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Fighting Breast Cancer, Building Bonds: One Family's Story

More than 280,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer each year. This is the story of one survivor and how battling the disease brought her family closer.

By Roxanne Patel Shepelavy

Glenna Kirkpatrick, 58
Glenna, Jim and Cole Kirkpatrick
Enlarge Image
Stephen Karlisch

It's frightening enough learning that you have breast cancer, but when my doctor told me that mine was prolific and aggressive, it was absolutely devastating. I'd found a sore spot while doing my regular self-exam in 2008, and a subsequent mammogram indicated something abnormal. So I had an ultrasound and a biopsy, which revealed three tumors joined together, about the size of a plum. My first thought was my daughter, Cole. She was only 11, and I couldn't imagine what would happen if I left her at such a young age. And of course I thought about my husband, Jim. But Cole was the one who needed me most. I couldn't die.

When I broke the news to her, she immediately started crying. "I'm not scared," I told her. "I know what I need to do and I will fight this with everything I've got." She calmed down, and so did I. Right after my diagnosis I started reading Love, Medicine & Miracles: Lessons Learned About Self-Healing from a Surgeon's Experience with Exceptional Patients by Bernie Siegel (Harper). He explains that cancer patients who take charge and ask questions—why are you doing this, what does this mean, and so on—have a higher survival rate than those who just go along with whatever their doctor says. I definitely believe our minds affect our health, and decided then and there that if my cancer was aggressive, I would be aggressive too. I started chemotherapy right away at an oncology center not far from our home in Denton, Texas. Every morning in the shower I would chant out loud how the drugs were killing the cancer and would leave the rest of my body perfectly healthy.

I guess it worked. After my first treatment the tumor shrank from 5 centimeters to less than 2. That gave me the strength to endure the awful side effects of the next 15 weeks—nausea, fatigue, numbness in my toes, tingling sensations in my hands and twitching in my right eye. Instead of waiting for my hair to fall out and getting all upset about it, I had my hairdresser shave my head and style a wig for me. But I was so pleasantly surprised by how I looked bald that I took things a step further and stopped wearing my wig or any hats. Jim told me I looked beautiful, and even Cole, who was frightened by my baldness at first because it reminded her of my illness, was okay with it. At the grocery store strangers gave me hugs and told me they'd pray for me. One guy even said, "I want you to know you're the prettiest, sexiest woman here." I was shocked—and moved—that people could be so caring and kind.

After six rounds of chemo, my tumors had shrunk so much that surgeons had to use the markers they'd made during my biopsy to locate and remove what was left. They also found out that the cancer hadn't spread to my lymph nodes, which was a huge relief. Even before the lumpectomy I had a feeling deep down that I was going to be fine; still, there were nagging doubts in the back of my mind. This was the confirmation I'd been waiting for, proof positive, the turning point. I had to undergo two months of radiation, but I was already starting to feel like myself again.

I know that I'm lucky. My cancer was caught relatively early at stage 2, which has a high survival rate. And I'm grateful to my family for being so supportive and positive. Jim never stopped telling me—and everyone else—how tough I was, and his encouragement made all the difference. Even Cole never let me wallow in self-pity. One day I was feeling really down after my chemo treatment and couldn't even get out of bed. "I don't want to do this anymore," I told her when she came into my room. "Would you rather die?" she said. It was blunt, but Cole wasn't being harsh. She was simply reminding me that no matter how hard it is, we do what we must to survive.

Being a caretaker is sometimes just as difficult as being a patient, and having been through my illness together, we're stronger as a family. Jim and I are better at showing affection, and at communicating with each other whether things are bad or good. Bottom line is, we value each other more. As for Cole, who's now a teenager, I'm more patient with her, and I'm trying harder to impart the wisdom she needs to deal with life's challenges. But most of all I want to make sure she knows just how important she is to me. Having breast cancer was the scariest thing in my life, but it was also a wake-up call to focus on what really matters.

Jim Kirkpatrick, 66

When I learned about Glenna's illness, I thought I'd be prepared. My ex-wife died of breast cancer in 1989, after we were divorced, and our eldest daughter, Erin, who lives in Seattle, was diagnosed with it 10 years ago. Then I saw my sister die from it in 2005. As painful as all that was, this was even more of a shock because this time the illness was so close to home. In my darkest moment I remember thinking, "What if I lose Glenna? How am I going to raise Cole? My second daughter, Kelly, was only 11 when her mother died, and it affected her profoundly. I didn't want to see Cole go through that as well.

