CHERRY POINT, N.C. (NNS) -- Kathleen Michalski was 54 years old when she was diagnosed with grade three breast cancer in her left breast.
What started as a routine mammogram at the age of 46 had turned into frightening yearly exams after doctors noticed a spot on her X-ray. Regularly scheduled follow-up exams would now consist of mammograms and ultra sounds, a routine that would go on for the next seven years.
Then, in 2015, everything changed.
"I got a call from my OBGYN and she told me it was cancer," said Michalski. "I was shocked and worried. Since I know a little bit about medicine and cancer, I knew there were four stages but I was confused about what stage I had."
The four stages are used to describe how far the cancer has progressed; stage four means the cancer had metastasized, or spread to other parts of the body.
"When my OBGYN told me I had cancer, I thought she said stage three, which I knew was really bad," said Michalski "But, she told me my cancer was classified as grade three, triple negative."
According to the National Breast Cancer Foundations, Inc. website, grade three triple negative breast cancer can be more aggressive and difficult to treat. Also,the cancer is more likely to spread and recur. A diagnosis of triple negative breast cancer means the three most common types of receptors known to fuel most breast cancer growth-estrogen, progesterone, and the HER-2/neu gene- are not present in the cancer tumor. Since the tumor cells lack the necessary receptors, common treatments like hormone therapy and drugs that target estrogen, progesterone and HER-2 are ineffective.
The treatment plan for triple negative breast cancer is surgery, chemotherapy and then radiation therapy. Kathleen had retired from the U.S. Navy after spending 20 years as an independent duty hospital corpsman,and even though she was familiar with the process, her treatment began at an incredibly fast pace.
"I knew what happened in the operating room and the different steps that I'd have to go through," said Michalski. "I've helped patients go through this process, but I now had a much deeper appreciation for how patients can be overwhelmed by the speed in which everything happens and by the mass amount of information you receive during the process."
She credits NHCCP's Breast Care Coordinator Michelle Miller with the speed in which she began her treatment.
"I was diagnosed in the beginning of June 2015 and my surgery, a partial mastectomy, took place July 2," said Michalski. "That's because Michelle was able to schedule my consultations and helped me follow through on every piece of paperwork that I needed."
After surgery, Michalski decided to continue her treatment at Carolina East Hematology and Oncology Associates in New Bern, N.C.
"When I first met Dr. John Cho I was nervous because I was skeptical about the care available in New Bern," said Michalski. "But their facility was wonderful; everyone was very attentive and I just felt safe and comfortable in their care. I think it's important for patients to seek out doctors who they feel they can have a good working relationship."
At the beginning of her chemotherapy, Kathleen's sister, Dian, drove her to the treatment. However, Kathleen soon insisted on driving herself.
According to Michalski, the chemotherapy contained steroids so the first day she actually felt pretty good, but follow-on treatments left her feeling extremely weak and tired. Michalski said she felt weaker the longer the process went on.
"My hemoglobin and other levels were super low and I felt just terribly weak," said Michalski. "Tasks such as laundry, cooking for myself and cleaning my house became very difficult during the process. Thankfully my neighbor and my family pitched in and made me healthy meals and helped keep me organized during my fight. "
Even exhausted from the chemotherapy, Kathleen continued working as a Family Readiness Officer (FRO) for 1st Battalion at Camp Lejeune. Her unit offered her support by providing her with an assistant and some of her co-workers donated leave.
"Towards the end of the chemotherapy, you do this big countdown to the end and that's when I thought I would start to feel better," said Michalski. "But that's not how it works..."
A month after she finished her chemotherapy, Kathleen began her radiation therapy.
"I was getting exhausted at this point and near the end of the radiation I actually became a little depressed," said Michalski. "My advice to others would be to join a support group early on in the process because it's hard to manage staying positive without one."
Committed to her role as a FRO, Kathleen didn't allow many people outside of her immediate family to know about her condition because she didn't want it to deter from her perceived ability to care for her unit.
"I know we hear these stories about how people are just going to kick cancer's butt and they're just so positive and happy; I was not one of those people. I was angry this was happening to me and trying to continue with my life as normally as possible was the best response for me," said Michalski.
"During my treatment I would still have to stand up in front of groups of spouses and talk to them about the hardships they would be facing. I just felt, as representing the chain of command, I didn't want to draw attention towards myself; I wanted them to have confidence that I was there for them."
So Kathleen chose a stylish wig and did her best to get to work every day. She believes everyone handles a cancer diagnosis differently but for her, being angry and fighting was the only way she knew to deal with it.
Now, several months later, Michalski has completed all of her treatment and is technically cancer free. Because her type of cancer has an 85 percent recurrence rate within 10 years, she still has an indwelling port for her physicians to draw blood, a new routine she is facing for the next 10 years. But it's a small price to pay to keep a check on the disease.
For more information about Breast Cancer or events NHCCP is hosting for Breast Cancer Awareness month, contact Michelle Miller, RN, Naval Health Clinic's Breast Care Coordinator at (252) 466-0213, Monday through Wednesday.
Named in honor of Medal of Honor recipient, Pharmacist's Mate 2nd Class William D. Halyburton, the Naval Health Clinic Cherry Point provides high-quality patient care to more than 33,000 active-duty members and Department of Defense beneficiaries. In addition to outpatient surgical services, NHCCP offers Medical Home Port (including family care and pediatrics), dermatology, internal medicine, orthopedics, physical therapy, mental health, pharmacy services, preventive medicine, aviation medicine and radiology to include MRIs.
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For more news from Naval Health Clinic Cherry Point , visit www.navy.mil/local/nhccp/.