The month of January, for many, signifies a blank slate, a fresh start. As the clock strikes 12 a.m. on the first day of the new year, life seems bright—and not just because of the twinkling lights and metallic decorations. It’s as if any mistake from the year before can be forgotten, and change for the better can be embraced.
For Kris Beasley, one of encore’s advertising reps, January 2012 meant something very different. It was the month she discovered she had breast cancer.
At the age of 45, with no history of the disease in her family, Kris felt a lump in her left breast. When her husband confirmed feeling the knot-like mass, neither of them immediately assumed it was cancer. Kris considered it might be a regular side-effect of her menstruation; still, she reasoned if the lump wasn’t gone in a couple weeks, she’d have it checked out.
When Kris did visit the doctor’s office, the nurse practitioner sent her for a diagnostic mammogram. “Next thing you know, I was referred to a surgeon for a biopsy and got the call that I had breast cancer,” Kris recalls. “I was in shock. I could not believe it.”
Kris’ options were to have a lumpectomy (removal of the tumor and surrounding tissue) or a mastectomy (removal of the entire breast). She chose the lumpectomy with a breast reduction. Surgery was set for March 2nd, 2012.
When the doctor went in, Kris’ tumor was larger than expected. She was then diagnosed at stage two—and chemotherapy became a requirement.
By April Kris began treatment: six rounds of chemotherapy, three weeks apart, and daily radiation. “My hair started falling out after my first chemo treatment,” she remembers. “I tried to hang on to it as long as I could but ended up asking my husband to just shave it all off.”
Hair loss was Kris’ initial concern with chemo, and as her long locks thinned, she also lost her eyelashes and eyebrows. “But in the end, it was nothing,” she says. “It felt liberating to see myself bald in the mirror—I smiled.”
Having read a book about chemo treatment and possible side effects, Kris also worried about nausea and vomiting, as well as changes in taste and smell. Some cancer patients experience a strong metallic taste while undergoing treatment, especially while eating. Yet, as every journey with cancer is different, the book ended up causing more fear than it relieved: Kris gave herself unnecessary anxiety over symptoms she never experienced.
“I was scared about the chemo, but I never got sick, and I never lost weight,” she tells. “In general, chemo was OK.”
Such a collected reaction is surprising, as Kris would spend four or five hours receiving an intravenous drip during each session. For other patients, it can be even longer. “You start with something that helps chill you out, and they change the bags with the different drugs, but everyone’s chemo cocktail is different,” Kris says. “I would just bring a book to read; people would sleep or knit. But I was thankful I never really got sick.”
On the other hand, the one component Kris didn’t fret over—radiation—ended up being the most taxing part of her treatment. While each dose only lasted about 15 minutes, it was a daily occurrence Kris faced for months. “Everyone said it was no big deal, but it was the part I liked the least,” she shares. “Every single day I had to breathe a certain way during the treatment: My heart is under my left breast, and they didn’t want the radiation to hit my heart. Holding my breath lifted my breast away from my heart, but I could hardly get it right. It just stunk having to go through that every day.”
Though Kris received so much support from friends and family, she was still a mother, an employee, an adult who spent so much of her daily life taking care of others. She found it hard to accept help, and even harder to discuss her feelings with loved ones.
“It was just overwhelming,” Kris says, barely holding back tears. “I just felt so taken care of. Sometimes you really come to know who a person is when you go through a tough time. My husband—he’s stellar. He really is. Usually, I’m the one who’s doing the care-giving, like through our church, so it was hard in a weird way for me to receive that. But I quickly got over that. It was just amazing the people that came to help me, in all facets of my life . . . My bosses allowed me to just work my schedule the way that worked best for me.”
In October 2012, during National Breast Cancer Awareness month, Kris completed her treatment and her hair began to grow back. She worked through the entire six months of her chemotherapy and radiation, and thought beating cancer and moving on as a survivor would finally bring some normalcy to her life. Yet, only now is she starting to feel like herself again. But Kris often felt sluggish or unhappy in the months after conquering cancer.
“For me, it was the hardest part of the journey,” she says. “I couldn’t find normal anymore. I didn’t look like myself or feel like myself. I kept trying to get over it, but I was freaking out. Of course, I didn’t want to tell anyone about my anxiety because what was I complaining about? It was over! I couldn’t really explain what my problem was without feeling like a huge complainer. I just kept trying to get back to normal by myself.”
A check-up with her oncologist, Dr. Arb, allowed Kris to tap into her emotions. “She asked me how I was doing, and I broke down and started crying,” Kris reveals. “I was so embarrassed. I was all ready to say, ‘I’m doing great! So happy to be getting back to normal!’ Yet, I just started weeping. I was mortified.”
Dr. Arb assured her feelings were normal—something many women endure after treatment. She suggested Kris speak with a counselor who deals with post-treatment cancer patients. “I was in such a low place, I did just that,” Kris tells. “But I didn’t want to tell anyone, because I thought it would show weakness.”
Kris met with Sarah Brownlee of The Healing Partnership. “I never thought talking to someone would alleviate so much of my worry,” Kris muses. “She was so cool and easy to talk to. I was able to tell her exactly how I really felt about everything—it was awesome.”
