Kristen readies herself for the impending double mastectomy and reflects on her original thought process in which the bad boobs are swapped out for good new boobs and that’s the end
Kristen readies herself for the impending double mastectomy and reflects on her original thought process in which the bad old boobs are swapped for good new boobs and that’s the end.
While watching Nightbirde, a young, single woman with cancer on America’s Got Talent, she realizes that the absence of people or material things cannot control her happiness.
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Watch Nightbirde on America’s Got Talent
Meet Kristen’s doctors: surgical oncologist Dr. Louis Rivera, hematologist and oncologist Dr. Sonia Ali, plastic surgeon Dr. Salvatore Pacella, and radiation oncologists Dr. Anuradha Koka and Dr. Kenneth T. Shimizu.
About Breast Cancer Stories
Breast Cancer Stories follows Kristen Vengler, a 56 year old single empty nester in San Diego, from her diagnosis of hormone positive breast cancer through chemotherapy, mastectomy & breast reconstruction, radiation, and whatever happens after that.
In 2020, Kristen moved from Austin to San Diego to be near family and start her life over after a life-shattering workplace trauma. A few months later she had that terrifying moment in the shower we all hope we never have.
From her breast cancer diagnosis, through chemotherapy, breast reconstruction, and radiation, we experience each new milestone as it happens. This podcast is about what happens when you have breast cancer, told in real time.
Support the show by sharing online, writing a review, or donating at https://www.breastcancerstoriespodcast.com/donate .
Host and Executive Producer: Eva Sheie
Co-Host: Kristen Vengler
Editor and Audio Engineer: Daniel Croeser
Theme Music: Them Highs and Lows, Bird of Figment
Production Assistant: Mary Ellen Clarkson
Cover Art Designer: Shawn Hiatt
Breast Cancer Stories is a production of The Axis.
PROUDLY MADE IN AUSTIN, TEXAS
Eva Sheie (00:08): This is a story about what happens when you have breast cancer, told in real time.
Eva Sheie (00:17): Let's talk about this appointment. This is Dr. Louis Rivera. He's your general surgeon. He's the one who is doing the mastectomy part.
Kristen (00:25): Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Eva Sheie (00:26): And this is a surgery that your plastic surgeon and your general surgeon operate at the same time. They have two different jobs in the same surgery.
Kristen (00:35): Yes.
Eva Sheie (00:36): So you met with the general surgeon.
Kristen (00:38): He's doing the demo in the remodel.
Eva Sheie (00:42): Only an HGTV addict would refer to it as the demo.
Kristen (00:47): Yeah, he's doing the demo and then Pacella is going to do the rebuild. So anyway, yeah, I went to see Dr. Rivera, and Dr. Rivera is lovely. He's the one who did the biopsy. He's the one who called me to tell me that it was malignant. And he's the one who put all the referrals out to all my current doctors, right? My oncologist and radiation therapist and all of that. So we talked and he took some measurements and he told me basically what our plan was and what it was going to look like. And we talked about dates and it had to be after the two week mark, but before the 30 day mark, because my immune system had to be strong enough to withstand surgery. The 14 day mark is when it's usually at its lowest, and then it starts building back up from there.
Kristen (01:35): So we talked about it all, and I said, "So, I don't have to have radiation, right?" And he said, "Oh no, you do have to have radiation." And I said, "Well, what are you going to radiate?" He said, "If you're going so far as to have the other breast taken off and all of the tissue taken, I don't know why you wouldn't elect for radiation." He said, "I think you need to do absolutely everything that's an option to get rid of this." And I said, "Well, so what are you guys going to be radiating?" And he said, "Likely the chest wall, and it could be some other areas as well, depending on what they come up with and what they see when they're in there." And so that was a big shock.
Kristen (02:19): It was like at the beginning, when I decided that when I had cancer, my treatment was going to be a mastectomy, and that was it. So in my Disneyland brain, I said, oh, well, I'm going to get rid of the cancer and get new boobs. That's awesome. That's all that's going to happen to me. I'm not going to have to have chemo. I'm not going to have to have radiation. They're just going to get this off.
Eva Sheie (02:41): You have a surgery date. When is that?
Kristen (02:44): 10 days. It's the 22nd.
Eva Sheie (02:45): June 22nd. And when does radiation start?
