Breast Cancer Grad- Kathryn
Name: Kathryn Walker
Age at Enrollment: 28
Major: Stage 2A breast cancer (invasive ductal carcinoma). Pathology was ER+, PR+, and HER2+.
What were the primary symptoms you experienced prior to diagnosis? I was extremely fatigued for about 6 months and had a visible and palpable lump in my right breast.
What symptom(s) lead you to go to the doctor? My husband felt a hard lump in my breast in June 2016 and I pretty much contacted my doctor immediately. Even though I didn’t have a history of breast cancer in my family, I just couldn’t ignore the lump once we spotted it.
Courses completed: I had 4 rounds of neoadjuvant chemo, a lumpectomy, 3 rounds adjuvant chemo, 33 rounds of radiation, and a full year of Herceptin infusions.
What was your hardest moment (or moments) and how did you you get through it/them? To be completely honest, I found the entire situation very challenging. It was overwhelming to be diagnosed with cancer without any family history and to be so young. I felt really scared but didn’t feel like I should show that fear to anyone, and consequently, I kept a lot of my true feelings inside and suffered from pretty bad anxiety. Managing my anxiety while making these very big decisions, particularly the mastectomy vs lumpectomy decision, was really hard for me. I also suffered from a lot of extreme side effects from chemo and Herceptin infusions. Basically every symptom that was listed, I was lucky enough to have. I was also hospitalized with an infection after my first round of chemo after my white blood cells dropped way too low. I think that was really a scary moment for my husband and made the whole situation seem very real to us.
What advice would you give to someone who is newly diagnosed? What advice would you tell them to ignore? I would urge everyone to find a mental health professional so you have a safe space where you can get unconditional support during treatment. Cancer is mentally and physically draining, but in my own experience, survivorship (even though I don’t like that term) presents its own challenges. I finally found a therapist that I connected with towards the end of my treatment and at the beginning of survivorship, and it made such an incredible difference in my recovery. Also, don’t be afraid to ask your oncologist about anxiety medication if you are truly struggling to manage your anxiety and fear. Cancer is a crazy situation and you shouldn’t feel embarrassed about needing medication to help manage all the fears associated with treatment and all the “I am going to die from this?” freak outs you may have.
I would ignore the advice that people will try to give you about your course of treatment. Only you can make the decisions that make sense for your life. Don’t feel pressure to do something because your friend’s mom made that decision. Breast cancer comes in many forms, and the only approval you need is your own. Once I realized that my approval (and my medical team’s) was all that was needed, I felt very free.
How did your family and friends respond? Some friends and family members were incredibly supportive and some totally vanished. My husband was my constant source of support and our close friends were with us for the worst of the worse and the best of the best. I have let a lot of friendships sunset, but without malice. My friend group might be smaller now, but it is overflowing with loving relationships. I just think cancer is really hard on relationships, and some people can’t handle the reality and some don’t understand it. It was painful to see some friends totally fail to support us, but I try to focus more on all the incredible new friends I have made and how my other relationships were strengthened.
Are there any bad platitudes/bad recommendations that you’ve heard from other people regarding your diagnosis? Yes! People love to say, “Oh my aunt/grandmother/friend’s mom died of breast cancer.” Please don’t say that to anyone facing cancer! I know that people were just trying to relate and offer support, but hearing about all the men and women who have died from my cancer was not appreciated.
When you feel overwhelmed or anxious, what do you do? I am still on my anxiety medication which helps me manage the overwhelming anxiety and fear. I also meditate regularly, exercise, and do a lot of deep breathing. My biggest tip about fear and anxiety is that you can’t fight it and if you try, the worse it gets. I imagine those emotions like the ocean- sometimes the waves are gentle and sometimes they are overpowering, but eventually, the calm water will return. Recognizing that anxiety, fear, and grief are part of the human experience and embracing them instead of resisting them has really helped me.
What do you wish more people knew/understood about the type(s) of cancer you were diagnosed with? I am very grateful for all the research that breast cancer has received, but I do think all the marketing around it has made people a little numb to the reality. Breast cancer is still incurable when it spreads to distant organs, and we need to do more to find a cure for Stage IV. Instead of buying a pink coffee mug or t-shirt, I wish people would directly donate to organizations that fund breast cancer research directly ( like Metavivor) so we can don’t have to hope for a cure but that we can actually research a cure.
Have you created any meaning out of this experience? If so, what was it/how did you do it? Cancer profoundly changed my life in almost every possible way. My treatment was long and very challenging, both mentally and physically, but I am grateful for the personal growth this experience afforded me. Having cancer was having my worst fear realized but also helped me become the person I have always wanted to be, and learn how to love myself unconditionally. Additionally, my relationship with my husband has never been better, even though we experienced some really dark times during treatment. I am grateful that cancer gave me an opportunity to re-evaluate my life and my choices, and am lucky that my husband provided me unconditional support.
How did/do you find joy during this experience? During treatment, even though it was really grueling, I felt kind of switch go off in my head and began to enjoy every day. Honestly, some of the best times of my life were during my treatment. My friends kept me energized and never batted an eye when I decided to stop wearing headscarves or drawing eyebrows on. We all took joy in watching my hair grow back in awkward phase after awkward phase. I made more of an effort to see friends and be more present in every moment.
Since your diagnosis, what new belief, habit or behavior has most improved your quality of life? I would definitely say that my ability to look at myself honestly without judgement but with compassion has single handedly changed my perspective on life. Instead of always beating myself up for not being exactly like my pre-cancer self, I have learned to love myself for who I am today, not who I want to be tomorrow.
Did you learn anything about yourself or your life? If so, what was it? I feel like I learned so much and am constantly learning new things about myself every day! I think the biggest thing I learned about life is that it is unpredictable and you can’t control everything. But you can handle anything with the right people, the people who love you, standing with you.
If you could write anything you wanted on a billboard in NYC’s Times Square that would reach millions of people, what would it read? “Everything you need, your courage, strength, compassion, and love; everything you need is already within you.”