Kathy Trow, MSN, APN-C, had been a nurse and nurse practitioner at Penn for 24 years. She spent many years working in the trauma intensive care unit (ICU), but in the blink of an eye, she became a patient in her own workplace.
Just two months after a routine mammogram, Kathy started having breast pain. She asked her friend, a breast surgeon, if he could take a look at it.
An ultrasound and a new mammogram confirmed there was a tumor that had been missed on the first mammogram — and it was most likely breast cancer.
The news hit Kathy hard.
"I really didn't believe it at first," she recalled. "I never even told my husband I was getting another mammogram, because I really thought it would be nothing. I had been totally fine, so it was like, 'How long has this been inside of me?' It totally changed my perspective."
The day she found out, she called her colleague and friend, Ari Brooks, MD, physician and director of Penn's Integrated Breast Center, and asked for his opinion. He told her to come to the office that night so she could get a biopsy. He agreed — it was most likely cancer.
Telling her children was the hardest day of her life.
"My kids were 10, 14, and 17 at the time. It was so hard for them," she said. "When they heard 'cancer,' they thought, 'My mom's going to die.'"
No Sense of Control
Starting treatment was difficult for Kathy.
"All the years I've been here, I never thought I'd be a patient on the other side," she said. "I lost control. I was always in control with my patients and their plans, but now I had no control over anything. That was hard."
Dr. Brooks helped Kathy navigate her treatment, acting as both her breast surgeon and her friend. He also set her up with a great team: Kevin Fox, MD, physician and director of Penn's Rena Rowan Breast Center, and Suhail Kanchwala, MD, plastic surgeon and assistant professor of surgery at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.
"They were compassionate and stood with me every step of the way," Kathy said.
After her first surgery, a lumpectomy to remove the tumor and some surrounding tissue, Kathy remembers the news getting worse.
"I found out I needed another surgery, as well as chemotherapy and radiation," she said. "Within just weeks, I was scheduling a double mastectomy."
Surgery, Treatment and Healing
Kathy had never had major surgery before her double mastectomy, which certainly qualified as "major." Between breast removal and reconstructive surgery, the procedure took 11 hours and required months of recovery.
Treatment was challenging, too.
"They don't really want to give you the whole 'what to expect,' and overwhelm you," Kathy explained. "Dr. Fox told me, 'We need you to fight, so we don't tell you everything. We tell you little by little, as you go.'"
Although Kathy usually likes a plan, she now agrees that this was the best approach. Taking things day by day helped when things didn't go according to plan. For example, Kathy ended up experiencing harsh side effects from one of the chemotherapy medications and was unable to complete her last few treatments.
"I was very upset," she said. "So, I think if I had one thing to tell people, it would be to just take it one step at a time. Things change, and you can't control them, so focus on what's happening today."
Breasts: Take Two
Kathy was happy with her reconstructed breasts and the care team she chose.
"My reconstructed breasts were great. Dr. Kanchwala and his team were awesome," Kathy said.
But it was a little while before Kathy decided to get nipple reconstruction. She was hesitant to undergo another surgery, but she didn't like the way her chest looked.
"Dr. Kanchwala said, 'Kathy, it's like having a belly without a belly button. If you get nipples, it distracts the eye from the scars. When you look in the mirror, you'll feel more normal.' And he was totally right." She was very pleased with the outcome of the nipple reconstruction.
Kathy says she wouldn't have been able to get through treatment if it weren't for her "army." It wasn't just her cancer care team, but also her family and friends.
This army supported her in so many ways, from sending texts to let her know they were thinking of her, to bringing over meals and driving her kids to practice. Her coworkers sent pictures and encouragement, making Kathy laugh and keeping her spirits up.
And of course, Kathy leaned on her family. It was definitely rough for them — her middle child constantly asked Kathy if she was going to die — but they were also her rock.
"I was very proud of my daughter," she said. "She had just turned 17 the day after my double mastectomy. And she just started driving the kids everywhere. She turned into an adult immediately, and helped me tremendously."
Even with support from her army, there were times when Kathy still felt alone.
"It's a battle inside of you," she recalled. "You come to grips with your own mortality. You think things you never thought about at 43, like, 'Am I going to die? Am I going to see my kids grow up? Will I be at my daughter's wedding? Will my husband remarry? Am I going to beat this?'"
When Kathy grappled with those thoughts, she turned to support networks comprised of other survivors. Kathy shared experiences with these women, and they carried her through.
Kathy's World Today
Getting back to feeling like herself wasn't easy. After treatment Kathy struggled with depression. It took about two years, but Kathy is finally back to exercising, working full time, and doing the things she loves.
While she can't say her cancer will never come back, she does feel more confident.
"I feel like I've beaten this, and I'm strong," she said. "If it comes back, I can do it again."
Now, Kathy uses her experience to help others. She is always available to talk to women about their diagnosis, help them come up with questions to ask their doctos, and give them post-surgery tips.
She also has advice for anyone who knows someone who has just been diagnosed with cancer.
"There were times when it was really bad," she said. "I lost 40 pounds and I was a mess. While it is so important to be there for your loved one, remember that it might mean not saying anything.
"It's frustrating to get unsolicited advice, or to hear, 'Everything happens for a reason,' or 'Isn't a mastectomy just like getting a boob job?' So, just show that you're there. Even a quick text saying, 'Thinking of you, stay strong!' helps."
Whether she's giving advice, working with breast cancer patients, or talking to her care team, Kathy is grateful for the people she's met.
"I've gotten to know so many people I wouldn't have met before," she said. "I have been able to use my cancer experience to help others with their battle. I have been able to offer support and direction to my own patients in my practice, as well. Cancer has made me stronger and become a better person.
"You are not alone; we are fighting for you!"