sheets or clothing touch my skin. I didn't want to wear a bra. I was so uncomfortable. My eyebrows and eye lashes fell out. Apparently this is a left over side effect of chemotherapy. And then my skin began to just start peeling off of my breast. Yay.
Again, as I walked out of the office on my last day of radiation, tears streamed down my face. I made it! It was over (but was it?).
The worst is over, I hope
Three months later, the burns are healed. But I am not. After using Tamoxifen for two months, I had to come off of it. I was severely depressed. I actually was able to understand why people commit suicide. This was not me. I was having hot flashes, night sweats. I was so irritable. I started sessions with a counseling intern at the Cancer Community Center. I resumed acupuncture and Reiki.
It wasn't over. I am still healing. I am still dealing. Ugh, my boobs are so small. My hair is coming back so interestingly that my sister referred to me as Alice from the Brady Bunch.
Today, I am waiting for a new medication to try. I have been told that this will reduce my chances of a recurrence from 30% to 14%. It is a big enough number for me. This year has been hell.
It’s not over. I am not sure if it will ever be over but I am seeing glimpses of my old self. I enjoy the company of my friends and family. I have my Cabernet at night. I am looking forward to my future. But alas, I will not exhale until I have my one-year mammogram.
We are proud of Kim and her strong fight. We do 'Cans for a Cure' so that more people can survive this terrible disease. Please join us if you can...