"My blood counts had dropped dangerously low because of the anemia and I required a blood transfusion in order to level it out. The idea of having someone else’s blood running through me had me a bit weirded out and I was really nervous to receive it. During the first hour of the transfusion, I began to feel more energized and said a “thank you” in my head to the donor who gave the blood that was helping me." - Kelly
Read the rest of Kelly's story below.
At the end of April in 2011 while I was taking a shower, I noticed a hard lump on the upper part of my right breast. I was concerned because it was noticeably different than any other regular lumps of the breast. I decided to ask my Mom, who is a two time Breast Cancer survivor, to take a look to see if she thought it was something that needed to be looked at. We decided it wouldn’t hurt to have it checked out so on June 24, 2011 I went in for a mammogram. The mammogram came back with abnormal readings so it was recommended that I have an ultrasound, which they performed right then and there. After the ultrasound also came back with suspicious abnormalities the Radiologist did an immediate biopsy of the lump. I left the office on that Friday with an extremely sore right breast and a head full of confused worry. I was told that the results of the biopsy would not be available until after the weekend so to sit tight until Monday or Tuesday. I have a pretty level head and tend to remain calm but the wait for these results had my mind racing with thoughts in directions I’d never imagined. Four days after the biopsy I received a phone call while I was at work. On Wednesday June 28 at the age of 31, I was given my initial diagnosis of Stage 2 Invasive Ductal Carcinoma Breast Cancer.
At this point my mind was blank, I didn’t know what to think or how to feel. I was told I needed to find an Oncologist and a Surgeon. Now I had never been horribly sick or injured before and had no idea where to even start so I just went with the Doctor’s who helped my Mom. There was so much that needed to be done, so many options and decisions that needed to be made. It was extremely difficult to try to wrap my head around everything with all the information that was being given to me while still in this state of emotional shock. The nursing staff’s were incredible and took control of making my appointments and helped ease my mind.
It was advised for me to get a genetic test done since I had the history in my family. I was told the results would also help in determining the course of action for treatment. My results found that I was BRCA1 positive, which means that I have a gene in me that makes me more susceptible to having Breast or Ovarian Cancer. After discovering these results it was time for me to make a plan of action to remove and attack the Cancer. After going over all my options I decided to have a double mastectomy with reconstruction to remove the Cancer that was already there and since I was at an elevated risk of recurrence to prevent it coming back in either breast. At my pre-surgery appointment with my surgeon he discovered that my armpit was a bit swollen and determined that the Cancer had spread to my lymph nodes. Because of this he would have to remove lymph nodes from my armpit which would require me to have radiation therapy. At this time the only option for reconstruction in Iowa was to have implants put in. I was advised to hold off on the reconstruction until my radiation was done because the radiation would damage an implant.
On August 17, 2011 I had a mastectomy of my right breast. They also removed 11 lymph nodes, 2 of which came back positive for Cancer. I was feeling great after surgery but got an infection a few weeks later that put me back in the hospital for 3 days. I started chemotherapy on September 23, 2011. Walking into the office that day I was the most nervous I’ve ever been for anything in my life. They try to attack the Cancer very aggressively at the beginning and because the first chemotherapy drug was so strong, a nurse had to sit with me and administer it through a syringe into my IV for 30 minutes. I then received another IV drip of a different chemo drug that took about 3 hours. Also because the first drug was so potent the following day I had to go to the hospital to receive a shot that would help bring my cell counts up quickly. I continued this regimen every 2 weeks for 4 cycles. Once done with those chemotherapy drugs I put on a different drug that I would get through IV every week for 12 weeks. Right before receiving my second treatment during the first round, I began to lose my hair. My body tolerated the chemo pretty well and I didn’t have much sickness. Food and drinks would taste different and I was definitely fatigued like I’d never been in my life. The worst part was the mental fog I was constantly in. I learned it’s called “chemo brain”. It is a very discouraging thing, I couldn’t concentrate well, I couldn’t remember things I should know, I just couldn’t get my brain to function as it regularly did. I still sometimes feel the effects from this. But after 16 rounds, on February 3, 2012, I was able to ring the bell and be done with chemotherapy!
