‘Some of the greatest inspiration and strength came from the warriors sitting next to me in the infusion chairs.’Kimberly Larson
EDITOR’S NOTE: Kimberly Larson graciously accepted the Effingham Herald’s request that she share her triumphant story with readers during Breast Cancer Month. We thank her for her contribution and hope that it will be inspire others who currently face or will face a similar ordeal in the future.
By Kimberly Larson
The month of October signals the beginning of cooler weather, pumpkin-flavored everything and all things fall. But more importantly, at least for me, October ushers in Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
Many know me as a teacher, a graphic designer, a photographer, a friend or a family member. Last year, life handed me another title, Breast Cancer Warrior. I recalled offering support to others who had had breast cancer, and it saddens me to admit that most of those experiences took place during October. But, it just hit differently when the roles suddenly shifted, and I was the one in need of support.
My thoughts reeled as I tried to make sense of how THIS could have happened to ME. Of course, I knew the statistics. We all know the statistics: one in eight women and one in 833 men. But I never considered that I would be the 1 in 8. Think about it, though: ONE IN EIGHT WOMEN!
Make no mistake: Breast cancer is the most common cancer in the United States! Statistically speaking, it’s likely that every person reading this article knows someone who has battled breast cancer.
The most frequent question people ask once they find out I had breast cancer is, “How did you find it?” In October 2020, I had a routine mammogram showing no abnormalities. Seven months later, I discovered a lump during a self-examination.
The two things that I've always heard were that 1) a lump would feel like a small pebble or pea, and 2) cancerous lumps do not typically hurt. Neither was the case for me. Mine was a hard, oblong lump and it was very tender to the touch. Surely, it wasn’t cancer, right?
As a precaution, I called my OBGYN to report that I had found a lump in my left breast, and I was scheduled to come in the next day. The doctor didn't seem alarmed, but she did admit the lump was harder than she would like.
Although she called in for an immediate diagnostic mammogram, the imaging department could not get me in for another three weeks. Had I known then what I know now, I would have called EVERY SINGLE DAY and demanded to be seen earlier. In fact, I would have camped out at the office until an appointment became available. My tender, oblong lump became larger over the next few weeks and quickly became more and more painful.
The day finally came for my imaging appointment, and that was the first day the word “cancer” was linked to my condition. Just hearing my name and that word spoken in the same sentence had to be one of the most frightening moments of my life.
One week later, while sitting in my office, the phone call with the results of my biopsies (breasts and lymph nodes) finally came. I thought I was ready and hoped for the best, but my fears were confirmed: I was positive for triple negative breast cancer (Stage 2)! To say that I was SHOCKED is an understatement. No one in my family has had breast cancer! In fact, tests showed that I didn’t even have any genetic markers for breast cancer, so how could this be happening?
I thought it didn’t make sense, but it was later that I learned that less than 15 percent of women diagnosed with breast cancer have a family history of it! Good genes and healthy lifestyles are not immune to cancer. Those factors may help but they do not prevent or cure.
My treatment plan was aggressive. After 16 full rounds of chemo (four “Red Devil” and 12 Taxol), I underwent a partial mastectomy, also known as breast-conserving surgery. In addition to chemo and the mastectomy, I underwent 35 rounds of radiation. The process was grueling, to say the least. It demanded all of me both physically and emotionally. But it worked!
Hearing the phrases "Pathologic Complete Response" and "No Evidence of Disease" had to be two of the BEST pieces of news I could have ever received!
Over the past 16 months, so much has changed in my life: my hair, my weight, the overall body aches and, most importantly, my mindset! When something tragic happens, we tend to reflect on our own situation and vow that we will live our lives greater, but a cancer diagnosis is a different beast.
Before my diagnosis, I thought that I had all the time I needed to do all the things I wanted. There was no doubt that I would take that class, go on more adventures, find my soulmate, see my niece’s and nephew’s graduations, and so on. But after the diagnosis, I was struck with the reality that none of those opportunities were guaranteed. There’s a real possibility that tomorrow may never come and whatever you’ve postponed will go undone.
I can't thank my family (Paul, Noelle, Madison, Maddox and Fred) enough for their love and support, especially since they all live out of state. They dropped everything to help prepare me physically, emotionally and mentally for what was to come next. They even surprised me with a bell to ring for my final chemo treatment since my treatment location did not have one.
When my blood family couldn't be here, my Effingham family stepped up to the plate. Ashley Kieffer and Emily Tabolt were my rocks! I am so grateful to have made so many meaningful connections here in Effingham County, especially those within the Effingham County School District. The school district is not just an employer; it is family. Not only were my friends there to hold my hand, but people I'd never met were eager to stand by my side.
Some of the greatest inspiration and strength came from the warriors sitting in the infusion chairs next to me. I can't tell you how much these people mean to me. Being able to have those honest conversations with people who allow you to feel all the feels about what crazy thing is going on with your body week by week is invaluable.
These people can be raw and honest with you because they share the same fears, cry the same tears, know what to expect and can guide you through your darkest moments. They are also the same people who share the link for that awesome pink wig or gift you with a pink feather boa to dance around with during your last infusion. I pray daily for those who are still in those chairs, those who have graduated from those chairs and those who the chairs will no longer help.
I can't thank the following people enough: Dr. William Burak (Memorial - breast surgeon), Dr. George Negrea and Dr. Haven Caldwell (Low Country Cancer Care - Oncology), Dr. Kiran Devisetty (Memorial - Radiation Oncology), Chelsea Covington (Low Country Cancer Care - oncology nurse), Ashley Brost (Low Country Cancer Care - Oncology front desk), and everyone else at Memorial Health and Low Country Cancer.
Love and prayers to Amy Rippey, Corrie Jeffers, Emily Pigman, Crystal, Eden Knox, Tina, Denise Burdick, Evonne, Tammy, Jan, Rachel Williams and the rest of my pink sisters. I love you all!
Here are some ways I feel are best to help someone going through cancer treatment:
— Drive them to doctor's appointments and be by their side when they hear difficult news. Trust me, they are not going to remember what was said.
— Drive them to their treatments and take them for whatever food they are craving (if any).
— Knowing that some food smells will make them sick, ask what they are craving.
— Know that their immune system can get low, and stay clear if you are not feeling well.
— Let them know that you are thinking of them (text messages, calls, flowers, blankets, etc.).
— Go for a walk with them. It can be extremely helpful to help keep the immune system up. Plus, it is nice to get out and talk about things other than the “C” word.
We are grateful that you want to form a connection, but we don't need to hear about someone you know that passed away from cancer. It reminds us that we might not make it through this.
— Know that their treatment path was selected carefully by them and their medical team. Unless they specifically ask you, please don't tell them what kind of treatment or surgery they should pursue. Whatever their decision, it is the one they determined to be best for their specific situation.
If you are going through treatment, here are some things I suggest for you to consider:
— Open up and talk to others, especially, warriors/survivors.
— Build a support network.
— Allow others to help you.
— Eat something, even if you don't want to. You don't want treatment to pause because you've lost too much weight or your numbers are too low.
— You are allowed to feel all of your feelings (look up “toxic positivity”).
To review/follow my journey or to contact me directly, please visit my Facebook Page, "Pink Butterfly Migration" at https://www.facebook.com/PBM.klarson.