– by Heather Kaiser
Heather Kaiser is a Certified Professional Resume Writer, living in the New York City metropolitan area. American Recruiters is proud to have her as part of our family. Heather has 24 years of experience writing for every skill level and industry. Her corporate experience also encompasses Human Resources and securities compliance for publicly traded companies and is the President-Elect of the Rotary Club of Fort Lee and the Co-Chair of the Community Affairs Committee of the Fort Lee Regional Chamber of Commerce. She credits her strength and love of life to her family and friends, especially her parents, husband, children, and her childhood best friend who encouraged her to start her business.
Life After Breast Cancer: Reflections of a Two-Time Survivor
It was 2016, I was 42, perfectly healthy, with a new husband, a 14-year-old son, and an almost-three-year-old daughter. We had moved to South Florida four years before, gotten married in the backyard of our beautiful new home, and began our life as a family. I had just launched my resume writing business and was starting to get steady work. I had attended the New York Yankees Women’s Fantasy Camp for the second year in a row living out my childhood dream and meeting my idols. Life was good. Life was GREAT. And then, in August, I found a lump in my right breast.
Fast forward to the following Friday afternoon, my mammogram appointment. The radiologist came into the room. I’d never met her before, and this was my fourth mammogram at this facility. I knew this was bad. Really bad. I went into the bathroom and cried harder than I’ve ever cried in my life. I grabbed a paper towel, ran it under some cold water, and covered my face with both hands to muffle my cries. I splashed water on my face, scheduled my biopsy for Monday, collected my kids, and drove home. My son knew something was wrong because my eyes were red and puffy. He was too young to completely understand the magnitude of my worry, but he made sure to be on his best behavior to not put me under more stress. He took on the responsibility of my fear without knowing why, and for that, I’ll forever carry guilt and pride. Guilt for not sheltering him from the fear, and pride for doing what he thought was best for my well-being without regard for his own. My husband was the optimist. A little worried, sure, but we decided to go with the mantra “there’s nothing to worry about until there’s something to worry about.” I don’t remember anything about the rest of the weekend, except the fear.
My biopsy results came back within one business day, and my doctor called me after hours as I was waiting for my son’s back-to-school night to begin. “We are 95% sure it’s cancer, and I’m referring you to the best breast surgeon in the state. I would send my own mother to him. I’ll stay on the phone with you until you get home, please drive carefully and stay on the line.” I could barely see from the tears and could barely catch my breath, but somehow I drove the five miles to my house while calling my husband, parents, and best friend frantically screaming “IT’S CANCER! IT’S CANCER!” My doctor answered every question she could and calmed us down enough to have the conversation with our son. “It’s early, we caught it early, that’s a good thing, you are going to get through this,” I repeated those words to my son over and over trying to convince myself and be brave for him. He just said, “Mom, we will get through this, and I’ll help with the baby.” I walked away, grabbed a beer, sat outside, and sobbed.
We decided on a lumpectomy with chemo and radiation, after confirming it was, in fact, Stage 2A Invasive Ductal Carcinoma. I had surgery on September 16, 2016, began four rounds of AC, also known as “Red Devil,” in mid-October, and once I was finished with those, my baby coughed as I was changing her diaper. Her little sniffle gave me a cold, which over the course of a couple of weeks, turned into pneumonia. I couldn’t get out of bed without gasping for air and I had lost enough weight in those couple of weeks that I was really starting to think this was the end. I was admitted to the oncology ward of the hospital five days before Christmas. My parents were visiting, my kids were excited, and I felt like I was dying. I could see the worry overcoming my mom, dad, and stepdad and there was nothing I could do. A couple of days later, my fever broke, the medicine was working, and I fought to be released the morning of Christmas Eve. Christmas day was a blur, but I can remember watching my kids open their presents and feeling happy for the first time in months.
Once I was cleared, I began my weekly Taxol treatments. My hair was starting to grow back on this chemo, and hope re-entered my consciousness. Taxol was a breeze compared to red devil. I had more energy, and life was better. After chemo, I had 36 radiation treatments, finishing those on June 6, 2017, the day after my 43rd birthday. I got to ring the bell and finally felt FREE. Free from cancer, free from chemo, free from radiation burns, free from baldness, free from the looks I got from wearing a headcover, free from feeling afraid that I was going to die. FREE.
In September of 2017, we moved back home to the NYC metropolitan area, and my business was taking off thanks to in-person networking events, client referrals, new hair growth, and a renewed sense of accomplishment. After all, I had just beaten cancer, right?! I am a superwoman! I am bigger and better than cancer!!
Not so fast. In August of 2020, I had a routine MRI to make sure everything was clear. “No evidence of disease” are the words every survivor wants to hear after every blood test and scan. Instead of this, I needed another biopsy. Here we go again. The next day, the doctor called me and said, “You have cancer in your left breast, Stage 1A Invasive Mammary Carcinoma.” This was new cancer, not a recurrence. Somehow, that part was supposed to bring me some comfort, but my world crashed all over again. How could I expect my husband to take care of me again? How could I put my family and friends through this again? How am I going to do this all over again? My husband and I cried again and held each other just as we did the first time around, but this time, I wasn’t afraid, I WAS ANGRY. My son, now 18, hugged me and said “Mom, we did this before, and we will do it again together. You have your family and friends who love you and we will get through this.” We did something right in raising that young man.
I had my single mastectomy on October 19, 2020, the day before my wedding anniversary. In March of this year, I had four rounds of chemo, no radiation, and reconstructive surgery. While my surgeries this time around were much more invasive, I felt a sense of relief. After my first bout with cancer, I always had this nagging feeling that it was going to come back in some way. I was always positive on the outside, but I couldn’t ignore my intuition. This time, I know it’s not coming back. I just don’t have that nagging feeling anymore, and it’s liberating! My routine mammogram for the right breast is scheduled, and I have one more minor procedure scheduled in late October. I’ll finally be able to close this chapter.
Most people have a misconception about cancer survivors. They think that just because treatment has ended and their hair is growing back that it’s over. It’s never over. We may not talk about it all the time because it’s painful to relive, or we are just exhausted thinking about it, but it’s always there. In fact, I’ve had to step away from writing this a few times to dry my eyes. The PTSD is very real, and so is the chemo brain! Ask anyone who has had chemo about brain fog. Be patient with us!
I’m a Jersey girl through and through. I’m stubborn, sassy, and no person or situation dictates what I do or how I live; cancer is no exception to this rule. I decide how cancer affects my life, and I’ve decided that I’m going to forge ahead with my business, despite the lingering chemo brain. I volunteer with my local Rotary Club, and I’m a member of my local Chamber of Commerce. I coach my daughter’s little league team too! Yes, I’m registered for next year’s Fantasy Camp and will happily make morning dew grass angels on the big field. I make sure to exercise regularly, drink some wine, and do the things that make my heart and soul happy. Every cancer survivor needs to decide what their “new normal” is, even though most of us hate that phrasing.
Since my surgeries, I have been a FIERCE advocate for breast cancer research, fundraising, and education. Every October we plaster pink ribbons on every social media platform, it’s all over the news, and survivors share their stories. We do this for a very good reason. SOMEONE LOVES YOU! So please, everyone, get screened. Listen to your doctors, do your research, and fight for yourself. You can get to the other side, and if you need a shoulder, my pink warriors, you can message me, and we will figure it out together. You’re not alone. Get out there and show cancer who’s boss!!