Kristen (02:50): Four to six weeks after that. So that's going to be the end of July, beginning of August. Haven't had that appointment yet to get exact information. But from what I understand, that's a six week, five day a week, little party.
Eva Sheie (03:05): Five days a week for six weeks?
Kristen (03:07): Mm-hmm.
Eva Sheie (03:08): And how long does that take? I mean, do you just go in and get zapped? And then-
Kristen (03:13): Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.
Kristen (03:15): What I hear about it is fatigue, but also everybody tells me if you've been through chemo, this is a walk in the park. They do little dot tattoos so that they know where to go with it. And then I guess they do some kind of mapping, and I think it's fascinating. I'm learning so much. The oncologist meets with a physicist and they come up with what the treatment's going to look like. And there's something, there's plastic surgery stuff that goes on in between.
Eva Sheie (03:41): It's funny. It seems like the plastic surgery part is almost the smallest of the thing.
Kristen (03:47): Isn't it? Yeah. I've never had a surgery that's going to take four to five hours. Those are like heart surgeries or those are like big replacement surgeries. I still don't think that I've come to terms with that I'm the one with the cancer. When I saw Dr. Pacella last week and his nurse asked for my birthdate. I'm like 2/19/65. And I was like, oh, that's my birthdate. Oh, I'm the one with the cancer. I'm the one with the pre-op appointment right now. Even though I'm walking through this, it still is like... Cancer. Because you always wonder your whole life, well, I mean I did anyway, if somebody tells you, you have cancer, how are you going to react? And then what decisions are you going to make and how are you going to manage every day?
Eva Sheie (04:35): I've never even thought about it. But I certainly have been thinking about mortality a lot lately.
Kristen (04:40): That's a whole other episode, is talking about my journey to be okay if I'm not okay. I've lived a great life. I've done a lot of stuff. You know, I have loved big and I've lived fully and I've left many people better than I found them, and that's a gift of teaching. And that's my goal always, is to leave things and people better than you find them. I've gotten to do that. And I'm in a place in my life where I'm sitting here in this beautiful place, I rent, I don't own, and I'm okay with that. I love my life. I really, I'm going to tear up. Like, I really, really...I love my life. And there are some things that are really sad about it, but I don't know. I do. I'm so fortunate. I have so many good people in my life. And my only job right now is to go to the appointments and to show up and to take care of myself. Who has that? Who has that life that they get to do what they want to do for a living?
Kristen (05:52): I have this beautiful 18 month old and this wonderful family. I get to take my dog. I come home to a beautiful place. I have people who love and care about me unconditionally and vice versa. And I don't know how much better it can get. I don't have a half million dollar house. I'm so happy. I have a thousand square feet and a storage unit.
Eva Sheie (06:15): Sunshine all the time.
Kristen (06:17): Sunshine all the freaking time.
Eva Sheie (06:19): Beautiful breeze.
Kristen (06:20): But it's the things that you're taught, when you're young. You have to have this, you have to have this and you try to control your whole life to build, to be when you're 56, that you have all these things in place. And I had been down on myself for a lot of years about what I didn't have, as opposed to looking at what I do have. It's the craziest thing that I'm in really good health, except for this dang tumor. People are like, "How can you say that you're healthy? You have something trying to kill you." And I'm like, well, I am.
Kristen (06:56): Did you see the America's Got Talent, the Nightbirde thing?
Eva Sheie (07:00): No.
Kristen (07:01): Well, somebody sent this to me and it's this woman who is 30 years old and she's sang this beautiful song and she's got a 2% chance of living. She's had cancer three times and her whole thing was you can't wait until things are good to be happy. And the thing was too that her husband left her and she went to America's Got Talent by herself. They asked her, who are you here with? She goes, I'm here alone. And it was to where like the hosts were starting to feel bad. They're like, "Well, what do you do for a living?" And she's like, "Well, I haven't really worked for a while because I've been dealing with cancer." and Howie Mandel's like, "Oh, sorry."
Kristen (07:42): But her spirit was just so beautiful, and I just cried the whole time because it felt a little familiar that I was by myself. I think what Woodrow used to call me, Pollyanna, like there's not many people more Pollyanna than Kristen. I just think you're so much more than the hard things that happened to you. I mean, she mentioned that and I really feel like that, like throughout this whole thing, that I have gotten to know myself and other people on such a, I want to say deeper level, but it's more than that. So, if not for this journey, I wouldn't have had those opportunities. So hopefully some of what I've learned can help somebody else. I don't know exactly how yet.
