Survivorship

Kathy Culver

Kathy Culver's cancer journey cost her a breast, but it also gave her a passion and purpose.

The Rochester, Wash., resident had regular cancer screenings, but her cancer was found by accident. A backache prompted a CT scan; an enlarged lymph node was seen under her arm, which led to her diagnosis of stage 3 breast cancer in 2006.

Kathy Culver

Caring for others affected by cancer has become Kathy's focus. "Cancer is not a road I would have chosen, but I'm on this road and I'm going to do as much as I can to pay it forward," she said.

The 59-year-old is a Reach To Recovery volunteer for the American Cancer Society, a role that connects her to newly diagnosed breast cancer patients who need support or information. Kathy draws strength from a nearby breast cancer support group. In addition to sharing camaraderie, the group sponsors a tea and fashion show each year for breast cancer awareness month. She coordinates a raffle for the event, and holds another raffle during the local Relay to Life fundraiser. Kathy and her husband, Wayne—who colors his hair and beard pink and wears a pink tuxedo for the occasion—sell concessions at the event.

"I never walked alone," said Kathy of her cancer journey. "Everyone did what they could to help me, so I'm dedicated to giving back."

Her treatment included a mastectomy, two rounds of chemotherapy and radiation therapy. "I moved forward with the belief that whatever it took, I was going to do because I wanted to survive," she said.

Kathy is still dealing with cancer's aftermath. She used to do computer work and bookkeeping for the business she owns with her husband, but has had to limit her work scope due to cognitive declines and fatigue.

Diabetes complicated both her treatment and recovery. Before cancer, she controlled her insulin levels with pills. "Chemo put me over the edge with diabetes," she said of her switch to insulin shots during chemotherapy. The combination of diabetes and chemotherapy caused a bone in her foot to corrode, making walking difficult and forcing Kathy to wear a brace and special shoes.

Her treatment also caused lymphedema, or swelling, in her arm. She did a lot of physical therapy to alleviate the symptoms and now occasionally wears a compression sleeve when it flares.

Still, Kathy feels like her quality of life is good. "I go and do as much as I can, and when I can't, I sit down," she said. "This is the new normal."

Kathy was recently seen at the Survivorship Clinic, and found the visit useful. "You go through cancer and all of these things, and then what happens when that's over?" she said.

Kathy said receiving a treatment summary was especially valuable. "It's really helpful to get all of your information on one piece of paper—especially if you're seeing a new doctor or traveling. The information gets fuzzy over time," she said. "I have a box with all of my records and notes, but it's hard to carry a box around with you. I came away feeling better informed and glad I could have all of that information in one document so I can speak more knowledgeably about my cancer experience."

She also met with a nutritionist and set some goals around healthy eating habits. She worries about excess weight as a risk factor for cancer recurrence.

Kathy is no-nonsense about cancer's impact on her body and self-esteem. She chose not to have reconstructive surgery after her mastectomy to avoid a second surgery and to give her body time to heal. "I wear a brace on one foot, I've got one breast, my hair is thin—it's just what it is," she said.

Always, she returns to the higher calling cancer has given her. "If someone had said, 'Hey Kathy, want to sign up for breast cancer?' I would have said, 'I don't think so!'" she said. "But maybe this is where I needed to be now. I'm doing the best I can to help even one woman not have to go through what I went through."