Finding a happy work-life balance is no easy feat. UnityPoint Health provider Keri Benjamin can attest to that, as a 30-something-year-old wife, mom of two small children and nurse practitioner. A small-town, Midwestern girl, Benjamin knows what life is like as a working mom. She says she’s always on the go and always focused on someone else.
As a passionate nurse practitioner, it’s second nature for Benjamin to pour her heart and expertise into her patients. Never skipping a beat, she makes sure to ask the right questions and run tests when something doesn’t seem right with her patients or her two children. Yet, it didn’t faze Benjamin when she experienced some pain in her chest.
“I had pain that would come and go in my left breast for about a month,” Benjamin says. “Being a mom of two young kids, I didn’t think anything of it. They are constantly crawling over me, so I thought it was just from them.”
But, after one very uncomfortable night in bed, Benjamin decided to take action.
“I woke up in severe pain that lasted about 30 minutes and knew something wasn’t right,” Benjamin explains.
The next day, Benjamin talked with her colleague and friend, Christy Vitzthum, ARNP, about getting some diagnostic tests ordered.
“It was nice being seen by my friend and respected co-worker. I felt comfortable and knew I was in good hands,” Benjamin says.
Vitzthum quickly scheduled Benjamin for an ultrasound, 3-D mammogram and multiple biopsies.
“I went in on a Friday morning and remember anxiously awaiting the results on the following Monday. I kept asking Christy if she heard back, and she kept reassuring me she was frequently checking but hadn’t received the results,” Benjamin says.
Benjamin was in her office later that day, gearing up to see her next patient, when Vitzthum walked in and closed the door.
“Tears followed, and I knew without hearing a word I had breast cancer. Something I never would have thought would happen to me, especially as an otherwise healthy, 34-year-old,” Benjamin says.
Benjamin would soon experience a role reversal, going from an advanced practitioner providing care, to a patient receiving it. Vitzthum cleared Benjamin’s patient schedule for the rest of the day and walked Benjamin through the next steps.
“After the initial shock, I was surprisingly at ease. I had an abundance of support from my husband, Brad, family and friends. And, having treated patients who successfully fought their battles with breast cancer, I felt ready and calm,” Benjamin says.
Benjamin says the hardest part of the diagnosis was explaining it to her kids.
“While I was blessed with support from my family and friends, it took some explaining and adjusting as a family. My kids were curious on why so many people were visiting,” Benjamin says.
Late March 2016, Benjamin began phase one of her treatment to undergo six rounds of chemotherapy.
“Everyone at the cancer center was amazing. I felt extremely blessed to receive such great care close to home. Especially being married with two little kids, I wanted to keep things as normal as possible for my family. I was also fortunate that I didn’t have many side effects to the chemo, so was able to enjoy time with my kids during the summer, something I always wish I had more of when working full-time,” Benjamin says.
When August rolled around, Benjamin would endure a double mastectomy, which was the next phase of her treatment plan.
“I’m not going to lie, I had to fight the tears when it came to my mastectomy. It was scheduled for the same day as my daughter’s first day of kindergarten. Kids are stronger than you give them credit for though. When I asked if it was okay if Grandma could take her to her first day of school she replied, ‘AWESOME!’ Clearly, I was more upset than her. As a mom, you never want to miss a milestone, but I was happy to know she was understanding and excited to start school,” Benjamin explains.
After a successful mastectomy and a few additional precautionary and reconstructive surgeries, Benjamin is doing well. She will receive chemotherapy for another year, before she can finally put this journey in the past. Benjamin counts her blessings and is thankful for her family, friends, community, patients, co-workers and health care team.
“Through my journey, my faith got stronger, and I felt like I became a better wife, mom, nurse practitioner and person. My advice is to pray and stay positive. Follow your doctor’s advice, but always feel you can ask questions and be a part of your health care team. As a cancer survivor and nurse practitioner, I advise you to not ignore symptoms regardless of how old you are. Go to your doctor and listen to your body,” Benjamin says.