We have an amazing client that was willing to share her battle with breast cancer and how she became stronger in the end. This story is heart touching and empowering not only to women but anyone who has been affected by cancer.
The Month of October here at TruReflection Salon is about donating to a foundation called IWIN, to support ladies like Kim all around the Indianapolis area. If you would like to share your support please message us below with an email and amount. Thank you for your support and donation.
“I never thought cancer would change you so much!”
When I heard these words from my life long best friend, I was really taken for a loop. I was hurt and felt somewhat in disbelief about why she would say this to me after all I’d been thru, but maybe she was right. Cancer did change me. Let me explain.
I lost my sister, Lynn, to breast cancer in December of 1996. She battled 5 long and difficult years with stage 4 metastatic breast cancer. She was 38 years old! There was no family history of breast cancer and no knowledge of any other risk factors for her. At such an early age it seemed it was just her dumb luck of the draw. Or so we thought.
Fast forward to March of 2016 after I had maintained my personal due diligence of self-examinations, annual mammogram screenings, a couple of close calls with benign biopsies, warnings of dense breast tissue and yearly discussions of my family history or lack thereof…..It was my turn. I was in the shower and shaving my armpit when I noticed my nipple retracted. Looking back, I think it was happening for a few months, but it kept popping back out and I just blew it off. Thank God I called my doctor to check it out. Within 3 days I was in a state of shock and my life was turned upside down. My breast surgeon immediately indicated she was extremely concerned. Over the next few days I had a barrage of tests, ultrasounds, MRI’s, needle biopsies and a whole bag of questions. When you get the call that says “your tests are positive for cancer”, your world literally stops turning.
I was diagnosed with stage 3A Lobular Pleomorphic Breast Cancer. I had a tumor the size of a small lemon that I COULD NOT FEEL!!! It was so far back in my chest wall and was the cause of my nipple retraction. My 2 previous mammograms consecutively saw something. In mid-July of 2014 I had a biopsy that was benign, and in July of 2015 they still saw it but no change and no evidence of cancer. But something happened within six short months and this very sneaky type of breast cancer had already made its way into at least one of my lymph nodes.
It all seems like such a blur and everything happened so quickly. So much information to absorb, so many tough decisions to make, so much worry and fear! I was 51 years old, a little over weight, but other than that, I had been really healthy my entire life. I kept telling myself that I thought I had already paid my dues for bad luck in life. Losing my first son to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome when he was just 6 ½ months old, divorcing after 19 years of marriage, losing my job of 22 years when my boss died suddenly, and my sister’s cancer???
The cards had been dealt and once my doctor said it was treatable and beatable, I knew I would beat this beast. I proclaimed….”I’ve got this!” I prayed to God for guidance on this journey. I placed my faith and trust in him and took a deep breath and said…”Let’s do this!” I had so much to live for, my son, my fiancé, my parents and family, my friends and my puppies. They all needed me to hang around for all the joys of life yet to come.
It’s so silly, but naturally, a big fear and concern is losing your hair from the chemo. I was set for 8 really nasty treatments over a 16 week period. I knew I had to take charge and not let cancer take my hair so I scheduled a private appointment with my stylist to try out a short style to ease my way into baldness. I laughed and cried but tried really hard to embrace the sassy, short, pixie cut. By week two my hair had started falling out in clumps. My fiancé, who’s been bald forever, lovingly took the razor, cried right along with me and began to shave my head. This was a huge psychological hurdle for me, but the slight detour for photographs of the crazy Mohawk before it was all gone, turned my tears into laughter and yet again, empowered me over this beast.
As the weeks passed, it became more difficult. Chemo on Thursday mornings, back to work that afternoon, work Friday and take the weekend and Monday to recoup and regain my strength. It was important to maintain this routine. It gave me purpose. It kept me out of the house and my mind occupied. Unfortunately my body grew weaker, my brain was so foggy and I was so tired all the time. My hands and feet went numb with neuropathy from chemo. To this day, I still can’t feel my feet. 2 years and counting. These nasty drugs, they save your life, but sure do cause a heck of a lot of other issues, some that will never go away.
My cancer responded well to my treatment and shrunk significantly. My lymph node cells were barely visible. This was awesome news. By mid-July of 2016, I was cancer free and declared in remission. I endured 6 surgeries in less than 13 months. A port placement, a skin sparing, double mastectomy with 9 lymph nodes being removed and placement of tissue expanders for future reconstruction. Throw in some pneumonia complications and a couple of infections and when you add them all up…..all that matters was that the cancer was gone!
If anyone would have told me that the battle after cancer was almost as bad, if not worse than the treatment plan, I would never have believed them. The healing process was long and difficult. Physically I was better than I had anticipated but mentally I was not prepared for what I would see under those bandages. What woman would be? How would I ever feel whole again, let alone sexy or desirable. I kept reminding myself of that perky boob job they show you pictures of, that should make me feel better…….right????
There are no words to describe the physical pain I endured for six, long, excruciating months. Looking back, I wish I had listened to my gut and went flat instead for pursuing reconstruction. Nonetheless, I pushed on in hopes of feeling like a woman again.
