Fighting like a girl: Schmidt wages personal war with breast cancer
WORTHINGTON -- Just two days before Christmas last year, Kristin Schmidt was sitting in the parking lot of a local store when she was told the lump in her breast was invasive ductal carcinoma.
Kristin remembers being somewhat in shock, although she couldn't react openly to the news, as her young son was in the vehicle.
"I didn't know what to do," she recalled. "Do I go home? Go see family? Go see a friend? Drive around and cry?
"I drove home and called my mom. She knew I was waiting for the results. She started crying. It was a sad moment."
Kristin's diagnosis was the second blow cancer had dealt to her immediate family in a short period of time. Her father, Fred "Fritz" Brandt, had been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer just a couple months prior.
"We knew it was going to be my dad's last Christmas, so we tried to put that behind us," she said about dealing with her own devastating news and wanting to keep the season festive for daughter Madison, now 11, and son Mason, now 6. "I didn't want to tell the kids until after Christmas, so they could enjoy their gifts and spend time with Grandpa Fritz."
Kristin's lump had been discovered during a routine annual exam on Dec. 8, 2010. She was just 39 years old -- mammograms are usually ordered starting at age 40 -- and there was no history of breast cancer in her family.
"I just read something that like 80 percent of females diagnosed with breast cancer have no prior family history," she noted. "The doctor, she found it, and had me feel it. She tried to assure me that it was probably nothing, and I was definitely hoping it was nothing."
A mammogram that same day did show a mass, and further testing, including a fine needle aspiration, didn't offer a conclusive diagnosis. Anxious to get some answers, Kristin made an appointment with a surgeon, Dr. Curtis Peery, in Sioux Falls, S.D.
"They had to do their own mammogram, and then I had to get the biopsy done and studied," Kristin said. "My mom (Pat Brandt) went with me, and some other family stayed with my dad. She has been a real angel in my life, has gone to all the appointments with me."
With Christmas looming, Kristin insisted on finding out the results of the biopsy, even though she knew it would cast an even larger shadow over her family's already heartbreaking holiday season.
"Once you know you have something inside of you, you want that confirmed diagnosis," she reflected. "You feel like it's growing huge amounts on a daily basis, even though it isn't, and you want it out as soon as possible."
Once the holidays were past, Kristin's treatment plan moved forward quickly. She met with an oncologist, Dr. Sana Jeffreys, and discussed options. She also did a lot of her own research, through online resources and talking to friends and acquaintances who had been through it.
"I wasn't sold on going in and just having a mastectomy," Kristin said. "Dr. Jeffries and I talked about options other than surgery. She felt, with invasive ductal carcinoma, that chemo would be a good option first, treat it systemically and attack the cancer cells, before I had the mastectomy. If we did the surgery first, then I would have to wait four to six weeks for my body to heal before I could begin the chemotherapy.
"I felt comfortable (that chemotherapy first, then the mastectomy) was the best option," she added.
Adding to her comfort level was the rapport she quickly developed with Jeffries, as well as the support of a nurse navigator, Gloria, who was assigned to help her through the process. Kristin also credits her family and friends with being there every step of the way through her diagnosis and treatment.
Not only was Kristin dealing with her own emotions, but also with explaining the situation to her children.
"I just sat them down and said, 'Mommy is sick, and I'm going to have to go through a lot of tests,'" she recalled. "I just reassured them that my cancer wasn't like Grandpa Fritz's cancer. Mommy was repairable. Maddy understood more than Mason, and she had a lot more concern -- probably had visions in her head that were worse than it actually was. And they were curious. Maddy wanted to go with me, witness it firsthand."
The chemotherapy strategy involved three combinations of chemicals, the first administered every three weeks for four rounds.
"I would get nausea, headaches, tiredness that would last about five days, and I didn't want to do anything," she said. "After those first five days, then for the next two weeks I would feel good. I'd eat like a pig for those two weeks."
Two weeks after the first chemo, Kristin began to lose her hair. Her friends came over for a hair-cutting party, each taking a turn cutting off a chunk, to minimize the effect.
"I tried to make fun out of the situation," she said. "If you take it too seriously, it will weigh you down. I tried to stay positive and hopeful."
