For many of us, 2020 has been rough. But for Heather Kerndt, rough goes beyond working from home with kids and quarantining. She’s also been diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer.
It all started around the beginning of the new year.
“I saw a physician assistant for my annual exam, and she felt the lump. Since I had a prior history of a lump at age 35 and my grandmother had breast cancer in her 70s, she wanted me to go get a mammogram and ultrasound,” Kerndt says.
Kerndt was surprised when her provider found the lump – it wasn’t something she’d detected on her own. On January 3, 2020 the whirlwind of tests began.
“I could tell something was wrong during the ultrasound. Since I’d had it done before, I could tell she was taking a lot of pictures in my armpit. The radiologist came in and said, ‘I’m not going to say this is cancer, but there is a very concerning mass,’” Kerndt says.
What was even more surprising to Kerndt was she had a mammogram less than a year before and it didn’t identify any concerns. This mass had literally grown into stage 3 ductal carcinoma in nine months. She got the call with her diagnosis while at work as a public-school social worker.
“I was doing an assessment with a student and had a graduate student with me when I received the results of my biopsy. My phone rang and I said, ‘Hang on, I need to take this call.’ I felt like I had a pretty good idea of what was going on. The pathologist confirmed my feelings, saying I had an aggressive tumor. I later found out the tumor was estrogen, progesterone and HER2 positive,” Kerndt says.
Ductal carcinoma is the most common type of breast cancer. It had also spread to Kerndt’s lymph nodes. She determined a plan with her care team to do six rounds of aggressive chemotherapy, followed by a double mastectomy and radiation.
But, before all that, she had the difficult job of telling her children – then ages 7 and 9.
“We decided to take them to a restaurant. I guess we wanted to give it more levity, make it a bit more fun. At the end of the meal my husband told them. My son wanted to know if he could tell his friends – since it was in my breasts. My daughter was concerned about my hair. I told her sometimes when hair comes back it’s a different color or texture. She said, ‘When I have cancer, I want my hair to come back curly,’” Kerndt says.
The hardest thing for her children was to understand why the treatment was making her sick – not the cancer. While trying to figure out family life, work and cancer – everything changed with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Treatments became a much more isolating experience. When I started chemo in January, I had my husband there, and in February high school friends went along for my treatment. From my Mid- March chemo on, it was a lot lonelier. Everybody in my world also started being very careful about coming around me,” she says.
Despite COVID-19, her family and friends found a special way to celebrate her last chemo treatment at John Stoddard Cancer Center in May.
“My husband and a friend did a sign party for me. Signs were posted all over – on the garage and in the yard. It was really awesome to see. One thing about cancer is it’s made me appreciate the family, friends and community I have supporting me. I feel like this experience has made my connections stronger and I’ve gotten closer with people – even people I had lost touch with over the years,” Kerndt says.
After the six rounds of chemo, it was time for surgery to remove the infected lymph nodes, the tumor in Kerndt’s breast and undergo a double mastectomy.
“I cannot tell you how hard it is to cope with the body changes you go through after surgery. I still do not feel like my body is my own, but I’m working on that,” she says.
Following surgery, Kerndt started a different treatment plan – one aiming to keep the cancer from coming back. It includes a more targeted chemotherapy program and radiation. After finishing those both in the spring of 2021 – she expects to switch to a hormone therapy to stop the cancer from returning.
“My faith has been very important to me. I needed that connection with faith to get through this. Now that my treatments are winding down, I’m really looking forward to getting back to exercising, feeling more human, having control of my schedule again and doing more with my kids,” she says.
She offers this advice to everyone out there.
“Really pay attention to your body. Trust your gut. If something doesn’t feel right, go to a doctor’s appointment – no matter how old you are – even 23, 24. Cancer impacts people of all ages,” Kerndt says.
Lastly, she encourages those diagnosed with cancer to reach out and embrace the support of others.
“I have found great support from an agency called Can Do Cancer, talking with my nurse navigator and connecting with friends and family who are survivors. These pillars of support have lessened the impact of cancer on my life and help me normalized the many feelings I experienced.”
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