Once we had a plan in place to fight the cancer, I focused on that instead of fretting all the time. Every day I tried to figure out what Glenna needed and what I could do to support her. She's the business manager at our architecture firm and kept working whenever she could—a good thing, because lying around would have given her too much time to worry. So for the most part I encouraged her. But it was hard knowing when to push and when to back off and be more sensitive to her moods. Once she had just come back from chemo, exhausted, and wanted me to sit with her all day so she wouldn't be lonely. I couldn't because I was working, and she got angry. I regret that. Taking care of Glenna was like a dance, and I made plenty of missteps. Plus, on top of it all she and I had to be parents and keep doing all the usual things for Cole, like sitting down to family dinners and overseeing her homework. We tried not to change anything for her sake.

Three years have passed, and Glenna's prognosis is excellent. I know there's always a chance the cancer will return, but I don't live in fear. And while I grieve for those who didn't survive, I also know that those who do, like Glenna and Erin, come out stronger for it. And I have a far greater respect, admiration and bond with my wife than ever before. I make sure to take the time to give a little pat here, a kiss there. She's still here to do that with. I could have lost her, but I didn't—and that affects every decision I make.

Cole Kirkpatrick, 14
Cole Kirkpatrick
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Stephen Karlisch

As soon as my mom told me she had breast cancer, nothing seemed normal. I felt powerless to help and was really depressed. I thought about how my aunt had died three years ago. I was close to her, but I didn't know she had breast cancer until the very end. My mom was straightforward from the moment she was diagnosed, so the entire time I kept thinking about the possibility that I would never see her again. I just knew it would be very hard.

When she was getting chemo the level of stress in our house went way up. I remember Christmas of 2008 being the worst time. Everyone's supposed to be happy and perky, but my mom was in pain and just wanted the treatment to be over. It was really scary to see her like that because normally she's so bold and strong. And still she felt she had to do shopping and make the holidays merry. I didn't talk to anyone about what I was going through—not friends or family. I thought that if I said anything to my mom, it would only add to her worries. I really struggled with how to act around her. I tried to quiet down and not argue as much. But I wasn't always successful. We fought a lot. And part of me just couldn't deal and wanted to run away. I wasn't there for her as much as I should have been.

After my mom was better, I worried for a long time that the cancer would come back. I don't know if I'll ever put it fully behind me. There are lots of reminders—she had reconstructive surgery recently, and her back hurts more than it used to. It's still painful to think about all we went through. But I try to stay positive. Little things like fights with friends or a bad grade don't faze me as much. I still argue a lot with my mom—that's probably partly because I'm a teenager. You have to get through the tough parts of life, even if you don't want to. I just want to help as much as I can by just being there for her.

Telling the Children You Have Cancer

Honesty is still the best policy when talking with tweens and teens about breast cancer. Don't try to protect them by withholding information, because they'll sense it and fear the worst. You can be candid—and give them the reassurance they need—by keeping the following in mind.

—Break the news in a quiet setting (no food, TV or cell phones). Plan what you're going to say and how you'll describe your illness and prognosis. Be realistic but positive. Having a calm demeanor will help your kids feel less frightened.

—Before you begin chemotherapy or radiation, explain how they will affect you physically and emotionally. Explain that nausea, weakness and hair loss are normal side effects.

—Schedule weekly family powwows throughout the duration of your treatment (chemo can last several months to a year). This will give your kids a chance to ask questions and share feelings, which they may be reluctant to do otherwise.

—Inform them that you may not bounce back quickly even after your treatments are finished. Be up-front about any ongoing fatigue, as well as the possibility of recurrence. An optimistic outlook will give you and your family strength, whatever the future holds.

Dealing with a Diagnosis

When a woman has breast cancer, the entire family is affected. Nearly half of newly diagnosed patients suffer from emotional distress or depression, according to a study at Dartmouth Medical School, and recent research has found that their male partners are 40% more likely to be hospitalized for mood disorders like anxiety. Children are vulnerable too—29% show symptoms of post-traumatic stress. Some resources that can help:

For Patients: The National Breast Cancer Awareness Month website (nbcam.org) has information about the disease and a range of patient services. Also worth bookmarking are community.nationalbreastcancer.org (the National Breast Cancer Foundation site) and BreastCancer.org, one of the most visited breast cancer message boards. YourShoes (800-221-2141) is a 24/7 emotional support hotline where all calls are answered by a breast cancer survivor.

For Husbands: Men Against Breast Cancer (menagainstbreastcancer.org) is the only nonprofit organization focused on significant others, offering educational workshops, brochures and links to other support groups. Spouses can also visit HealthCentral.com to connect with partners of breast cancer patients across the country.

For Teens: Adolescents can call 800-4-CANCER to request When Your Parent Has Cancer: A Guide for Teens, or they can download it from Cancer.gov, the National Cancer Institute's website. In addition to providing facts about the disease and treatment, this booklet helps teens identify their feelings and learn how to cope with them.

Originally published in the October 1, 2011, issue of Family Circle magazine.

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