Written By Robin Warshaw, Contributing Writer
Katie loved skydiving. She started the sport after her mother gave her a tandem jump as a gift, where she was attached to an experienced instructor. Soon she took lessons and began jumping solo.
When diagnosed with stage I breast cancer at age 32, Katie was grounded from skydiving, but only for a while. She had a lumpectomy, then jumped after finishing eight rounds of chemotherapy. She headed for the sky again as soon as she could after 30 radiation sessions. So far, she has jumped 43 times.
“In a way, it’s very easy to fall out of a plane,” she says.“I’m really good at falling.”
She sounds fearless, but Katie is quick to say she was scared when she received her breast cancer diagnosis.
After she found a lump, she went to a clinic run by a local church and hospital in Leesburg, Florida, where she was living at the time. The clinic gave her a mammogram and ultrasound. She was called back for a needle biopsy and told she probably had a fibroadenoma, a noncancerous breast lump sometimes found in girls and young women.
Katie had no health insurance. “My first thought was, ‘Oh,my God, how am I going to pay for this?’” she recalls. “It wasn’t, ‘Oh, my God,I have cancer!’”
When she found out she had breast cancer, she felt afraid and isolated. “I didn’t know there were all these support systems out there,” she says.
To prepare for losing her hair during chemotherapy, Katie had her friends cut it off, todonate to children with medical hair loss. A friend videotaped the event for YouTube. Katie asked others she met at the infusion center lots of questions. “I learned from them. By the time I got to my fourth chemo,” she says, understanding and experiencing the process “was easy.”
Katie had been dating someone before she was diagnosed; afterward, she ended the relationship. “I was dating the wrong guy,” she explains. “[Breast cancer] gave me the push to break up with him.”
As she went through treatment, Katie realized she wanted to help others know there’s life after breast cancer. She applied for the LBBC Young Advocate Program. At the training sessions, “I felt these were my sisters,” she says, describing the women who participated with her. When it was over, “I felt more empowered because of the program.”
Katie has given out breast cancer information at doctors’ offices and treatment centers. She has shared her phone number with others who’ve been diagnosed, so they can have someone to talk with who’s been through treatment.
She has also started making strides for her own future. Before her diagnosis, Katie had been cleaning houses and looking for a job that would make use of her biology degree. “Nothing was working for me,” she says. She had done pharmaceutical research during college and enjoyed it, but she graduated when the economy was down and there were few jobs.
This fall, she started pharmacy school in Hilo, Hawaii. She can see the mountain, Mauna Kea, and the Pacific Ocean from her kitchen door.
Katie is also continuing her advocacy work, handing out breast cancer information at her university’s health fair and participating in a local walk. “I’m trying to get as involved as I can, while also being a student. My life is very hectic right now,” she says.
She’s still adjusting to being far from family and friends and dealing with menopausal side effects from treatment. She’s required to wear a lab coat and pants in laboratory science classes, but the air conditioning isn’t powerful enough to counter the hot flashes she endures. “I carry a sweat rag,” she says.
Yet Katie appreciates one change resulting from treatment. “I love my short hair now,” she says. “Thanks, chemo! If I hadn’t ever gone through chemo, I would have never known.”
This article was supported by Cooperative Agreement Number DP11-1111 from The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Its contents are solely the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official views of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.