Eva Sheie (08:33): Oh, I think we're going to find out.
Kristen (08:35): Yeah. I hope so.
Eva Sheie (08:36): Watch out.
Kristen (08:40): Everybody always talks about your attitude, attitude, attitude. And I'm like, yeah. And my brother said to me, "Kristen, you know what I love is that your attitude is your superpower."
Eva Sheie (08:51): Totally.
Kristen (08:52): See the thing is, I live here. I live in my head. It's not always a good place. And the self-talk isn't always positive, but I've tools and I've learned methods. And my perspective has turned, I want to say, not even 180, like 270, to understand where I am with all of this. This is a whole book, but I spent a lot of years thinking about the cards I was dealt and how I had every reason to be angry, to be upset, to abuse substances, to numb myself. Yeah. I had a shitty deck, excuse me, but as opposed to looking at it, you can always change it, but I had to figure out ways to change all of that and my perspective, and that's a whole other conversation.
Kristen (09:37): But as soon as I could turn this into, look at the people I'm meeting, look at how deep I get to go and look at my community. I was the one, who's the common denominator with all of these beautiful people. Something about me, they found value in to stay with me on this journey, as low as my morale was, and as worthless as I felt for a good 50 years of my life.
Kristen (10:04): The surgery piece, everybody talks about it being a small piece. This is pretty big because it involves pain. Today, I picked up all these prescriptions and it's about managing the pain. And I learned that when I had my ACL reconstruction. I feel like I have everything in place that can be in place. But to me, it's the biggest surgery because it's taking the cancer out of my body. I go in at 7:30 Pacific time. So by noon, I'm cancer free on that day. And to me, that's the biggest deal.
Kristen (10:38): And then the radiation, there's a lot more that goes on. There's two more surgeries that happen and then there's managing the expanders and then filling in blah, blah, blah, blah.
Eva Sheie (10:47): Let's come back the day before surgery and check in.
Kristen (10:51): Yeah, absolutely. Last thing I'm going to say that I'm super excited about is that California's opening up. What that means is that it opens a week before my surgery. So I get to have somebody there with me. And so after 21 weeks of sitting alone during chemo, I'd rather have somebody there when I'm in this kind of a situation.
Eva Sheie (11:14): Absolutely.
Kristen (11:15): I know it's a weird thing to be excited about, but-
Eva Sheie (11:17): No, I was going to say, if there's nobody, I'm flying out there.
Kristen (11:22): I know.
Eva Sheie (11:22): You can't get rid of me.
Kristen (11:23): There is, I know there is. I've got my people and I'd love to see you. You're welcome out here anytime.
Eva Sheie (11:29): Yeah. I've got to get out there.
Kristen (11:31): You do. And with everything opening up, it's interesting. You know, a lot of people are like, "Oh, you're done with chemo. You can come do this. You can come do that." I have some friends I haven't seen in 20 or 30 years who are getting together. And so I was like, "I can't come." They're like, "Well we're all vaccinated." I can't. Like, I can't even get a cold right now. They were swabbing my nose to make sure I didn't have any kind of MRSA or staph infection because I can't get sick right now.
Eva Sheie (11:57): Wow.
Kristen (11:58): Yeah. They want any kind of infection, any kind of anything that's in your body out, before they're doing this massive surgery so that there's less chance for infection. And so as much as I want to be in these places, I have a little teeny window of time to get this out of my body.
Eva Sheie (12:16): Easy choice.
Kristen (12:17): Totally. Well, I love you. It's so good to see you.
Eva Sheie (12:21): I love you too.
Eva Sheie (12:23): Thanks for listening to Breast Cancer Stories. There's a link in the show notes with all of the resources mentioned on this episode and more info about how you can donate.
Eva Sheie (12:39): If you're facing a breast cancer diagnosis, and you want to tell your story on the podcast, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Eva Sheie (12:48): I'm Eva Sheie, your host and executive producer. Production support for the show comes from Mary Ellen Clarkson and our engineer is Daniel Croeser. Breast Cancer Stories is a production of The Axis, theaxis.io.