I was young. I was only 34. But that didn’t matter. It didn’t matter because cancer doesn’t care about your age, your gender, or your role in life. In fact, it doesn’t care about any of that. One day you are living your best life and the next day you are living your worst nightmare. Days consisted of being poked, prodded, and going through multiple tests from several doctors. Eventually, the day finally came when my 34-year-old life flashed before my eyes. It was the day I heard medical words and phrases I had only heard in hospital shows now being directed towards me. It was the phrase “you have stage 3 grade 3 breast cancer.” At that point, all I could think of was my kids. I started getting flashes of each of their young faces and wondering if I would live to see those faces grow up. I heard nothing else after the doctor continued to talk and explain to me next steps and a plan of action. I just sat there deep in my own thoughts. How did breast cancer find me? ME? A mother of 3 young kids! A 34-year-old woman just living her life like everyone else! That day when I was first diagnosed I remember sitting in the doctor’s office with my mom and my husband already having an uneasy feeling, knowing that this was not going to be great news once they asked me to come in as soon as I could. A flood of questions began smacking me in the head, one after the other. I looked at the doctor standing before me and asked, “Well, what do we do now? “Do I need a mastectomy?” The doctor began repeating what I failed to hear the first time because I was so into my own thoughts. He confirmed that I would need surgery, recommending a double mastectomy even though my genetic testing came back negative along with chemo treatments and radiation. Several deep breaths later, squeezing my husband and mother’s hands, a surge of clarity came over me. When you have children, it is no longer about you. I was now focused and determined to make it become all about them. I was going to do whatever I had to do to make sure I lived and survived for them. I knew it would not be easy and the road would be long but living for my three young children was now my biggest priority. Being diagnosed with such a life-altering diagnosis, at first, I found that for me, it was difficult to accept help. I didn’t want to be a hindrance on people, and I had my own pride that I wanted to protect. But I am still only human, and my body began getting tired from the chemo treatments. It turned out; I did in fact need the help. It was actually extremely important, necessary, and appreciated from all of the different forms of help that I received in my life during that time. People reminded me that I was never alone during this time, from catered meals being sent to the house, people babysitting my children, to family and friends cleaning my house, and sending me messages. It healed me like I never thought it could. Let people love you. Don’t pretend that you can do it on your own, because honestly, you can’t, and that is ok. I was and still am so blessed to have had so many people love me. Do not push them away. You will need them more than ever. More than you ever thought you would.
Even though cancer had become a true infliction on my life, it also became a teacher. Cancer taught me to love myself just the way I am. Every imperfection and everything I thought I hated about myself, I now love, appreciate, and wouldn’t ever look to change. I am just so happy to be alive. Every scar, every wound reminds me of the battle I persevered through and made it out on top alive and with a different pair of eyes. I see the world differently, if not better. Cancer taught me the most valuable lesson…to “live my best life,” and I do, every day. With the medical leave I received, and after the double mastectomy that I eventually had, I was able to take time being home with my family. Friends and family would stop by and I would sit, heal, and enjoy my surroundings, happy to see my kids’ faces light up whenever something made them happy. I was able to take a break from work, enjoy a summer of making memories with my husband and kids. I was absolutely living my best life enjoying everything down to the smallest thing to the biggest thing. Sorry cancer, but you lost. It came into my life, but it never took it. It disrupted my life, but it also taught me about my life. It became the greatest teacher I have ever had because it was able to change my way of living and appreciating all that is in this world. It tore me down, but it also made me learn to get up and fight, to be strong. It made me sick but only for a brief time. All cancer was truly able to accomplish was making me love myself more than I ever thought I could and making my family bond stronger. It made me thankful for every new birthday and every new day.
When I was knee-deep in treatment fighting for my life, I was also struggling to be a good wife and mother. Some days I failed, but most days I tried my best. I definitely was not living my life. I was in complete survival mode, barely getting by day by day, sometimes drowning in the monotony of being an adult, an adult going through chemo treatments and doctor visits.
I succumbed to the pressures of being a “good mother “and what that looked like, attempting to live up to every expectation I thought was needed of me. Even though at times I felt I failed, and the tears just wouldn’t stop, and my heart broke for everything my family was going through, my children gave me all the strength I needed to get through everything. I am forever grateful for their love and support. They are my biggest fans. I did not keep my diagnosis a secret from them but because my youngest was 3 and my oldest was 7 at that time; I had to filter everything that I was going through in such a way where it made sense to them. When my oldest asked me questions, I answered her honestly.
When my youngest kept saying I was sick, I would nod my head in agreement and when my middle one would just hug me for no reason, I would hug her back holding on a little bit tighter than normal. Their love, their pictures, their hugs in conjunction with the amount of love I received from my family and friends was overwhelming. It gave me the purpose and fuel to keep fighting!
Being a breast cancer patient at age 34, at first, I found myself very alone. I knew no one who was my age that had breast cancer or was going through all that I had to endure. I was scared to death. Scared to die, scared of surgery, scared of chemo, scared of losing my hair, scared of being unattractive to my husband. I was literally scared of everything. Support in every aspect of my life during this critical time was the key to my journey. My OBGYN referred me to my breast surgeon, Dr. Michael Khalife who then referred me to Long Island Plastic Surgical Group where I met Dr. Matthew Kilgo and Bobby Mathews, PA.
These three providers alongside my oncologist Dr. Alexander Hindenburg had gone above and beyond and always had my best interest at heart. They supported me in my decisions and choices but also gave their professional opinion on what course of action was best for me during my reconstruction phase based on my past treatments and surgeries. My family and friends were of course always there for me, but none of them could actually really understand all of my fears and struggles. I also joined a Facebook DIEP flap support group which was extremely helpful in making my decision on implants vs. DIEP flap reconstruction, which I ended up choosing after a year of initially being dead set against it. It has been the best decision I have made for me personally.
Last October was my first October Making Strides Against Breast Cancer through the American Cancer Society with my team, Hakuna Matatas, fighting for no worries. My heart is near and dear to this cause because the fight is real, and the fight is long and hard. Making Strides raises money to help the American Cancer Society fund breast cancer research and provide patients with services such as free rides to chemo, paid for places to stay during treatments, and a 24/7 cancer helpline. When we raise money during Making Strides, we help people like you and me who may need it.
The Manhasset Breast Cancer Coalition has also been extremely helpful. They supplied me with a lift bed after my DIEP flap reconstruction free of charge, have put me in contact with women who periodically reach out to me about my needs, and have supplied me with so many helpful resources. A meal train online was set up for my family, so we didn’t have to worry about cooking and feeding my family. People would either donate gift cards and money or sign up for a day and time to prepare a meal and deliver it. My daughter’s dance studio, Impressions Dance, hosted a fundraiser, “Laughs for Kristen,” which raised money for my family so we would be able to forget about copays and finances and reality for a bit and use that money to bring smiles to my family in any way we saw fit. The amount of support my family and I have received is outpouring but through it all the only person I ever lost and needed back was me. I am glad she is coming back.
To all of you who may be starting out on this journey and feeling scared out of your mind, please know you are not alone. There are people and support groups available to listen and help. I was one of them. I was you; I see you, and it does get better.
My entire journey can be found on Instagram @this_is_cancerr
*Kristen’s story was also featured in the Making Strides of Long Island 2020 Newsletter on October 7.