Kristen: A Young Mother’s Story
My battle with cancer began in 2010, when during pregnancy I felt an area of thickening in my breast. Ultrasound indicated it was normal. My family doctor insisted it was a plugged milk duct. Months after my delivery, I insisted on more imaging of the now lemon-size lump. A mammogram revealed the breast was filled with micro calcifications and enlarged lymph nodes -- cancer. I began aggressive neoadjuvant chemotherapy for stage III, Her-2+, ER- breast cancer and I quit nursing. I was 30 years young and my son was just 4 months old. I continued to work through chemotherapy as a graduate research assistant at the University of Iowa. Later I endured a left breast mastectomy, lymph node dissection, immediate reconstruction and radiation.
Around the time of my own mother's passing (not related to breast cancer) and completion of radiation, I started having severe backaches, which I attributed to stress, lack of exercise (too painful now), and carrying around my son. A bone scan revealed the cancer had advanced to the bones of my pelvis and vertebra, now making me stage IV and incurable. I bounced around from therapy to therapy, each one becoming ineffective within a few months. A ray of hope emerged when my doctor reviewed my tumor characteristics and determined that I was actually Er+. I felt relieved to know that I was now able to use hormonal medications to treat my cancer. To this day, I continue on a combination of anti-Her-2 drugs and estrogen suppression therapy. My brief excitement and hope for new treatment options quickly turned to despair as I realized my baby-making days were over, I would enter permanent menopause and eventually trade in my ovaries for a chance at life.
Fortunately, I am healthy in every other way--I even have a full head of hair. I have little discomfort, despite the immense emotional pain. I chose to stop working, despite earning my PhD, and I stay home with my son. Every six weeks I visit my oncologist for tests. I have infusions every 3 weeks, and take oral chemotherapy at home. I recently started seeing a therapist to address life/death issues and anger that I'd rather pretend didn't exist. My life is a constant cycle of denial, panic and finally acceptance and I try to anticipate (maybe even embrace) this rhythm. I remind myself to judge my "health" by how I feel and not what doctors and lab tests show. I read stories of long-term survivors and novels about patient's battles against cancer, and I keep very busy with knitting, sewing, cooking, baking and parenting. I keep a journal of advice, wishes, "me-isms", and my life before and after cancer. One of the biggest challenges I face is not being able to share my struggles with my mother. I have learned to lean on my husband, my church, the online cancer community and friends. I will always ask "why me, Lord" and always envy those who've never stared cancer in the face, who take their children for granted and who complain about their lives.
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