Krisdee Clark: Transforming Pain into Purpose.
Krisdee Clark is Mrs. American 2022. Her story is one that 1 in 8 of us share or will share-a story that too many of us have in common and a journey she is determined to change in being a voice for breast cancer advocacy and a face for thriving not just surviving after breast cancer. The first part of this story is from her post “Discovering I had the C Word” on her national blog THE BLONDE BOMBSHELL which tells the story of her breast cancer journey, answers the questions we all need and want to know, talks about how to thrive when you are a survivor and how she became Mrs. American less than 3 years after a double mastectomy.
When I was diagnosed in February 2020 that is all I craved...details details details. It is actually why a little more than a year post diagnosis I finally decided to start my blog. Josh always encouraged me to create a blog to journal this journey and because I have so much insight and details to share and I have a passion for helping everyone who receives this diagnosis to be able to navigate this far easier than I did. He saw (through facetime and texts) the struggle I had and the need to take in everything and wish there was more "real" in the world of cancer diagnosis and information. It is my hope that this blog gives the details I so desperately craved so someone else can feel a little ease in her journey and know what to expect. I remember from the time of biopsy how I would stay up at night and google everything I could to include the type of breast cancer I had to treatments to life expectancy. And let me just tell you the internet does a great job of scaring the hell out of you. It should not be this difficult to find information on what to expect from a disease that effects 1 in 8 women. I do not mean details like "how long do I have to live" or "will I lose my hair and will it ever come back" (because let’s get real I looked those amazing fun facts up too and according to the internet I should be dead and bald) but real details you want to know. Details like "what is this rash after treatment" and "what does treatment really look like and what will it feel like." Or even "When should I get a wig" and "which one should I get"?
For those of us that have had a cancer diagnosis you know that the moment you hear the words "you have cancer" is a moment you do not forget in fact it is a moment that changes your life forever in so many ways. I remember exactly where I was, what I was doing, how it felt and all the thoughts in my head at that same moment in February of 2020. The closest thing to compare this feeling to would be the feeling of September 11, 2001 as we heard that two planes crash into the World Trade Centers in NYC or for my parents era the day JFK was shot. We all remember everything in these traumatic moments including what everything around us felt like, our thoughts and even sometimes smells. It is a surreal moment when trauma occurs and one that can cause PTSD- I will talk about that in another post but PTSD is real in cancer patients. In fact 80% of newly diagnosed patients with breast cancer experience PTSD symptoms...y'all! 80%! With a number like that it deserves a post of its own so be on the lookout for that coming up.
I make no apologies for being a Christian God-fearing woman, so with that I believe God masterfully made us to remember traumatic moments vividly to fulfill our purpose, or as some call it, our calling or destiny. Those callings are usually discovered in moments of trauma and triumph. If we can remember the details so vividly in these moments, moments that are seared into our brains, our story is easier to tell and the details fall into place like an excerpt from a Nicholas Sparks book. So here is my story.
It was the end of February 2020, Covid had just started being an "issue" and masks were not really being worn all of the time around here. My husband was one month into his 4th deployment to the Middle East. My children were at school. My mom was at work at the University of South Carolina. My dad was at my home visiting with his wife from Nashville. My sister was at her home. I was in my bathroom. I was waiting for this call. I had my mammogram about two weeks before and a biopsy several days before. I feel like there is so much information and I want you all to know each part so it’s hard to know where to begin. So let’s begin a couple weeks before at my mammogram and how it came to be.
I have the most wonderful OBGYN. He is diligent and the first to be "over cautious" rather than the "it's nothing" physician and praise GOD he is. In fact, one year prior at 40, I had my first mammogram and he ordered a diagnostic mammogram because I have "dense breast tissue." What does that mean? It means my breasts were lumpy. Oh yay thanks for that right?! But this was important to know because lumps were more common for me especially during my period. In fact I had found a lump that was tender a few weeks prior to this appointment in the shower. I brought this up at my annual exam with him (or as my bff and I call it- the yearly violation appointment). I would love to pretend I am one of those diligent in self-exams but I am not. I knew a painful lump was not normal but with dense breast tissue "diagnosis" it was not crazy abnormal either. After all I had just had a hysterectomy leaving one ovary (so I was not immediately into menopause) so having tender breasts was not abnormal certain times of the month even with a partial hysterectomy. As he examined me he said he felt a small lump, probably was not anything and since this is the other breast from a year ago that had a small lump that was confirmed to be dense breast tissue he continued with ordering another diagnostic mammogram and off I went a week later. For those of you unfamiliar with what a diagnostic mammogram is- it is simply a regular mammogram with an ultrasound after to ensure they see everything in this lumpy tissue.
