‘The nurse approached me with a pitying look. ‘You won’t be receiving your treatment.’ I cried hot, silent, angry tears.’: Woman urges ‘live life to the fullest’ after brave battle with breast cancer

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“In February of 2015, I went in for a routine exam. At the time, I was nursing my then 5-month-old son, and I had noticed a lump in my left breast. I said something to my doctor about it, and she examined me. This was my second child, and I had been unable to nurse my first.

Admittedly, I wasn’t really that knowledgeable about nursing and its related problems that can sometimes occur or how long it would take for them to clear up. Additionally, my baby had severe reflux. No one was sleeping (well, maybe my oldest because that kid could sleep through a sonic blast) and my baby was in pain all day every day. We were in the middle of trying to figure out what the best combination of diet, formula, and medicine was for him.

As a result, he was the priority, and whatever nursing problem I was experiencing had to take a back seat. So, when the doctor considered that I was young, healthy, and a nursing mother, and said it was most likely a blocked duct, I put it out of my mind. There was no instruction to call back in a few days or weeks if it hadn’t cleared up, just directions on how to try to relieve the blocked duct. Try as I might, my efforts were in vain. I thought maybe it was just there to stay and would clear up when I stopped nursing and the milk dried up. Again, I put it out of my mind so I could focus on my baby.

Courtesy of Kristen Caldwell

Fast forward to July of that year. I had stopped nursing a couple of months before, and now that I had allowed time for the milk to completely dry up and my lump was still there, I knew it was time to go back to the OB/GYN. We had finally gotten my son’s reflux under control and for the first time, coming out of that fog, I knew at this point it was NOT nursing-related anymore, and I firmly believed that it wasn’t benign either. After a slew of diagnostic tests, I received the call.

As we sat there in the breast surgeon’s office after she explained the biopsy results and gave me my official diagnosis, I was officially diagnosed with ER+ PR+ HER2+ Stage IIb invasive ductal carcinoma. On our way home from that appointment, I saw a double rainbow in the sky. Every time I see a rainbow, I ALWAYS think of that promise God made to Noah after the flood. And because of that, I’ve always thought of rainbows as promises He has kept. Seeing a double rainbow that day, I knew God would see me through it.

After the official diagnosis, things moved quickly. The positive HER2 protein meant that my tumor progressed rapidly. Before I knew it, I had a port implanted in my chest to make receiving treatments easier (a true miracle invention, that tiny little piece of plastic and tubing), and on August 12th, I started my 6-round treatment course of chemo. I was to receive one treatment every three weeks. My first two treatments were rough. I was pretty much bed-ridden the entire first two weeks of the first two cycles, with maybe only a handful of days that I felt well enough to venture outside of my house at all.

Courtesy of Kristen Caldwell

During this time, my oldest son, who was four at the time, had just started preschool. So, it was no surprise when he brought home the flu one day. The whole family got it in turns. It wasn’t long after my second treatment that I came down with it. My white blood cells and neutrophils were so depleted from chemo that my husband rushed me to the hospital to find that my levels were so low that it was emergent.

Early that Sunday morning, my husband was about to leave for his weekend shift, when he thankfully felt my forehead to feel a scorching hot fever. Most of that trip to the hospital and the hours preceding are a fog. I just remember being so cold and feverish, curling into my husband’s side during the night trying to get warm, then hearing him talking on the phone in a low murmur to the after-hours nurse for the oncologist.

The ride to the hospital felt almost like an out of body experience, I was so out of my mind with fever. I remember my husband dropping me off at the entrance of the ER while he parked. It took everything I had to get out of the car and walk inside. I made it just barely inside the door before I couldn’t walk anymore. In hindsight, I see just how close I came to not being around for my babies anymore. I tend to minimize whatever ailment I have because I don’t like people fussing over me. That stubbornness just about killed me. God bless my husband for knowing me as well as he does.

Courtesy of Kristen Caldwell

The subsequent treatments went a bit better, but I still battled intense nausea and GI problems, as well as a weakened immune system. My last two treatments were deferred a week each because I was too weak to receive it. I remember sitting there in the chemo room, watching the nurse approach me with a pitying look on her face before she broke the news. I was heartbroken. It was the first time I really cried over any of this journey.

I’d managed all of this hell just fine up to this point. I had a wonderful support system, I knew God was on my side and would see me through it. it’s a fact that I use humor as a coping mechanism, and I can laugh my way through just about any situation. But not that day. I was crying hot, silent, angry tears. I was SO angry at the doctor and nurses for not giving me the treatment, angry at cancer that by all accounts I shouldn’t have had, and even, a little bit, angry at God for allowing it.

Once chemo was completed, surgery was scheduled. I had a double mastectomy, and tissue expanders were placed so that we could start the reconstruction process. That process included a series of ‘fills’ that started only a couple weeks after surgery. One of the funniest parts of this process was the look on my husband’s face as he watched the plastic surgeon literally pump up my boobs. Since it was a visible increase as the saline was injected, I’m pretty sure I had just made his day. At least we got something good out of all this mess, considering I got to choose bigger boobs than the previous models! Always look for the bright side, right?