My treatment plan also included five weeks, five days a week of targeted radiation. This part seemed to be much easier for me as my body tolerated the treatment well with little skin irritation and the burning that so many others deal with. I found that six minutes of lying in that machine to be so peaceful. A time to meditate and pray and reflect on how far I had come and count all my blessings. I rang that bell so proudly with tears of joy upon my completion. Unfortunately, I had no idea what affects radiation would have on me going forward and what it would ultimately do to my body. I grew so physically weak, tired and drained. My skin tightened to the point that my tissue expander had migrated upward toward my armpit. I could barely raise my arm. The pain was unbearable. Surely my implants would not hurt me like this did…….
When you are diagnosed with breast cancer it is highly recommended that you have the genetic testing done so you can better understand your risk for other cancers as well. I am positive for the BRCA2 breast cancer gene. This means I have a significantly higher risk for breast and ovarian cancer. Genetic testing has really just come into the forefront within that last 5-10 years it seems and it really wasn’t pushed by my doctors due to expense. Why the heck not??? I blame myself for not demanding it and just accepting the normal screening that is recommended. Today, it’s a whole new ballgame for those who know they have this gene. More could and should have been done for me, but hind sight is always 20/20.
In January of 2017 I took the next step in my journey to fight cancer by having all those female parts that could potentially kill me removed. Any of you that have experienced a total hysterectomy know all about those hot flashes, night sweats, mood swings, tears and weight gain. The list goes on. Throw in an aromatase inhibitor on top of all that to suppress estrogen, since my cancer was fed by it. This pill is beneficial in my fight against recurrence. What this pill is…….it’s the devil as far as I’m concerned. I could go on about the nasty side effects but I won’t because that would be letting my guard down and admitting this protocol was getting to me. I’m not a quitter and I have to keep hoping and moving forward. So I take the pill and remain positive it’s doing its job!
I was so excited to get my reconstruction almost a year to date from my mastectomy. It would mark the end of this trip and make all the puzzle pieces come together. The surgery itself was a piece of cake. I couldn’t wait to see my boobs. When the time was right, I stood all alone in front of that mirror and began to unmask the new me. As I removed the bandages, I couldn’t believe my eyes. My left breast looked pretty good. Quite natural and seemed larger than I had anticipated. But my radiated side was filled with capsular contracture and so tight, and hard and high and felt again like it was in my armpit. Once again all I could see was a monster. I was completely lopsided. What in the hell had they done to me?
I entered into an emotional tailspin, something that I could have never imagined. You see, I had always been a strong, independent woman who could handle anything but this…..it broke me. It stole my confidence and inner peace. I slumped into a major depression, cried all the time, started withdrawing from life, had panic attacks and lost all self-esteem. I was feeling so sorry for myself and no matter what I tried, I couldn’t pull myself out of this funk. I had hit rock bottom.
I don’t remember the day, but I finally found the strength and admitted I needed help. I couldn’t do this alone any longer and why on earth it took me so long is beyond me. No one should ever be afraid to ask for help. Not just from family and friends, but professionals who can move you forward into a more positive mental state. Someone who could help me see that I had beaten cancer, but I was letting the aftermath get the best of me.
I began to take control of my life again. I set my course in a new direction. One that would rid me of my pain and anguish. I found a new plastic surgeon to undo the mess that were my fake breasts. I chose to go flat because of the extreme radiation damage. Another reveal no one is ever prepared to see. I don’t look at myself in the mirror for very long, but I’m getting there. It feels so good going braless! I’m working with a local artist and will begin to cover my scars with an amazing tattoo that will tell my story. I will take back my chest and be happy to look in the mirror again soon.
I’m working thru this thing called life after cancer. One day at a time. Physically I’m healed. Mentally I’m coming around. I’ve learned to cope with the fact that my brain doesn’t function the way it used to. I’m a little slower and have some physical limitations, but I am alive!! I beat cancer!! I’ve empowered my family by encouraging them to get the genetic testing so they can use their personal knowledge and results to live their best lives. They can make appropriate choices to be PREVIVORS instead of survivors like me. This is huge because nearly all of my family members that have been tested, are positive for the gene. Because of me and my journey, my family will continue to stay one step ahead of cancer. Without my diagnosis, all of them could be ticking time bombs. I never want them to go thru what I’ve been thru.
I know this is long, and I thank Sheena and the girls at TruReflection for their love and support. They always make me feel beautiful. I am honored to share my story.
I have to admit, cancer did change me. It changed my body. It changed my mind and it changed my heart. It taught me to live every day in the moment, to be present and cherish my family and those that are closest to me. It taught me to love harder, laugh louder and be more thankful for all of the blessings that I’ve been given in life. It taught me that things don’t matter, people do. We all have trials in life and we work thru them the best way we know how.
Getting back to my friend who just couldn’t believe how much cancer changed me…..I say stop and take a look. I’m still me. I’m still smiling. I’m still standing and I’ll never stop fighting. I am strong, I am a survivor and I am a warrior. I’m pretty satisfied with those changes.
October 4, 2018
Big Thank you Kim Whittaker for sharing your story with us at the salon and our clients. You're such a strong person. We love you!
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