Kristin Hays is ready for metamorphosis following her 2020 win against breast cancer.
The past seven months have been a whirlwind for Hays, who readily admits she’s not known for being a patient person.
“I’m an instant gratification girl, I need things to happen – now!” she said.
Hays, who moved to Huntsville from Washington state four years ago, had fallen into the routine of working hard for too many hours and dealing with lots of stress while working in the nonprofit world helping others. She’s also a yoga instructor and in tune with her body, but said she wasn’t doing her breast self-exams like she should. But in April, that’s how she discovered a lump in her right breast.
“Of course, it was on a Friday night so I had the weekend to stew about it, not knowing how things were going to play out because of COVID,” she recalled. “I was fortunate to get a diagnosis within a week and it hadn’t been there very long.”
The lump was big and it seemingly appeared out of nowhere. During an ultrasound, there was more concern about another tiny spot in her left breast than the larger one in the right one. As it turned out, Hays had bilateral breast cancer with invasive ductal carcinoma in the left breast and HER2/positive on the right side.
“The HER2 positive grows fast but it’s not the most aggressive so there wasn’t a surprise I hadn’t felt it before, but the good news was that if it had not been for that one, it would have been a while before the other one could have been detected even on a mammogram,” she said. “That’s the one they were most concerned about it was really small and it’s the slow-growing kind and an ultrasound found it.”
It was about three weeks from diagnosis until her first treatment, during which time she was sent to see a plastic surgeon about breast reconstruction.
“From the beginning, people kept throwing so much stuff at me and I needed some good news,” Hays said. “I was still processing everything and the plastic surgeon made me see the other side. His comment to me was that ‘My goal is that when you look in the mirror when this is done that you don’t think breast cancer.'"
Hays said that visit was one of the best things that could’ve happened because the doctor made her realize that there’s another side to breast cancer and what that other side would look like.
Her treatment plan included six pre-treatments. The pre-treatments included targeted therapies with Herceptin for the Her2/neu tumor and chemotherapy.
According to the National Breast Cancer Foundation, if cancer cells are positive for the HER2/neu receptors that means there is an overabundance of receptors on the cancer cell for the growth-stimulating HER2 protein.
That means the tumor acts almost like a magnet for growth hormones. When the tumor cells connect with growth hormone cells, cancer can grow quickly and multiply. Herceptin helps shrink these HER2-positive tumors by finding the cells, binding with them, and blocking the action of the receptor.
Hays said after the first treatment, she could feel the difference on the right side. After three treatments it was barely detectable on an ultrasound. It didn’t affect the slow-growing cancer on the left side, but her doctors told her the targeted therapies had done exactly what they had hoped.
Biopsies done before the mastectomy on each side helped determine growth directions and define clear margins for the surgery.
“They took everything out,” Hays said. “Everything is healing on track, I go back Oct. 19th, and on my pathology everything is negative.”
Some days, she said it feels like her journey has been a long, drawn-out thing.
“But really, it’s not. It’s been since April 14,” Hays said. “I know I’m fortunate because if things hadn’t happened for me the way they did, I probably would’ve had just a lumpectomy” leaving the one of the left side to quietly continue to grow.
She said she’s fortunate for so many reasons. Because of COVID-19, her youngest daughter, McKenna, 22, couldn’t return to Wheaton College in Boston following Spring Break in March. The mother and daughter drove from Huntsville to Boston to collect her belongings and bring them back to Huntsville. While McKenna finished up virtual studies until graduating in May, she was also around to help mom through the treatments.
“She’s still here but will soon be moving to Richmond, Virginia, but I am grateful that all of this happened while she was here and she was an amazing help,” Hays said. “I like to say I am super independent and it’s been a lesson for me to let people help me.”
Her family and friends in Washington state set up weekly Zoom calls to help support her with lots of laughter that has ended up being beneficial for the whole group with all of the social distancing requirements of COVID-19.
Having two young adult daughters, McKenna and Kelsey, 25, who lives in Oregon, she was worried about them. However, both girls received negative genetic test results for breast cancer.
“I guess you could say this has been a good learning experience,” Hays said. “There is so much amazing work being done in the breast cancer field … if you can catch it early and don’t be afraid of it … find out and take care of it, they know what they’re doing.”
She also is grateful that she’s been able to focus solely on healing and finding a healthier lifestyle. She’s a radical remission proponent, following the guidance from the book Radical Remission: Surviving Cancer Against All Odds. She’s also appreciative of the “amazing” medical professionals she’s encountered from American Family Care Clinic, Huntsville Diagnostic Center, the Breast Care Center, HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology, Clearview Cancer Institute and Dr. Bill Allison.
Hays said side effects from the treatments have been tolerable, with certain aspects knocking her out for three of four days of sleep. And she lost her hair which is growing back a different color.
“I’m excited,” she said. “I feel like a caterpillar, wondering what it’s going to be like because it will be like a new me … maybe I’ll finally be able to do a handstand.”