A survivor’s journey.
Six years ago, Allison Kelly was turning 40. With no family history of breast cancer, she had very little anxiety about scheduling her first mammogram. She did all the right things like monthly self-breast exams and yearly check ups at the doctor. And, to add to her sense of ease, Allison nor the doctors ever felt the slightest lump during her exams. Then everything in her life changed in an instant. “My mammogram lit up like a Christmas tree,” Allison recalls. “There were two tumors growing and my results were triple positive.” Allison, married with two young children who were just three and seven at the time, had a lot of big decisions to make.
Allison and her doctor’s decided on a treatment consisting of a lumpectomy, radiation, and chemotherapy. The treatments lasted a year and a half. “I can go on for hours about that hell,” Allison lamented. Then, while sharing her story, Allison paused for a moment and said, “You know what’s funny? When I started the chemo, I thought the hardest part would be losing my hair. It was my signature — my thick, long, curly hair. Turns out that was the easiest part. Chemo was a bitch.”
To get her through it all, Allison relied heavily on her strong network of friends. “Thank God for friends and family. They were my support.” They walked side-by-side with her in her first Avon walk, while she was undergoing chemo. Friends brought meals, helped keep her spirits up — one even broke into her house and cleaned it while she was sick during her treatments. It was encouragement from friends and family, especially her husband, that helped her get through each day. She described him as a stoic man who picked up all the pieces when she was sick, but who never let her lose her sense of humor. “He could always make me laugh,” Allison smiled, “even on the worst days.” Allison also drew support from her Oncologist. She recalls telling her Oncologist, “Just help me see my kids through high school.” Her Oncologist looked her straight in the eyes and firmly stated, “You’re going to live to be a grandmother.”
It took Allison a year after her last treatment to finally feel normal again. Allison went about her life, working, raising money for breast cancer research, and spending time with her husband and children. And, not one to be beaten, Allison continued walking in Avon walks. To date, Allison has participated in 8 walks, and will be walking her 9th in 2014. One year Allison was going to walk two walks, one in DC, then one in October in New York with her family. But when October came, Allison was too sick to travel or walk. Her family in New York walked in her honor.
A few years passed and Allison approached her five year remission anniversary. “For my five year anniversary on 12-12-12, my husband planned TWO parties. I’ll never forget it.” Her doctor’s assured her she had beat cancer — she was given the all clear. Glad to put cancer behind her, Allison scheduled a follow up mammogram two weeks after the party. She recalls how, in the early stages of her cancer, days seemed like years when waiting for results. “There was one point I went for five weeks without knowing if I would live or not.” However, when speaking of her first post-remission mammogram, she recalls her complete lack of worry, “I walked in there not worried one bit.”
Then, she got the results. It wasn’t good. The cancer had returned. Luckily it was caught early, but her doctors told her chemo wouldn’t work this time. In February 2013, Allison underwent a nine hour double mastectomy and reconstructive surgery then went on to spend three days in the cardiac ICU. Allison spent weeks sleeping in a recliner at home as it was too painful to lie down in a bed, but, in typical Allison fashion, she kept her positive attitude and sense of humor, posting hysterical quips about pain meds to her Facebook page. Allison has a third and hopefully final surgery scheduled this month. Allison described the surgery as “intense” and “painful,” but, she would do it again in an instant to know that she probably won’t have to face breast cancer again.
Allison is our role model for Breast Cancer Awareness Month. She is a force to be reckoned with, but warm and sweet at the same time. Her personality is infectious. Her eyes are full of light and kindness, yet at the same time, you immediately sense you would not want to throw down with Allison. Cancer didn’t stand a chance with this gal.
Asking Allison to share some final words of wisdom, Allison spoke of finding local support even beyond friends and family. She received from INOVA tremendous help from a local organization called, Life with Cancer. “They helped me with how to talk to my children about what was happening to mommy, and three things were key. One, it’s not your fault, two, it’s not contagious, and three, I’m going to look funny.” She also said her friends used the free scheduling service, Take Them a Meal to help schedule meals for the family. But, her biggest piece of advice was to get a mammogram. “I shouldn’t have had cancer. I didn’t fit the profile. That 10 minutes of discomfort saved my life.”
During the month of October, we will be again participating in Pink Hair for Hope, which has helped raise over $2.5 million dollars to date for cancer research and advocacy programs. Through this program, pink extensions can be added to your hair for $10, with the proceeds going to breast cancer research programs. We will also be donating $1 from every haircut in October to the local organization, the Tigerlily Foundation. And, kicking it off, we are hosting a Pink Hair for Hope night on Thursday, October 10th from 6-8 PM.