Life as a cancer survivor began in 2003 when Kathi was diagnosed with Stage 2B Breast Cancer. It was one of the most common types, invasive ductal, and she found comfort in the fact that many before her had been successfully treated. As a self-proclaimed “info junkie” Kathi spent hours reading and learning about her disease from reputable sources her doctor had recommended. HOPE Cancer Connection’s list of medically recommended websites would have helped her research.
With each member of her cancer treatment team, there were decisions to make. The general practitioner, the oncologist, the surgeon and the radiation oncologist all gave her choices and she came to her visits prepared to partner in her treatment. Steps in Kathi’s journey included a lumpectomy, chemotherapy, more surgery, second opinions such as a breast MRI specialist, a second lumpectomy and finally a double mastectomy. Kathi coped by learning about and understanding her cancer, which reduced her fear and better equipped her to make decisions intelligently while dealing with it emotionally.
As a special education teacher, Kathi found support and encouragement from her co-workers and students. At work she felt like a normal person, not a cancer patient. She learned that being open with her employer and simply stating “I am in treatment for cancer” helped with any special accommodations she required and allowed her co-workers to be more understanding when they covered for her here and there.
Kathi laughingly remembers a favorite term she would use with her co-workers: I’m FINE (Fatigued, Irritated, Nauseous, Emotional)!
The You Are Not Alone (YANA) Support Group and the Look Good Feel Better program were truly helpful. Kathi says “The need for support doesn’t mean your family and friends aren’t supporting you; sometimes you need to talk to another cancer survivor who’s been there.” She also agreed to be contacted by a Reach to Recovery volunteer from the American Cancer Society who helped counsel her. But her No. 1 supporter was her husband and caregiver, Kevin. Kevin’s co-workers were a great support to him as well. Kathi and Kevin would take long walks together as she recovered, first to the end of the driveway, then into the woods and then finally hiking around their property.
There is an expectation that when you are done with treatment everything goes back to normal. But to Kathi, it didn’t and she found she needed to find her “new normal.” She allowed herself the luxury of grieving the loss of her breasts and the change in her life. To make sense of it all Kathi began volunteering – first with The Breast Cancer Family Foundation, then the ACS Reach to Recovery mentor program and Living Beyond Breast Cancer Consumer Review Board.
In 2004, Kathi decided to retire from teaching and become an Advocate for the American Cancer Society Action Network where she could reach and impact a larger group of people regarding public policies and research funding. She also volunteers with the Infinite Boundaries program by Breast Cancer Recovery and with the Y-ME National Breast Cancer Organization. Kathi watches what she eats, enjoys yoga and Zumba and believes she needs to keep moving!
“When your journey has been a roller coaster it’s okay to feel bad,” Kathi says. “You just need to find out what to do about it. My mantra is to pursue optimistic realism. I am not a Pollyanna who denies reality.”
She adds, “Maybe my mantra is ‘realistic optimism.’ I’m never quite sure which way it should go! What’s important is to never minimize the losses, to deal with the bad and to focus on the good.”