So the mammogram went off without a hitch. Ok that's a lie...it was painful and having 34D natural breasts (thanks mom!) that were squeezed between a juicing machine it was not enjoyable. But nonetheless I made it through 2 years in a row. The first year I went in for the ultrasound part and was cleared that day and off I went not to give it another thought. Fast forward to 2020. Second mammogram...praise God I did not let Covid stop me...I go in and my sweet friend, Cindy from church years prior was the mammographer that day. That is not a coincidence. In fact she rarely worked and she was filling in PRN that day. Love when God shows up and is in your face with His love for us! Juicing machine in full effect. But this time Cindy's face looked slightly concerned not at all like the mammographer last time who did not even bat an eye about the session. In her sweet voice Cindy said to come with her for the ultrasound portion and that she was going to make sure I got into her favorite one. A sweet loving gesture from a dear friend but looking back one I know she did because she knew something was not "normal." This next step of the ultrasound seemed much like the prior year... Until she started to look under my arm...slllllloooooooowly. I knew this was different but I did have a lump so I was sure she was just being careful and thorough after all I was Cindy's friend, right? After the ultrasound, I went in to get dressed and waited on the doctor who was on call that day to review all that was ordered. I remember everything about him especially how he sat down and sat knee to knee with me in a small room and how he removed his mask, leaned in and said "I am sure it is nothing but there is a mass and we want to do a biopsy." It was in that moment I realized I was alone. This was just routine. I was not prepared for this. I was not supposed to see a doctor. I was supposed to be told by the radiologist all looked fine and we will see you in a year. Josh was 8000 miles away and was 8 hours ahead in time. Would he be asleep? Do I worry him? I still did not think it was big deal even at that moment. I got up, walked out and that's when I saw my sweet friend Cindy again waiting for me to walk me out. I looked at her and burst into tears. I was terrified and all she did was hug me. I knew she knew something but even in all of that I did not let that thought creep in. Isn't that crazy that all signs pointed to all these people knew and they were trying to get me to remain calm until they knew for sure and my mind still would not process it like that.
I called Josh and he assured me it was nothing and it would be much like the year before. We even joked about if it was breast cancer that may be ok it would be small and heck I will get new boobs at 42 and have the mommy makeover I always wanted. It's not a big deal. Right? Joking seemed like the only thing we could do. Look at the bright side. Live in my final days of naiveite.
Biopsy day came and I went alone. They asked that no one come because of Covid and I was not getting any news that day anyway so why bother or worry anyone. The biopsy was a piece of cake with the exception of the massive bruise it left for days after. The nurses were wonderful as they assured me that if it was breast cancer it was so tiny and probably less than 2mm and a lumpectomy would probably be all I would need. They said don't get worked up over the weekend and sent me on my way feeling pretty good. This biopsy was on a Thursday. SOOOOOOOO that meant I would not hear until Monday. OHHHHHHHHH MG! That is a lifetime when you are waiting for news like this. My dad came into town that next day and spent the weekend with me knowing he would leave when I found out the "it is nothing" news on Monday that we were sure we would be getting. Josh made me promise to call him as soon as the nurse navigator called me on Monday though I had no idea when that would be. I do not remember being too anxious that weekend because I did not believe I had cancer, and remember I had that thought that even if it was I would get rid of it and get new boobs. (insert face to the hand emoji because I am an idiot).
Monday came...around noon my phone rang. The nurse navigator was on the other end and she said "Do you have a minute to talk? Are you somewhere you can speak?" Would you believe even in that moment I did not think I had cancer? Looking back I want to tell myself I completely understand why I am blonde now. It would be the next words that changed my life forever. The next words changed all my loved ones lives forever. The next words took me from a naïve regular woman living her best life to a woman that would know way more than I ever wanted to about healthcare and the cancer journey .."It is breast cancer." Do you believe that in that moment my knees did not buckle. I did not cry. I clarified one time that she said "IT IS" and then my mind went immediately to how do I tell my mom, how do I tell my husband, how do I walk out and tell my dad who is sitting in the next room and has no clue she called and then the gut punch thought...how do I tell my children? The answer? One person at a time- you just get through it.
As I was thinking of the logistics and the trauma of all I have to tell the nurse navigator is telling me about my next steps to include my appointment that was set up already by her for the next day. She gave me all the details including who I was seeing and that in that appointment they would tell me what type it was and my options. I just agreed. I had no clue what I was doing so I just said ok to it all. So I have cancer...now what?
The above post talks about discovering a lump, the mammogram and how I found out I had cancer but what it doesn’t talk about was that I was a perfectly healthy 40 year old and cancer was the furthest thing from my mind. I had no family members that had breast cancer so why would I think I would ever need to worry about such a thing? It made no sense and that is the crazy part about cancer- it makes no sense, it does not discriminate and it does not care how old you are or about your future plans.
