Hear from guest blogger, cancer survivor and a woman who is truly Fighting Pretty, Cary Kim:
Right now, the COVID-19 social distancing rules state guests, family members or caretakers cannot enter cancer clinics, meet with the care team, or sit next to patients as they receive chemotherapy IV infusions. This was the first time I was not at my mom’s side for treatment during the last 2.5 years since her diagnosis.
This photo was taken last week, the tight smile an indication of the concern I was feeling for my mom who was meeting with her oncologist and receiving treatment for breast cancer…completely alone.
As I sat in the parking lot trying to pass the time, I saw a #SendingStrength Instagram post on Fighting Pretty and immediately felt like this was one small thing I could do to support my mom and all the other cancer patients who are having to go it alone during the pandemic. I made a donation, grabbed an envelope from my dashboard and set up my camera to snap a self-timed photo. I can’t wait to get my mom’s phone call when the little pink boxing gloves arrive in the mail, and I love that every time she sees those gloves, she will remember that she does not fight alone!
I will tell you from experience, having gone through breast cancer myself, that to a patient in treatment, the little moments of feeling loved and thought about MATTER! And getting something in the mail during the pandemic will feel especially magical to a patient experiencing the double whammy of cancer during quarantine.
I challenge you to send someone you love going through any cancer this gift or just make a donation so Fighting Pretty can send a gift to someone you don’t know. No one should fight alone!
When 1 in 8 hits close to home.
When I allow myself the rare glance backward to the start of my cancer "journey" in 2006, the memories around the core needle biopsy (when my lump went from "probably nothing" to something life-threatening) still have a sharp sting. Even though I had five surgeries that removed breasts, lymph nodes in my armpit, and my ovaries and uterus, none of those procedures caused the pain that I associate with my biopsy.
Imagine a hollowed out, fat-ass needle with a pierce and cut sling-shot mechanism housed inside. It snaps loudly and excises tubular bits of tumor flesh while you are wide awake watching it happen. The physical pain was probably intensified by the terror I felt watching the visible horror creep onto the faces of the radiologist and nurse assisting the provider as the picture of my tumor was frozen on the ultrasound screen, and the cluster of rogue cells was stabbed, over and over again with the hungry needle. This, as my still milk-filled breasts leaked in unison with blood from the excisional hole accompanied by tears as we all apprehended the dire news that was to come.
Fast forward my 12 years of survivorship from late stage 3 breast cancer and picture my mom - who so bravely tied my baby to her back Korean-style and cooked and cared for me while I underwent treatment - now lying on the table, prepped and ready for her own core needle biopsy.
Pictured: This is Mama Kim in 2006 carrying Cary's children on her back, cooking and cleaning while taking care of her daughter.
A routine mammogram came back suspicious, and she was immediately scheduled for next level diagnostics. I sat next to her while we waited for the procedure to start, the ultrasound photo staring us in the face: an irregularly shaped black blob resting deep against her chest wall, surrounded by a sea of healthy breast tissue.
If you've had one first-degree female relative (sister, mother, daughter) diagnosed with breast cancer, your risk is doubled. If two first-degree relatives have been diagnosed, your risk is 5 times higher than average.
I have always known my daughters have an elevated risk of getting breast cancer because of the family history that started with me. Their window of vigilant screening will need to start ten years earlier than when I was diagnosed. But in all my dedication to staying on top of current research and generally priding myself on being a source of information about breast cancer shared freely with everyone I meet, I missed something really important that I should have told my mom. If your daughter gets breast cancer, your risk doubles. If your daughter gets breast cancer before age 40, your risk climbs even higher. I was so focused on myself and my daughters that I forgot to worry about the reverse risk my mom faced.
Mama Kim was lying on the table, forlornly taking in the screen, and I thought of a great line of consolation. "At least you've been religiously going for mammograms every year, so at worst, this thing has only been growing to a worrisome size for 12 months!"
