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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.
Glenna Kirkpatrick, 58
Glenna, Jim and Cole Kirkpatrick
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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.