After discovering I had breast cancer, everything went into warp speed. I had a 8 year old and 5 year old at home, a dog, a mom and sister that lived near me, an ex-husband and a new husband (literally “new” we were married 2 months before my diagnosis) who was deployed. How could this happen to me and what would I do? I thought of everything from talking with my ex-husband and his wife to ensure the kids went through this seamlessly, to sitting my kids down and telling them “mommy has cancer.” I thought about what if it has spread, what all will I miss out on if I die and how the heck do I fight this disease that I really know nothing about. After not liking the surgical oncologist I was given upon being diagnosed (yes given- not chosen) I felt lost. I felt like my world was spinning out of control. It was at that time I was meeting with plastic surgeons to discuss reconstruction which seems easy peasy right? I mean breasts gone, cancer gone, implants- boom we are good and just in time for summer. HOLD UP! That is not what happens at all. The plastic surgeon I first met with showed me his before and after photos and told me that being a 34D like I had been since puberty (thanks mom again) was not going to happen and those summers I was referring to would look much different because I would not look like Lake Barbie but rather Mastectomy Barbie which came with scars, 2 round balls for breasts and looking like Matel ran her over a few times with the pink Barbie caddy. That could not be all there was. I watch BOTCHED! If women can come in with botched implants and come out ready to model for Vicky’s Secret surely I could look better than “reconstructed” right? RIGHT! But it takes the right plastic surgeon. And that is what I set out to find. I was told some of the best advice I was given in this journey which was “back into it.” Here is what I mean. Sometimes we take the most important thing- getting rid of the cancer, and don’t think that the best way to do that and find the surgeon we want for both oncology and reconstruction may not be by looking for the oncology doctor but back into it and talk to reconstruction first. Why is this? Because the best reconstruction docs work with the best surgical oncologist to get the best results all around. Living in South Carolina and being so close to amazing doctors and hospitals like Levine, Novant and MUSC I knew we had to have some amazing surgeons. That is what led me to Dr. Garrett Harper at Graper Harper Cosmetic Surgeons in the Charlotte, NC area. I left that consultation with Dr. Harper knowing he was the right surgeon and an appointment with the surgical oncologist he highly recommended at Novant Health, Dr. Peter Turk. I knew without a doubt these 2 men were a blessing and exactly where God was leading me…I just did not know at that time it was for a purpose for more than just me…but all of you too.
Within a month I was in surgery for a double mastectomy with expanders for future reconstruction and another surgery on the books to have an oophorectomy to remove the only ovary I had left. With Invasive Lobular Carcinoma and estrogen positive it was imperative I removed all estrogen producing things from my body. After surgery, the mass was larger than they thought and I had 2 lymphnodes that had cancer. This meant my journey would lead to 4 rounds of chemo and 25 rounds of radiation. Almost exactly one year after my surgery I was back in the hospital having my reconstruction and already writing my blog THE BLONDE BOMBSHELL (a name my husband has always called me) to help other women like me find the very answers I was having a hard time finding and having to discover on my own. During this time of recovery and blogging is when I had the craziest idea…Mrs. South Carolina! I mean why not- I have done a pageant before…at 15…so it makes sense to do the Mrs. America Inc. organization over 25 years later (insert hysterical laughing). But that is exactly what I did. I needed something positive in my life and I knew I had a story to tell and I had a need and a pull that this story of mine needed to be heard on a larger scale. So I entered the Mrs. South Carolina America pageant and after several months of preparation I was crowned Mrs. South Carolina American. I was asked many questions in interviews about my blog and my platform and had the incredible opportunity of talking about it for my onstage question. I knew when I was asked about it, especially on stage, that I would be able to talk about that with passion and fervor because this my mission and my passion- I was put here for such a time as this. When you know your purpose in life you are unstoppable and I now knew my purpose- it was all of you. After Mrs. South Carolina I had 45 days to prepare for nationals. Now I got the opportunity to take this to the national stage. What a blessing!
The Mrs. America inc. pageants are in Las Vegas at the beautiful Westgate where we spend 10 days rehearsing, attending events and meeting some of the most incredible women from across the United States. Sharing the Blonde Bombshell platform and thriving after breast cancer was so important to me. I knew I had a story I needed to share. I needed other women just like me and you needed to hear that we may survive breast cancer but thriving after breast cancer was absolutely possible. As God would orchestrate I would once again have the opportunity to discuss my platform and thriving when I was in the Top 6 and answering the onstage question. God is so good at ensuring our purpose is fulfilled. Being crowned Mrs. American 2022 has been such an honor. I don’t wear this crown just for me- I wear it for everyone that has had breast cancer…both survivors and those who lost their battle. I wear it for my fellow survivors to give hope that thriving after breast cancer can be incredible, and though your life may look different and who you are before breast cancer is absolutely different from who you are after breast cancer, that “new” you can do things the old you never knew were possible!
So I leave you with this…do not underestimate who you are as a THRIVER. Wear your pink crown of survivorship (check out www.theblondebombshell to learn why I call it that) proudly and pursue new dreams. You are here for a reason and you have story to tell- tell it proudly. You, my blonde bombshell beauts (you are now an honorary member) are a warrior and no one can take that away!