By Kate Paulsen-Zissos
On September 1, 2016, I went to the bathroom at work to answer a call from a nurse who had navigated with me through six months of ultrasounds, mammograms, biopsies, blood tests, a lumpectomy surgery and most recently, a breast MRI.
At the age of 29, I heard the words, “You have cancer.” It was Ductal Carcinoma In Situ — Stage 0 Breast Cancer, in my right breast.
I broke down crying.
Four days before this phone call, my then-boyfriend Jeff got down on one knee and proposed in front of my parents and 8-year-old son, Thomas. We were on our last day of a much-needed vacation in Indian Shores, Florida. We had never been on a family getaway before, and the palm trees and ocean were so good to our Minnesotan souls. The Gulf Coast was the perfect place to say “yes” to my best friend. And he somehow managed to surprise me!
When we got the diagnosis, I had two options — though one was strongly encouraged by my doctors. The options were radiation and likely chemo, or a mastectomy surgery. They recommended doing a mastectomy on both breasts to avoid future risk because of my age. I am so blessed to have had Jeff’s full support in that moment and to this day.
We also had to explain this to Thomas. I wanted to wait until we knew what we were dealing with, and kids know when things are happening “behind the scenes”. Jeff helped me have the conversation, and Tommy was so strong. My boys are my everything.
We planned the surgery for September 26. It was an 8-hour surgery with three days in the hospital. It went as well as could be expected, and I spent two months recovering at home. I turned 30 on November 25th while home recovering.
I also had what’s known as immediate reconstruction. This involved months of receiving “fills” of saline in Tissue Expander pouches placed behind my muscle wall when all the breast tissue was removed.
As we were planning our wedding for July 8, 2017, I was in a bit of a rush. My plastic surgeon and his team were amazing. They helped me try to achieve my goal of having “breasts” to fill out my dress on our big day. I say “breasts” because these will never feel real, but in my personal experience, they help me feel more whole.
We were on track with fills, and I had another surgery to remove the filled expanders and replace with implants in March. By April, my left side wasn’t healing properly, so there was another surgery to immediately remove the implant to avoid infection. My surgeon agreed to put an expander back in because I was doing well in all other areas.
Fast forward to July, and I was preparing to be a bride with one-and-a-half boobs!
I am told that I was so positive throughout this experience. I appreciate the sentiment, but I also know I had the help of a village. Three amazing grandparents who helped take care of Thomas. A son who always had a hug and a smile, and who drew me pictures for my hospital room. My best friend Sarah who made meals and cleaned my house. Other friends and family who sent support in so many ways. My husband’s print shop coworkers who all wore pink for me and helped us design the most beautiful wedding invitations you’ve ever seen.
And my Jeff. The man who kissed my forehead before and after every surgery. Who made me feel beautiful when all I saw was scars. Who catered to my every need and want. And who waited for me at the end of the outdoor aisle in the King’s Arbor in front of God and all of our people on the perfect July afternoon.
I have learned so much and met so many people affected by cancer while fighting this battle. I know that my case is not standard. There is no standard. Every woman or man will have their own experience. And “choice” is not always on the table.
Many women don’t have the kind of support or outcome I had. Some women don’t have insurance or access to help. Some don’t have family to go to appointments with them or hold them when it all boils up to a hard cry. And some don’t have a Jeff to make them feel beautiful after the surgeries are done and the cancer is removed and friends and family go back to their normal lives while you deal with your “new normal”. Or to hold their hand when they worry about the future. It could always come back. And next time, I may not be a survivor.
Breast cancer is not cute. It’s not a free boob job. It’s not “the easy cancer”. I used humor to get through then, and I still do two years later. But it’s something I would never wish on anyone. And it affects so many.
I am happy to share my story in the hopes it pushes awareness. If you feel something, get checked out. Ask about programs. Advocate for yourself. I had to demand a mammogram when I felt a lump because I “wasn’t old enough” for that type of exam. I used a local program to help with diagnostic costs because I had high deductible insurance.
The battle isn’t fair, but it needs to be fought. Because we all deserve to live.
I lived to marry my best friend, and now Thomas has a little brother, Alexander.