Over time, we saw that steel crumble and watched someone entirely new and stronger, albeit with less hair, emerge where the old Katie had been.
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Did you know that nurses can get breast cancer too?
If you had ever met Katie, you’d love her. She’s in her sixties, tall, spry and wiry. She’s spent her life as a nurse and met her husband of more than 35 years in her twenties when she was working as a dog musher up in Alaska. I met her family through my husband. Her eldest son is his best friend, and their large, cohesive, happy family has welcomed us into the fold throughout the years. This means we’ve attended their family reunions, their getaways, their vacations and more. At these events, Katie is always the center of the party – cooking huge amounts of breakfast for everyone, making snarky remarks, holding court in front of the stove. Because of this, her breast cancer diagnosis caught everyone off guard.
Sure, cancer doesn’t discriminate. I know that nurses can get breast cancer too, but Katie? She seemed to be made of steel. Over the next several months, though, as the doctors discovered the extent of her cancer and she entered the grueling process of treatment. We saw that steel crumble and watched someone entirely new and stronger, albeit with less hair, emerge where the old Katie had been.
Aggressive and widespread: the breast cancer diagnosis
Katie’s cancer was incredibly aggressive and widespread. She had four different types of tumors in both breasts. As a result, she responded with equally aggressive treatment – a double mastectomy, radiation, and chemotherapy. As all breast cancer survivors know, the procedures were brutal, and they laid Katie out completely. The treatments made her so sick that she had to stop working.
Alaska was so cold, brutal and harsh during her treatment that she flew down to a family property in Arizona, where she welcomed a rotating cast of visitors. The various visitors (myself included) sat on her bed, fed her when she wasn’t sick and midwifed her through the process. We bought her cookbooks, even though she couldn’t cook. Looking at the pictures and dreaming of the recipes made her feel better. We went for short walks with her when she felt well enough and puttered around when she didn’t. The months passed like that, and Katie started to heal.
By the time her cancer had faded away, Katie had, as well. Formerly a long-distance runner and endurance athlete. Katie now looked small and weak, wrapping a colorful headscarf around her stubble before leaving the house. Despite her frail appearance, she told us not to doubt her. There was still some fire inside, and she intended to stoke it back up into a flame.
Launching Into Recovery
While Katie was sick, my now-husband and I were engaged and planning a wedding. We invited her, assuming fully that she’d be too sick to attend, but wanting her to know she was included anyway. What we didn’t know was that Katie would rebound from treatment like a spring. Striving to grab everything she could in her life, with her patient husband by her side.
Two days after her last chemo treatment, Katie joined her family on a guided trip down the Grand Canyon, where she held court in the back of the boat and told the cook how to season the potatoes.
Just a few months after that, she surprised my husband and me by showing up in Montana, ready to celebrate our nuptials. While she was tired and took a bit of time out when she needed to, she mostly kept up with everyone. She sipped a beer at the brewery, bought dinner for my husband and me, asked about our lives. She was sick of being sick, and she was out to reclaim her place in life.
The wedding came and went. Katie stayed until the dancing was over. The next day, my husband and I went back to the house where we’d held the wedding, ready to clean up and move our belongings out of the ceremony area. Katie and her husband met us there, and we spent four hours sitting in the sun, finishing the kegs from the evening before and catching up. I asked Katie how she felt, and she told me her recently implanted expanders hurt.
“Always a straight-forward woman, Katie asked me if I'd like to see her new breasts.”
Although this was an uncomfortable moment, I told her if she was comfortable with it, I was, as well. She lifted her shirt and showed me the scar, which ran raised and horizontal across her chest, directly through the nipple line and to the edges of her ribcage. The expanders, implanted just beneath her pectoral muscles, were high and hard, like small balls where breasts should be. She laughed and told me her chest had never been so perky and that her sons felt awkward hugging her now, so prominent were “her fake boobs.”
Despite grappling with an impending reconstruction and the painful pressure of the expanders, Katie told me she didn’t feel any less feminine. Her body was flexible, and now it was entering a new phase. That was that. To this day, I’ve never forgotten the look on her face when she said that – firm and resolute, accepting of the reality of her life.
Most of us have a hard time seeing someone we love changed or in pain. What I learned from that sunny, frank, outdoor conversation with Katie, though, is that there’s a great deal of strength in that change. We just have to get out of our own way enough to see it. And yes, nurses can get breast cancer too.