Kristen Wicker (left) and her partner and primary caregiver, Matthew Leclaire, on June 7, the last day of her chemo treatments at the Kettering Cancer Center. Kristen is holding a medal one of her closest friends gave her that day. CONTRIBUTED
Photo: Contributing Writer
Photo: Contributing Writer

The gift of cancer: Why I’ve never felt luckier

I’m lucky to be on a breast cancer journey.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s nothing I’d recommend or wish on anyone, ever. I’m lucky because my journey is giving me the opportunity to press the pause button, look at the still frames of my life — and create a new story moving forward. Surviving breast cancer is unleashing in me a new superpower to savor every day with absolute gusto.

Not that it’s easy. I had a sobbing fit just before I started writing this. For real. All that feeling — whether it’s pain so intense you’re in a blackout or the emotional heartbreak of losing an intimate part of your body — is exhausting.

I found my lump during the 2016 holiday season. I knew it wasn’t good: It was too big. It was too hard.

A mammogram was quickly followed by an ultrasound followed by a biopsy. My diagnosis came Friday, Feb. 3, 2017, in an auto-generated email containing the words “malignant” and “carcinoma.”

I had my first doctor’s appointment on Valentine’s Day. The time between diagnosis and that first visit was excruciating. I scheduled myself every minute of every day in an attempt to stop my brain from going down those tunnels with no cheese at the end, to not think about how bad this might be and even about dying. To not over-Google “invasive ductal carcinoma.”

I brought two BFFs and a long list of questions to that appointment. The doc came in the exam room, sat down and matter-of-factly sketched out the course of treatment (and even a little boob diagram) on a sheet of paper.

I learned my cancer was triple negative, which sounds like a cool heavy metal band name, but really is a bully of tumor that wants to eat through your body fast like Pac Man. I’d need four months of dose-intensive chemotherapy, starting in just a couple of weeks, followed by either a lumpectomy or mastectomy.

She told me this is one of the worst versions of breast cancer, but that everything would be OK, that the treatment protocol is well-researched and well-known. That I would be cured.

And so it came to pass. I’ve been officially cancer free since Sept. 1, 2017. Hooray!

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Alexis Larsen (right) takes a turn shaving Kristen Wicker’s head during a head-shaving shindig at Derailed Hair Salon in the Oregon District. CONTRIBUTED
Photo: Contributing Writer

Getting there, of course, was a see-saw of adventures. I thought chemo would be a great weight loss and costuming opportunity, with a wig for every mood. My friends surprised me with a head-shaving shindig at my hair stylist’s, and I learned I look really sexy bald. But I gained weight and only wore my wigs twice.

Amy Forsthoefel (left) takes a turn shaving Kristen Wicker’s head during a head-shaving shindig at Derailed Hair Salon in the Oregon District. CONTRIBUTED
Photo: Contributing Writer

Many days, I barely had enough energy to drag myself through the actions. It was an exhaustion that strangled me at a cellular level. I sometimes had pain I likened to a migraine in every one of my bones.

I finished chemo June 7, and next on the to-do list was surgery. Since the chemo withered my tumor to little bits, I could choose between a mastectomy and lumpectomy. I got to make the decision about what to do with the bad breast. For me, it was a no-brainer, even though I deliberately considered the pros and cons of all options. But with a 30 to 45 percent chance of recurrence if I chose a lumpectomy, plus the need for weeks of radiation, I opted for a double mastectomy and breast reconstruction.

Kristen Wicker relaxes at home in Dayton during her cancer treatment. CONTRIBUTED
Photo: Contributing Writer

Still, that surgery on my knockers was a knockout to my whole body. For weeks afterward, I lay in a geriatric sleep recliner, moaning in pain, stumbling around with plastic drains hanging like ugly tentacles from my body. I spent days back in the hospital with an infection and nearly two months feeling too lousy to leave the house.