Courtesy of Kristen Caldwell
Courtesy of Kristen Caldwell

When the fills were done, it was time to see the radiological oncologist to begin radiation. This was targeted radiation that required me to be fitted for a mold; I would lay in during treatment and three tiny little tattooed dots on each side and the middle of my torso to ensure I was always in the exact same position each day. I had typical burns and side effects of radiation, but honestly, not as bad as it could have been. So, while I seem to have a perma-tan in the shape of an oddly proportioned rectangle across the left side of my chest, the surface side effects were minimal. Although, when people ask me if I have tattoos, I’m never really sure how to answer them. Do I include the three tiny dots, or not?

With radiation done and my recovery period over, I was now able to get my final set of implants. The surgery went well, and everyone thought we were well on our way to being done. But the radiation had so severely damaged the tissue that, after a month and during a Thanksgiving trip back home to Indiana to visit family, my body rejected the implant. Our trip was cut short, and we headed home to Saint Louis to meet with the plastic surgeon that following Monday.

I was annoyed when he told me that I would need to be admitted, but I figured I’d be better and released in the morning. So, the next morning, when he told me that I would have to have the affected implant removed, I was devastated. I was supposed to be done. This was NOT what I had signed up for. I was questioning the wisdom of even trying to attempt further reconstruction, and I wanted him to get both implants out and just be done with it. I was in a panic, and mentally and emotionally exhausted, and I had a complete meltdown. Tears running down my cheeks and sniffling between barely coherent sentences, I was a mess.

We removed the left implant and I walked around with a single boob for a while, then once there was no more sign of the infection, we discussed a second attempt at reconstruction. The tissue on my left side was so damaged by the radiation that there was no healthy tissue to support an implant, which was why my body rejected the previous one. If we wanted to pursue reconstruction, it meant a lat flap reconstruction. This is kind of a big deal and was not the easiest surgery to recover from. It meant weeks of physical therapy and permanently limits me from doing some things, but thankfully, nothing essential. Plus, now I have a really gnarly 9’ scar to scare people with when I wear a swimsuit. I enjoy making up random stories to explain it, like that time I got into a fight with a pirate!

Thankfully, the lat flap reconstruction was a success. PT restored strength and mobility to my left arm, and FINALLY, I was done. Well, mostly. I’m now 4 years cancer-free and 3 years into my 5 years of Lupron injections and aromatase inhibitors, which help to keep the cancer from coming back. Those meds come with their own host of side effects that have really made me redefine ‘normal,’ but what matters is that I’m still here. I’m able to experience those firsts with my boys and watch them grow up. I’m able to tell the ones that matter most that I love them every single day. And most importantly, I try to live each day to its maximum potential.

Courtesy of Kristen Caldwell
Courtesy of Kristen Caldwell

Cancer wasn’t all bad. I made some new friends; I crocheted some cute cancer hats for myself; I received visitors from far away that I don’t normally get to see on a regular basis; I had lots of time to catch up on books; I got bigger boobs, and there was a huge outpouring of love and support from family and friends near and far. Not only did God keep the promise He made with that first double rainbow (or His renewed promises of two additional rainbows when I had moments of doubt), but He was with me the whole time. God knew we wouldn’t be able to handle it on our own, so He sent us a whole tribe of people: close friends and family, acquaintances, and even complete strangers, each was a blessing from Him, and we are ever so grateful for our angels.

Courtesy of Kristen Caldwell

If there’s anything you take away from this story, it’s these two things. First, be your own advocate. I often wonder if being diagnosed back in February that year would have changed anything, had I just known to push for better answers. It’s not likely, but it has made me very vocal to my friends and loved ones about being vigilant. Breast cancer is one of the most treatable cancers when caught early enough. But to catch it, you have to be looking. Please start looking. Once a month. That’s all it takes. Let your partner feel you up! Work it into a monthly routine, the first or last day of the month, whatever. Once a year at your PAP is not often enough.

Ask the questions, push for the answers. I don’t regret putting my son’s needs before mine. In fact, I would argue that God knew just how much we could handle, and I honestly don’t know if we’d have all survived a cancer diagnosis in the midst of the worry, frustration and sleep deprivation that came with his reflux battle. But I shouldn’t have brushed it off either. Don’t make that mistake. Take care of yourself, or you won’t be around to care for others.

And second, live your life, really live it to the fullest extent possible, because you never know what tomorrow may bring.”

Courtesy of Kristen Caldwell

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Kristen Caldwell from Saint Louis, MO. You can follow their journey on Facebook, Instagram, and her blog. Submit your own story here. Be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.

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‘It was a glorious, sunny day at the pool. I scratched and felt the lumps.’: Mom with terminal breast cancer afraid to miss the ‘little moments’ with daughter: ‘Light-up shoes, ice skates, bra straps’

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