Brownlee gave Kris concrete methods to deal with stress and anxiety. “I think being able to express myself to an outsider, someone who didn’t know me or my story, was liberating,” Kris divulges. “Being able to tell an objective party your fears, dark thoughts, crazy thoughts, and funny thoughts was very therapeutic. I saw Sarah once a week for about two months total.”
Though Kris was fortunate to not need financial assistance from non-profit organizations, she admits the battle left a large bill. After insurance coverage, her family deals with the leftover balance through payment plans.
“A lot of places make you come up with X amount of your money down, which is a scary thing,” Kris explains. “I kept thinking to myself, How do some of these people make it through if they don’t have the money? I didn’t get connected with the Pretty in Pink Foundation until after my cancer was over, but that’s a local service to help people pay for their bills.”
Dr. Lisa Tolnitch, a breast-cancer surgeon with Duke Cancer Institute, founded the nonprofit in May 2004. The goal is to help as many under-insured and uninsured breast-cancer patients—women and men—to receive the treatment they need. They collect money through sponsorships, fund-raisers, donations and pledge drives.
Many local businesses offered free services and products to Kris and other cancer patients. “I got a free will-call bra from Belk through Pretty in Pink,” she shares. “[The local foundation coordinator] sent an e-mail saying, ‘There are no strings attached. You just have to call and set your appointment.’ So I went and was able to pick out whatever I wanted, which was great.”
Several salons hold spa days through Dr. Arb and Dr. Weinberg, a surgeon specializing in breast cancer. The patients are invited for a day of free pampering.
“I think a lot of businesses reach out to those doctors,” Kris tells. “I just got a note from Dr. Weinberg; she had a big event where you could get pedicures, manicures and massages. Even though I’m past it, I was still invited.”
Dr. Arb recommended Kris to Sheila’s Wig Hair and Skin Care Salon during chemo. Now that her hair has grown back, Kris will also donate the turbans and scarves she wore. More over, she will donate her wig to Pretty in Pink, so a woman who cannot afford one may still feel feminine.
“The wig wasn’t cheap,” Kris concedes. “I remember I had a hard time spending the money for it, but my husband said, ‘We’re getting you whatever you want.’”
There are even exercise resources for survivors, such as the 12-week Livestrong program at the YMCA. It is open to all cancer survivors, not just those of breast cancer, and it focuses on strength-building. Those who complete the program receive a free, year-long membership to the YMCA.
Today, Kris’ effervescent personality is no longer weighed down by the medicines, treatments, surgery and fears. “You can dwell on the negative or embrace the positive,” she says. “I prefer the latter.”
Though life after breast cancer will never be the same, she has begun anew. The intimacy and strength it brought to her relationships with family and friends remains of greater value.
“My relationship with my husband and daughter deepened,” she affirms. “My faith in God kept me in peace and without worry. The love I received from family and friends was mind-blowing—it still brings me to tears. My co-workers stepped up and covered for me while I was out. Doctors, nurses and health professionals provided great care with smiles on their faces. Businesses provided free services for me. And I got a new, perky set of ta-tas!”
Her greatest takeaway from the experience: “Having cancer of any kind is a scary, life-changing experience. But if you pay close attention, you will also gain some blessings.”
Pretty in Pink Foundation
Providing financial services when breast cancer is present but insurance is not. Wilmington office: 4014 Shipyard Blvd., (910) 620-9871, www.prettyinpinkfoundation.org
Women of Hope
Educational opportunities, financial assistance, and several different support groups for ladies with any type of cancer. (910) 799-7178, womenofhopenc.org
Messages of Hope
New Hanover Regional Medical Center invites area cancer survivors, their loved ones and the medical professionals who treat cancer to share their personal messages of hope, courage and triumph about the disease to offer comfort for others. Talking about it is also therapy! Visit the online catalog of stories: http://nhrmc.us/wp
The Lower Cape Fear Hospice offers several different support-group options for adults, from free monthly drop-in sessions to specific groups such as coping with the death of a loved one, loss of parents, growth and education, and hope for the holidays. Serving New Hanover, Pender, Brunswick, and Columbus counties. www.hospiceandlifecarecenter.org
Susan G. Komen Foundation
The Susan G. Komen Foundation offers info for those diagnosed with breast cancer, like understanding the diagnosis, treatment options, and improving life after treatment. There’s also info for family and friends of someone diagnosed, such as “what to say to a loved one” and how to find support. ww5.komen.org
Save a Breast, Eat a Wing
At Buffalo Wild Wings (206 Old Eastwood Rd. and 5533 Carolina Beach Rd.), every “Boneless Thursday” from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. in the month of October, 10 percent of all food sales will be donated to the Pretty in Pink Foundation. “Pink Buffalo” drinks will be available all through October with a portion of the proceeds being donated as well. Limited edition shirts will be sold for 100 percent donation. (910) 798-9464 or (910) 392-7224.
Making Strides Against Breast Cancer
Sat., Oct. 19th, head to Cape Fear Community College for a walk to raise funds for the American Cancer Society. Walk begins at 10 a.m.; visit www.main.acsevents.org/site/TR?fr_id=55894 to sign up to fundraise or to donate.
Run for Hope
Sat., Oct. 19th at 10 a.m., Duplin Winery will host a 5k race ($30) and one-mile run/walk ($20) with food, music and wine. Proceeds benefit Women of Hope. www.womenofhopenc.org