I still choose happiness
Kathy Orlowski was adamant about doing self-breast exams regularly and getting her annual mammograms, so when her doctor called her after a routine appointment in December 2020 saying they want to take additional pictures, she felt surprised.
On December 24, Kathy went in for her second mammogram. Immediately following the mammogram, they shuffled her from the mammogram room to the ultrasound room and shared that they were going to perform an ultrasound on her right breast. During that appointment, she said the doctor told someone in the office to immediately call Kathy’s insurance company to get a biopsy approved for that moment. She has had biopsies done in the past, so wasn’t too concerned, but; being that it was Christmas Eve Day was a bit concerned due to the urgency of the procedure and things were moving quite fast.
After the procedures Kathy went to work. When she returned home that afternoon, she said she told her husband about her appointment, and as she scanned all the holiday decorations in her house, she said they needed to make this a great Christmas because “we must live in the moment and not be too concerned about what could happen or what the future held.”
She said she remembered at one point in the evening, she went downstairs and just cried because it became real.
“I am usually the type of person that always thinks the best and hopes for a positive outcome, but; the reality of what occurred earlier in the day just seemed to hit me,” Kathy said.
On December 29, 2020, she got a call from a breast cancer nurse navigator with Aurora and it was shared that she was diagnosed with Invasive Lobular Carcinoma in the right breast. Kathy was 52 years old.
This kind of breast cancer which was described to Kathy by her radiologist is viewed in layman terms as: if you had a bucket full of sand and sprinkled some salt into this bucket of sand, shook it all up and then started looking to find those small granules of salt mixed in with the sand with the salt representing the cancer.
“It was basically a miracle that they found the cancer,” Kathy said.
She said she was quite shocked with her diagnosis since breast cancer does not run in her immediate family.
That evening Kathy told her husband the news she just received and, she said he was shocked as well but then he said “we’re going to get through this.”
“He told me, ‘You are strong, you are faithful, you are positive, you are the strongest person I know and YOU WILL BEAT CANCER, and we’re in this together.’”
The very next day they met with the vascular surgeon to discuss her recent diagnosis and go over options. During the meeting it was recommended that an MRI be done in order to check both breasts before a treatment plan could be established. The following week her doctor called with the news that they had discovered ILC in her left breast.
Her prognosis was to undergo a double mastectomy and Kathy opted to move forward with breast implants. The first part of reconstruction surgery and the double mastectomy both occurred on February 1, 2021.
Because of COVID protocols, Kathy’s husband couldn’t accompany her for her double mastectomy surgery which she said was quite unsettling to have to go through this experience without him by her side. However, Kathy shared that the doctors, nurses and medial team were so amazing and supportive and even brought her some thoughtful gifts so she didn’t feel so alone on this day which lifted her spirits.
In April, after chemotherapy and 25 rounds of radiation, her expanders were put in to prepare her body for implants.
Kathy found support from her husband, family and close friends from the start of her journey until present time. She said in the beginning of her journey many family members and friends started reaching out asking questions, and she found it hard to keep repeating herself, so she created a Caring Bridge page to keep family and friends informed in one location.
“I started from day one…it was helpful to get it out of my mind and on paper,” she said. “And that way, people could keep up with my journey.”
The hardest part of Kathy’s journey was losing her dad in May of 2022 to prostate cancer. She said that really broke her spirit.
“Losing him almost felt like I didn’t have that one person that understood, she said.
Eventually, the frequency of her appointments lessened, which she said was also difficult as she felt that support system and the dynamic relationships she had built and cherished were diminishing. Yet, another loss in a sense.
“You’re surrounded by these people in the medical field that truly love what they do and support their patients 100%,” she said. “I don’t think anyone ever can realize what you’re going through unless they go through or go through it with you and I am so grateful for their kindness and support – more than they will ever know”.
Through all this, Kathy said she learned to be a little bit more relaxed in life instead of “so OCD and concerned about things that truly just did not matter.”
“Before breast cancer, everything had to be perfect at my house, and I’m not like that anymore. I’ve learned to go with the flow and really focus on what is important in life as some things are just so insignificant now,” she said.
Kathy said cancer can be quite challenging at times, but she said her outlook was that she had two choices. She could lay in bed and feel sorry for herself or get out of bed, pick herself up, regroup and just be grateful for living another day.
“I still choose happiness, and I feel that in every challenging situation,” Kathy said.
Her advice to anyone going through this, is to take one day at a time. She said our brains and hearts can take some time to process everything, so even just taking one hour at a time is OK.
“If you’re having a bad day, do one thing, whether that means getting out of bed and brushing your teeth, combing your hair or making breakfast,” she said. “But don’t try to do it alone and don’t try to tackle too much at once because you can’t.”
Before her dad passed away, Kathy said he asked her if she was happy and she said that she is and will continue to choose happiness.
One of the last comments her dad shared with her before he passed was “I see you being on this earth a very long time and continuing to help people.” This holds so very true to Kathy and that is what she is currently doing for herself and her community.
Kathy is the director of finance at New Community Shelter, and enjoys reading, going to the gym, exploring nature and hiking to waterfalls. She also does a lot of volunteering with the Aurora Breast Cancer Support Group and is involved in BRAs of the Bay, a fundraiser to raise awareness about breast reconstruction.
She lives in Green Bay with her husband Jeff of 19 years and has two dogs and a son.
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