Friends and family took turns accompanying her to the chemotherapy sessions, and a photograph commemorated each individual treatment experience.
"The next round of medications caused more fatigue, joint pain," Kristin detailed. "The second regimen was for four months, three weeks in a row, then one week off. After the second course, I had four weeks off, then we did the surgery."
After only her second chemotherapy treatment, the doctor could no longer find the tumor manually, and an ultrasound showed that it had shrunk dramatically.
"We had agreed that if the chemo didn't have an effect, that we would stop, and I would have surgery," Kristin said. "That gave me the assurance that I'd made the best decision I could have."
The chemo was doing its job, but a bilateral mastectomy would ensure that all the cancer cells had been stopped. The surgery was scheduled for Aug. 25.
"The night before, I did a little picnic with a bunch of my friends," Kristin said. "Then three of my friends stayed with me that night and went with me the entire next day. I don't think they left until 10 o'clock that night."
The tumor was in her left breast, but Kristin opted to have both removed as additional insurance against the cancer returning.
"I decided if they were going to take my left breast, they might as well take both. It could recur in the other side, and at my age, I didn't want to take the chance of that happening. We had talked about just doing a lumpectomy, but that can be quite disfiguring, and I wanted to make sure it was all gone."
The outcome of the surgery, Kristin knew, would depend on whether the cancer was present in her lymph nodes.
"They took the sentinel lymph node and the one next to it, and both came out clean," she said.
Because of that positive outcome, reconstruction was able to begin immediately.
"The surgeon went in and took the breast tissue, and the plastic surgeon went in and started reconstruction. He went in and put the expanders in right away," she said. "Some women choose to wait. But if I'm going to be in pain, I figured I might as well get it done with in one shot."
Kristin still had to deal with the emotional loss of her breasts -- part of her identity as a woman -- but could see that she would eventually have her figure back.
"When I first met the plastic surgeon, he asked what I was thinking (as far as size), and I told him somewhere between Dolly Parton and Pamela Anderson," she recalled with a laugh. "I had to tell him I was just joking. The process really is quite simple. They put these bags in your breasts, and then fill them up with saline. The doctor puts 60 ccs of saline in, and it makes it stretch out each time. I'm pretty much going back to the same size I was."
For Kristin, the final implant will take place during a surgery on Nov. 15, putting her one step closer to being done with her cancer odyssey, although her final treatments won't be concluded until April 2012.
But life is already getting more normal. After six weeks off, Kristin recently returned to her job as a supervisor for New Dawn Inc. She also works part-time at the Sterling Pharmacy. Her hair is slowly growing in, although she continues to wear a hat on a daily basis. She has accumulated an extensive hat wardrobe.
"I do not like my wigs," she said. "I bet I haven't worn one since May. I'm a hat person. In a wig, I don't feel like myself. It feels awkward, and a lot of people can tell it's a wig."
Kristin is also looking for ways to help other women in the community who face similar situations. She'd like to start a local foundation that would provide support to cancer patients.
"When I came home from one of my chemo treatments, I saw a piece on the news about Coddington County Cares, a foundation that brought awareness and raised money for people with cancer in that county. I thought it would be great to do something like that here in Nobles County. Sure, we have the Red Cross and American Cancer Society, but this foundation, the money raised here would stay here."
The foundation may only be in the planning stages, but Kristin has already recruited people to be on its board of directors and has brainstormed a number of unique fundraising ideas.
One idea she's mulling over is a physical challenge such as a run. Before her diagnosis, Kristin participated in two half-marathons, raising $1,200 through pledges to help with her dad's medical bills for one of them.
Being in such good physical shape, she noted, helped throughout her cancer treatment.
"Along with three other friends, I'm going to run the Chicago marathon in 2012," she added.
It's that kind of determination that has buoyed Kristin through the chemotherapy, surgery and reconstruction process, and she's just as resolved to ease the burdens for other people who are facing a cancer diagnosis.
"I think it just helps to know that somebody else has gone through it," she said. "I definitely hope to help more people out, having recently gone through it, through some kind of foundation. It just takes time to get it going."