She was sheepish and silent, then quietly admitted, "well...last time they say come again for checking two times in one week. So inconvenient. I skip last year because I go twice year before..." English is my mom's second language. This is how she sounds. I get endless mileage among my close friends retelling Kim-isms and imitating her forceful Tiger Mom way of seeing the world.
But this admission made my whole body go cold, all humor draining away from the stubborn pronouncement typical of how she formulates decisions and lives her life, her way. "Was the area they rescreened in the same place as this lump!?" Her silence was my answer, and I realized once again that no one can really learn from someone else's experiences, regardless of how intimately they walked through it with you.
Everyone thought I had taken one for the team because we had no family history before me. I kicked myself for not demanding to see the mammogram reports every year. I should have stayed on top of her breast health...what I went through should have been enough for all of us...
Pictured: Cary Kim and her beautiful daughter as she was "Fighting Pretty" back in 2006.
The radiologist came in and laid out her tools. I had a visceral reaction to seeing the core needle biopsy "gun" that shot through my tumor all those years ago. A sinking feeling came over me. I feared this would only be the first of many distressing moments of déjà vu to come. I watched the long needle slide effortlessly through six inches of normal breast tissue and then make a hard stop against a solid tumor. I observed the radiologist using extra force to pierce the mass and position the hollow point probe, and then I saw the samples being withdrawn and the scrunched up face of the nurse assisting who looked near tears as sample after sample was taken...and it was then that I realized this was going to have the same ending that mine had.
When the biopsy was finished, bandages placed, and ice pack applied, the radiologist did something highly unexpected. Instead of the usual, "we'll call you with the results next week" delivered with a poker face that would indicate absolutely nothing about what "it" might be. She went far out onto a limb, balancing precariously on the "first, do no harm" founding principle of medicine should her instincts be wrong and stated flat out, "I have to be honest...I'm worried about what I see. It looks cancerous to me. I think you need to prepare yourself."
My mom was silent. I felt a strange calm come over me. I'd been inside this moment before, the free fall when someone pushes you over the cliff into the abyss of Cancerland. This time I remembered to grab on and pull us to a ledge of safety where we could huddle together to find our footing and figure out the best path to climb back up. At least we wouldn't be starting from rock bottom...at least my experience would count for something.
We walked out to the parking lot, my tiny five-foot tall mom suddenly seeming older, more frail, and more defeated than I've ever known this tough, Korean War-surviving immigrant spitfire to be. The first words out of her mouth were, "maybe better to just leave in..." I flipped out and immediately rebutted, "what if I had said that 12 years ago?? I'd be dead, that's what." She calmly replied, "I'm old, you young, too late for me..." I gritted my teeth and understood she was processing the experience her way, but internally I was screaming, "oh, HELL NO!!" This is survivable. This is not the moment to give up. This is the time to let the devastating news sink in; yes, but it's the time to gear up to get it out, say yes to the offered treatment, and move on to the far more important business of making the most of the rest of her life.
The confirmation from pathology came swiftly, and I was grateful for the advance preparation so that "your mom has cancer" wasn't shocking at all.
I'm pleased to report there has been a radical attitude change in just a few short days. I called my mom this morning and asked how she was doing.
"I have ice cream for breakfast!" says my mom.
Good job, Mama Kim, that's the spirit!!
And then, because nothing is ever good enough, she demanded, "Why they move so slow? Why not hurry up and cut tomorrow?"
Sigh...on to phone calls and appointments, information gathering and translating medical speak...and appreciating the privilege of still being alive and the capacity to reach back through the fire and carry the most important woman in my life through to the other side, even if I might sometimes have to tie her to my back and carry her.
About Cary Kim
Cary Kim has been Fighting Pretty since 2006.
Cary is also the Director of Survivor Relations at Handful, a Portland, Oregon-based activewear company with a mission to support breast cancer survivors, making every day, every activity sports bras and compression leggings for yoga, running, working out or just your active daily life.