Every 60 seconds somewhere in the world, someone dies from breast cancer. For women in the United States, breast cancer death rates are higher than death rates for any other type of cancer, besides lung cancer. Getting a diagnosis is tough. Just ask Kate Payne.
She received hers at age 31.
Seven weeks before her wedding.
Kate was no stranger to the disease. Her Aunt Nancy was diagnosed with triple negative, inflammatory breast cancer at 26. At the time she was given six months to a year to live. She went on to battle the disease for six years before passing away. Like her Aunt Nancy, Kate has a fierce commitment to help future generations fight breast cancer. She learned a lot in her healthcare journey which she hopes will benefit other women and their families. She graciously agreed to share her story.
Kate and her Aunt Nancy
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Given your family’s history of breast cancer did you always worry that you were at risk? And knowing that family history how were you proactive in your own healthcare?
Absolutely! Knowing that piece of my family history had prompted me to spend a little extra time with my doctors, asking them about the latest and greatest in prevention. When genetic testing became more mainstream, I asked my doctor (OB-GYN) at the time if I was a good candidate. It was the most frustrating experience. She was one of those who asked if you had any questions as she turned the doorknob to leave. She told me if I was asking about it then sure, I should move forward and ask the person at checkout to schedule an appointment. With that, she disappeared down the hall.
Genetic testing is a serious process and I felt it deserved a serious conversation. So I found a new doctor.
My first visit with my new doc confirmed she was the best doctor for me. Prior to my annual exam, we chatted. We went through a multitude of topics and when I asked about genetic testing she scribbled furiously. She wanted to know why I was asking, how I would feel and/or react if I had a mutation, she needed detailed information on family history and then she gave me her professional opinion – I was a perfect candidate for testing.
I sought that out and I am so thankful that I did. Even now, post diagnosis, I continue to research and try to find out more about my mutation.
What went through your mind when you were initially diagnosed?
Honestly, my mind went into the next steps immediately. I got the call as I walked out of a very busy two-day event for work. My first thought was, “What time is it? Will my mom be home when I am passing their exit on my trip home?” I needed to get somewhere, talk to someone and begin to make a list of questions for my appointment later that week. I needed to take some action. I think that’s because I felt like I knew it was cancer the minute they took me in another room for more images while I was at my mammogram. Then as I walked down the hall to the ultrasound and sat through that then the biopsy the following week, I was kind of coming to terms with it on my own. Of course, I kept a positive attitude and hoped I was wrong but I just kind of felt it. I felt most comfortable when I was taking action. I needed to DO something.
Your diagnosis came just as you were preparing for your wedding. What helped you get through this difficult period?
People. It’s a wild time now because I keep thinking back to a year ago and how much was happening all at once for us. When I think of how we made it through, people’s faces just cycle through my mind. People showed up for us. My fiancé is a pharmacist so he’s very fact-based and the perfect contrast to my emotional self. He calmed me and kept reminding me to focus on what we DID know at each turn.
A lot of people were really upset this happened to us right before the wedding but honestly, I was oddly ok with the timing of it. It’s not often that you get a cancer diagnosis and have the opportunity to collect all of the people you love in one room for the best celebration you’ve ever thrown – three days before you have a double mastectomy. It brought great perspective to what was really important.
What advice would you give other women about breast cancer detection/prevention?
Make sure that every doctor you visit is a doctor you can talk to openly and comfortably. If you have a family history, ask your doctor what you should be doing in terms of prevention or if there are any screening methods that are the right fit for you. Make sure you feel heard and are comfortable with the amount of thought your doctor puts into their response to those questions. This is your life, it’s up to you to protect it.
For women who do receive a breast cancer diagnosis, what would you tell them given your own experience?
Connect with the survivor network! There are so many groups – for me it’s been Komen and the Young Survivor Network – that are convening women who have been diagnosed with breast cancer. Connect with one of those groups. The 2016 Triangle Race for the Cure was just two weeks after my bilateral mastectomy. I called Komen the week before to make sure there was an exit option in case the walk was just too much for me. I ended up on the phone with their executive director, Pam Kohl. Pam, a fellow breast cancer survivor, told me under no circumstances was I to miss the Survivor Celebration. I remember thinking it sounded a little hokey but making note to comply. I am SO thankful I did. Talking with other women who had been through what I had and could relate to my feelings was the most incredible boost to me.
Connecting doesn’t have to be in an official capacity either. In October, months later, I was in a low place after my reconstruction surgery. I was depressed, unhappy with my progress and just generally a big crab. One of my husband’s patients picked that day to ask him how I was. She was a few months ahead of me in the process and immediately told him she remembered feeling the same way. He asked her to call me and I remember being so annoyed with him. I wanted to sulk at home in peace. Thank goodness she called. She and I chatted and I relaxed a lot after that. She told me she too felt the doctors downplayed some of the recovery and that she also found certain things to be more difficult than expected.
Bottom line – connect with other women. Either find a group or take someone up on their offer to connect you with their friend/sister/mother/etc. No one can relate to this journey unless they have been through it. It’s this secret club that you never wanted to join but are SO thankful to have.
It sounds like you have become quite involved with Komen NC Triangle—how have they helped you and why do you think their work is important?
As I described above, connecting with other survivors through Komen has been instrumental in keeping my mental state positive. I think their work is important because they are investing tremendously in early detection methods as well as research. My story is a textbook example of success in taking advantage of both of those. We found my cancer as early as we did because of research that helped us find new genetic mutations associated with breast cancer. Had we not detected it so early, it may have been a more advanced case.
Despite the incredible advances that have been made in the decades since my aunt was diagnosed, there is still so much work to be done in terms of both early detection and research. Komen NC Triangle to the Coast is busy thinking about that all day, every day. I have an incredible story to tell so I need to use it to help them with their goal to reduce the current number of breast cancer deaths in the U.S. by 50 percent by 2026. Their work is making a difference in my life and I want that to continue for other families.
As you participate in this year’s event what message do you have for participants, survivors, and family members who have lost a loved one to breast cancer?
Thank you. Thank you for channeling your challenge, your loss or your passion for health into action. This race makes a huge difference because it raises funds to help raise awareness and increase access to early detection methods. It also funds research to get us closer and closer to slaying this beast. Finally, it is a celebration of how far we have come in the fight against breast cancer. While we still have so far to go, it is important to stop and celebrate how far we have come both as a community and in our individual fights. Thank you for investing your time, energy and resources in Susan G. Komen NC Triangle to the Coast. You’re making such an impact on my life and so many others!