Kimalea C.

Breast Cancer - Stage II

Kimalea Conrad
quotation

Now I know I have the strength to fight any battle. Cancer is not a good thing, but good has come out of my experience with this disease. If there is a fight before me, I can fight. I also want to rejoice in every day. Each sunrise and sunset is a blessing. Cancer cannot make me afraid without my permission, and I refuse to give it permission. So I feed my faith, not my fears.

After noticing a lump during a breast self-exam in 2010 I had a biopsy. I received a dreaded result—it was cancer. A lumpectomy and sentinel node biopsy revealed tumors in three lymph nodes that were larger than the one in my breast. I was diagnosed with stage II breast cancer, and I would require another surgery to get a clean margin, as well as chemotherapy and radiation therapy.

I was devastated. I was still grieving the loss of my husband, Gary, from a heart attack. I felt overwhelmed by fear. I thought cancer would change my life forever, and I was discouraged. I felt my body had somehow betrayed me. Before my diagnosis, I exercised and ate well; I was healthy. It seemed so unfair. I felt it was beyond my ability to cope.

Gradually, my thoughts shifted: I realized as unreal and unfair as it seemed, I did have cancer and I wanted to fight: I was ready to fight the fear and the invasion of cancer cells in my body.

Becoming a warrior

Determined to put up a strong fight, my son and I went to an Army surplus store for camouflage gear—something I could wear to remind myself that this was a war and I had a job to do. I stopped thinking of chemotherapy and radiation as my enemy and began thinking of them as my weapons.

I was looking for a place where I could receive comprehensive treatment from experts. Around this time, a friend suggested that I call Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA), where her husband had received treatment. I spoke with an Oncology Information Specialist at CTCA® on a Saturday. He was kind and compassionate. On that following Monday, I flew from Colorado to Illinois so I could have a consultation with the doctors at the CTCA facility in Chicago.

During that first visit, I met with several doctors, clinicians, a naturopathic oncology provider, dietitian, mind-body provider and a pastor. When I was presented with a treatment plan, I felt that CTCA was the place where I would be the best equipped and most supported. I knew that I would be surrounded by fellow warriors that were willing to invest in a relationship with me. Their hope and encouragement increased my hopefulness. So I decided to pursue treatment at CTCA in Chicago.

My medical oncologist explained that the breast cancer I had was very aggressive. She was confident about the treatment plan she presented to me, which included a mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiation. She said it was imperative that I begin treatment immediately. She told me I would most likely lose my hair and have other side effects, which my care team would help me manage. I loved her no-nonsense approach to my care. I now had a battle plan.

The night before my first chemo treatment my son, who was a student at the University of Colorado at the time, shaved his head and sent me a picture. I was touched by his steadfast support. Before my second treatment, his roommate shaved his head. I struggled with chemotherapy and did lose my hair. I talked with my son, who encouraged and reminded me that I was strong and I could go the distance, that I could do this, and that many people cared and were cheering me on. I was not alone in this fight. His support gave me the strength and courage I needed to continue. I completed three different chemotherapy regimens, and then went on to complete radiation treatments.

My CTCA care team helped me to manage the side effects. I chose to view the loss of my hair as an affirmation that the chemotherapy was working. I decided to have fun with wigs. And when a hospital volunteer offered me a selection of pretty, hand-knitted hats that I could wear while sleeping to keep my bald head warm and comfortable, my heart was blessed by this thoughtfulness.

Turning cartwheels

Telluride, Colorado, where I reside, is very conducive to outdoor activities. I enjoy kayaking, skiing, fishing, hiking, running, dancing and horseback riding. I also love to turn cartwheels. During chemotherapy, I did not feel I could enjoy any of these activities. But as I completed chemotherapy and began to feel better, I decided to try doing a cartwheel. I discovered I did not yet have the strength, but I was hopeful that in time I would. After radiation, although I was feeling stronger, scar tissue restricted the range of motion of my shoulder so I still could not do a cartwheel.

Upon completion of treatment, I met with a surgeon who specializes in breast reconstructive surgery. Together we decided to try a free-flap procedure in which tissue from my abdomen would be moved to the area where my breast had been. I was told the procedure would require more than one surgery. As I understood it, radiation prevented me from having a breast implant, so this approach was the only option for reconstruction. Once again, CTCA was able to provide for my needs.

The first surgery lasted about 11 hours. When I awoke, my reconstructive surgeon was there, instructing the nurses and reassuring me that all was well and that he was pleased with the results. At a post-operative appointment, I asked him if I could try a cartwheel. With his encouragement, I gave it a try. Right in the hallway of CTCA, I did a cartwheel. In fact, I turned three more cartwheels that day, to the delight of the CTCA staff who had indeed become friends during my journey of healing and restoration.

Surrounded by care

As a patient going through cancer treatment, it has meant so much to be surrounded by so many caring people. The staff at CTCA seemed to always know exactly what I needed. They knew what would make a difference in my well-being, and what would give me peace, confidence and hope. Each day of my treatment, as I arrived in my camo gear, I felt the support and encouragement of doctors, nurses, clinicians, therapists, pastors and other staff members: a long list of individuals who were willing to invest in me. They were an important part of my fight.

Since September 2011, I have had no evidence of cancer. My medical oncologist was the first to report when I reached this status, and there was such joy in her voice when she told me. I was ecstatic! I feel healthy and strong. My hair has grown back thick and silver. I love this new look—it is a victory flag, because I am a survivor.

Now I know I have the strength to fight any battle. Cancer is not a good thing, but good has come out of my experience with this disease. If there is a fight before me, I can fight. I also want to rejoice in every day. Each sunrise and sunset is a blessing. Cancer cannot make me afraid without my permission, and I refuse to give it permission. So I feed my faith, not my fears.

The caregivers at CTCA were an integral part of bringing me through a difficult and frightening time into an experience that I could embrace and by which I could be strengthened. CTCA continues to care for me and guide me in my pursuit of optimal health and wellness. When I walk into CTCA I feel surrounded by people who sincerely care about me.

Diagnosed:
2010