When we set out to do fundraising for the BCRF this October, we announced it on social media. Shortly after we received an email from Erin telling us about her sister. Katie was diagnosed with breast cancer when she was just 27. She was healthy with no prior history and it threw her and everyone in her life for a loop. When she got her bilateral mastectomy it was the last thing she expected to be doing before she was even in her thirties. But this disease, as she told us, is not just something that happens to people over forty. It can happen to anyone, at any time, regardless of lifestyle or history. Katie’s story is one of eternal optimism, and one that reminds us to advocate for ourselves and our health.
When and how were you first diagnosed? What was that moment and season in life like for you?
I was 27 last January (2016) and I was feeling quite healthy and strong. It was a Sunday night when the lump was found on my left side. I was not doing regular self-exams so it was quite fortunate that it was found. I called my doctor the next day, I wasn’t concerned because I had a very good health record. The following day I went in for an exam and my doctor was not worried but told me I needed to have an ultrasound and a mammogram to be safe. Two days later when I went in for the ultrasound, the doctor informed me I would need a needle biopsy because something didn’t look right. It wasn’t until this moment that I realized this really could be cancer.
24 hours later, between 2-3 PM on Friday February 5th I received the call from the doctor in which she said “Katie you have a cancer.” I think the first thing I said was “Wait are you joking?” I couldn’t believe it. I will never ever forget that moment. I will never forget the feeling like someone had just knocked the wind out of me. I’ve never wanted to freeze or rewind time more in my life. Since it was a Friday afternoon unfortunately they didn’t know a lot about the cancer. I had to wait until additional tests came back early the following week to know if it was anywhere else in my body, what a treatment plan would look like, etc. Needless to say that weekend felt like an entire year. I couldn’t help but think the worst.
Once we found out it was considered stage 2b breast cancer there was a treatment plan put into place. I began telling myself, I have to get started before I can finish. I knew I had to look at each phase of treatment individually vs looking at the entire treatment plan all at once. It would be too overwhelming. One day at a time.
I love that you refer to this as a season in life. One of my dearest friends introduced this term to me last year and yes, it truly was a season of my life. A long, scary, trying, season. At the same time it was a rewarding and beautiful one as well. (Easy for me to say that now with the hard parts behind me!)
During your treatment process, what were the hardest parts and who or what gave you encouragement?
Aside from physical side effects, I think the hardest part for me was feeling like, in a way, my life was on hold. I was 27 years old, losing my hair, losing a major part of my body, potentially losing the ability to have children one day, etc while most 27 year old women were advancing in their careers, getting married, having babies, or simply living their life with a blissful innocence and freedom like they should be in their 20’s.
My support system gave me encouragement. My family and close friends let me know they were fighting this with me. I was living in Boston with my boyfriend (now fiancé). He held me tighter through every stage of treatment and never left my side. He never missed a single chemotherapy session. He is truly my best friend and my rock.
I am originally from Ohio so my family flew in as often as they could to be with me. Also, as you know, girlfriends are everything. They came into town and stayed with me as often as they could. We took a girls trip to Martha’s Vineyard right before my surgery that will forever live in my heart as one of the most special times we’ve had together.
Things are always clearer in the rearview mirror, but now I know I gained far more than I lost throughout all of this.
Has your body image changed at all through this process? What relationship do you have with your body now?`
My body image has definitely changed through this process. I worked hard to build a strong mind and a strong body before cancer so one of my biggest fears in undergoing treatment and understanding what the side effects could be, was ‘how will my body change and what body will I be left with at the end of this?’ Specifically, I can remember post-surgery having a really hard time looking at myself.
Exercise has helped a lot with this. I like to think my body image is a work in progress but the further away I get from treatment the more I feel like myself. I feel so lucky to have lungs that breathe air and legs that can run! My scars are a reminder that I can do hard things and persevere through the toughest of times and I love my body for being able to withstand this storm.
How has breast cancer changed your relationship with your family?
I am one of 4 girls, so as you can imagine when I was diagnosed one of the first things I thought was- what about my mom and what about my sisters? If there were to be a genetic component to this then they could all be affected. Fortunately there was not.
I can honestly say (with tears in my eyes of course) that somehow I feel like this brought my already close family even closer. I will never forget how hard it was for me to call them on the phone to tell them I had cancer. Being states away from them made the battle difficult, but they somehow never made me feel like they were far away.
The year was full of travel and being together in small spaces- my Boston apartment, hospital rooms, around the chemotherapy chair, my sisters squished in a car with my dad driving up from Cleveland, hotel rooms, etc. BUT the nice thing about small spaces is some great memories can come from them. One of the hardest but most special times was right around my bilateral mastectomy when my sisters, mom and dad were all in town. They were all in the hospital room when I woke up which was such a comforting feeling. We all live our lives thinking “That will never happen to me, or to us” but it was amazing to see my family show up when cancer did happen to me. I think health was something we all took for granted but I now know it’s not.
What does being a breast cancer survivor mean to you, and how would you like to be portrayed? Do you feel like there are any unhelpful assumptions people make about cancer patients?
I don't really know what being a survivor means to me yet as it's all still a little raw, and to be honest I am just a normal person. I feel so thankful to have survived this season of life. There are so many people that are just beginning treatment or are still battling and I think of them every single day. There are people who may be living with cancer and don’t even know they have it yet. There are many who have lost their battle to this disease and when I think of them I don’t even like being called a survivor because it’s not fair that we all haven't survived this. I want to bring awareness to the fact that cancer doesn’t discriminate. I think many people think of breast cancer as a disease affecting their mothers, aunts, or grandmothers but it's reaching more and more young women every year. It doesn’t care if you are young, old, rich, poor, what your fitness level is, etc.
I also think many people assume there is always a genetic component to breast cancer when in fact only about 5-10% of breast cancer diagnosis have any sort of genetic component. So even if the disease is not in your family, you should do self-exams. I sure wish I had been doing them!
When it comes to breast cancer awareness, what do you feel people are not talking about, but should be?
Two things. With more and more women being diagnosed at such a young age, I think there needs to be a larger discussion around self-exams. This is not just a 40 year old woman’s disease. If I had waited until I was 40, I’m not sure I would be here. My breast cancer had already spread to my lymph nodes yet I felt completely healthy and had NO SIGNS of having cancer until mine was found. I don’t think women should wait until they are 40 to start getting mammograms.
In a lot of cases, breast cancer can be a survivable disease. There are things we can be doing to make cancer treatment a little easier on our bodies and it can start with exercise. Exercise is a tool that has helped me so much during and after treatment. It’s helped me physically and mentally and I think we need to talk about this more. If I had never been diagnosed with breast cancer I wouldn’t know all my body is capable of. Some days I wish I could go back to the February 5, 2016 version of myself and give her a giant hug and tell her, it’s all going to be OK, you will get through this and you will come out on the other side. Don’t be afraid of the hard days, it’s in the hard days we grow more than we ever thought possible. It definitely sucks. But when it’s over, life will be so sweet!
Katie Marvinney photographed by Nicole Baas in Boston.
Every week this month we’ll be featuring a different woman’s story with breast cancer, and 100% of the profits from our Dusty Rose collection will go right to the Breast Cancer Research Fund while our supplies last. But what more can you do? Get a mammogram, talk to your friends, and listen to those who know. The more we talk about it, the more we encourage each other to take care of themselves, the more we take care of each other.