I’m still in the breast reconstruction process and have what are basically empty plastic water bottles stitched inside my chest. Every week, I visit my plastic surgeon to have the bottles filled with saline, slowly stretching my skin. Yet this year, I’ll have another surgery to exchange them for the real fake thing, my implants. I’ll be honest: I’m looking forward to new-fangled, perky, bigger breasts. I consider it one of my silver linings.

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Kristen Wicker (right) shortly after going bald and her partner and primary caregiver, Matthew Leclaire, at home in Dayton. CONTRIBUTED
Photo: Contributing Writer

So even though I’m cancer free, I’m still on a cancer journey. I use a cane sometimes to get around and have all-over body pain every day, often feeling as if I’ve been in a rough-and-tumble fight. I still have the infamous chemo brain fog: It’s pretty incredible I have the concentration to tell you my story, and I keep scrolling back to remember what I’ve written. For real.

But I’m sticking to what’s been my mantra throughout: This is only temporary.

Kristen Wicker (left) and her son, Kier Dorman of Cincinnati (right) during one of his visits. When Dorman would visit his mom, they sometimes would walk in downtown Dayton as Wicker was able. CONTRIBUTED
Photo: Contributing Writer

Indeed, most days I’m grateful to be alive and for the many blessings I continue to receive. The support lavished on me by family, friends, co-workers and even strangers takes my breath away. 

I’ve feasted on spoils from the World’s Greatest Meal Train, surrounded by flowers and cards and other gifts. I’ve received treatments from friends who are healers and relaxed in a beautifully landscaped garden my friends created. I’ve made new lifelong friends, strengthened family relationships and spent more time with the people who matter most. 

Despite allergies, I even fell in love with and adopted a cat who started hanging out in our backyard, knowing I needed some animal therapy.

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Bee Gee, a cat Kristen Wicker adopted during her cancer journey despite allergies, pictured with some of the many flowers Wicker’s friends helped her plant. CONTRIBUTED
Photo: Contributing Writer

I have good health insurance, an understanding and accommodating employer, and have received top-notch care by professional and reassuring doctors, nurses and other healthcare pros. I have a beautiful home in a terrific neighborhood and a partner who’s been by my side every step, even during the middle-of-the night sob fests and truly gross tasks.

Focusing on the upside was a key survival strategy for me, as was frivolity. Whenever I was physically able, I went on mood-lifting expeditions: brunch and a matinee at the Schuster, a night at Ladies Arm Wrestling, two days in nature at Cave Lake in eastern Ohio, a week making art at my dining room table while my best friend from high school visited. I went skydiving with my son — two days before my double mastectomy and the day before my son, a U.S. Marine reservist, was deployed.

On July 14 — two days before her double mastectomy and the day before her son, Kier Dorman of Cincinnati, was deployed — the pair went skydiving at Start Skydiving, 1711 Run Way, in Middletown, Ohio. CONTRIBUTED
Photo: Contributing Writer

I’ve been keeping a journal, and it includes more than a dozen pages of thank you notes I want to write and a list I titled “gifts of cancer.”

This is why I’ve never felt luckier in all my life than I do now.

I’m thankful, of course, to be a breast cancer survivor — but being a survivor has made me so much more. I’m a better woman, one who’s creating for herself and those around her a more joyful life.

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On March 1, during her first time receiving chemo at the Kettering Cancer Center, Kristen Wicker colored what she felt was a very appropriate page in her dirty words coloring book. CONTRIBUTED
Photo: Contributing Writer

To those embarking on this journey, know there is hope — always — and hilarity throughout. You are fierce and courageous with the strength to tell cancer who’s boss. You will grow in patience, love, faith and gratitude. You’ll learn what’s truly important and how to more deeply savor every moment. You will inspire others to do the same.

Contributing writer Kristen Wicker thanks her friends, family, co-workers, and the organizations and downtown businesses that are supporting her during her breast cancer journey. She could not do this alone. Dayton truly is a tremendous and wonderful community. She invites readers to contact her at kristenmariawicker@gmail.com.”

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