After a few weeks of recovery from the chemotherapy, I started radiation treatments on February 21, 2012. Now this was the strangest experience yet. I was given 3 small black dot tattoos to help them figure out where the laser was supposed to line up and then was fitted into a pillow mold that I would have to lay in for each treatment. The Radiologists would set up the machine and then everyone would leave me alone in the room where this big machine would circle around me and make noises. The radiation treatment itself was painless but by the second week I was starting to see and feel the burns. Radiation works from the inside out so once you start to see and feel the effects; it has already done a lot of work destroying what’s inside. I had 32 daily treatments of radiation and was able to ring the bell of completion on April 4, 2012!
I decided to go through with the preventative mastectomy of my left breast and have reconstruction the following year. There was a new Doctor in town with different options for reconstruction than when I had previously opted to do it. After reviewing all my choices I decided to have a tram-flap surgery where they move tissue, muscle, and skin from the abdomen up to create new breasts. It is a very complex surgery and on February 19, 2013 I went under the knife for a little over 9 hours. With this kind of surgery you are unable to stand up straight and I was very sore. The next morning they wanted to help me get up and try moving around. The second my feet hit the floor I felt extremely weak and unable to move. I was also having difficulty breathing. They took me down for an immediate CT scan and did an EKG. It was determined that I had tachycardia (a faster than normal resting heart rate, I had become anemic, and I developed hospital-acquired pneumonia. My blood counts had dropped dangerously low because of the anemia and I required a blood transfusion in order to level it out. The idea of having someone else’s blood running through me had me a bit weirded out and I was really nervous to receive it. During the first hour of the transfusion, I began to feel more energized and said a “thank you” in my head to the donor who gave the blood that was helping me. After being monitored and deemed well enough, I was able to leave the hospital after a weeklong stay.
With antibiotics, pain pills, and other medicine, everything seemed to be going well and I was having weekly checkups with my plastic surgeon to monitor my progress and healing. After a few weeks the Doctor became concerned that a few spots on the incisions of my abdomen and right breast were not closing up. Because the radiation treatments I’d had to get rid of the Cancer damaged the skin and tissue so badly, the reconstruction to my right breast was not holding because the skin and tissues were dying causing the incision to open up. In order to revive the tissues I underwent hyperbaric oxygen treatments for 2 hours every day for 26 treatments. It’s pretty miraculous the improvement that was made by just receiving 100% oxygen. Once my Doctor felt that the breast was healed well enough to try to close me back up, I went in for another surgery at the end of April. Once again my blood counts dropped and I had to receive another blood transfusion. I also said a “thank you” to this donor as I started to feel the positive effects of the new blood. After getting everything leveled out again, I was able to go home after a few days. Unfortunately the radiated skin was being stubborn and was not allowing the incision from this surgery to heal. My Doctor cut it back open and I had a wound vac attached to me to draw out any infection and promote tissue granulation. I wore the wound vac 24 hours a day from May 29 until I had another surgery on July 26, 2013.
I had another surgery in October of 2013 and one in February 2014. I was scheduled to have my final surgery earlier this year but it has been delayed. I currently have checkups with my Oncologist every 6 months and with a Gynecologic Oncologist at the University of Iowa to monitor my ovaries for Ovarian Cancer. My energy has finally returned and I’m feeling better physically than I have in many years. Although the thought of having someone else’s blood running through me initially seemed odd, I am proof of the benefits from blood donation. If I hadn’t received both transfusions there’s no telling how serious my condition could have become. As I thanked my donors silently in the hospital, I also want to thank the many other donors out there who are selflessly saving people’s lives through their donations. I fully encourage everyone to donate if you are able to.