“My breast cancer is in remission, but the journey is not over.” This is the story of Kelsey Crowe, a champion for empathy and a breast cancer survivor.
When Kelsey Crowe had her first mammogram, she was far younger than the average woman diagnosed with breast cancer. Most women receive a diagnosis around 62 years old. Crowe was only 42 years old, without any symptoms or family history of the illness.
Her life changed drastically when the radiologist spotted a peanut-sized shadow on her left breast and recommended a biopsy. The biopsy results revealed that the mass was indeed cancer.
In addition to spending hours at the infusion center, she underwent a lumpectomy and chemotherapy. “I felt sad, angry, and worried, and my feelings were unpredictable,” she recounts. During treatment, she also experienced awful side effects of chemo, such as hair loss, exhaustion, and nausea.
One blessing Crowe and her husband faced was not having to grapple with infertility and family planning. Before her diagnosis, Crowe and her husband already had a 3-year-old daughter, Georgia. But many times, it was difficult for both parents to fight cancer and raise their child.
The return of a disease thought defeated
Crowe’s cancer was finally defeated after a year of chemo. She followed up with her doctor and her scans continued to read clean for four years, drawing close to the milestone five-year mark. For many cancer survivors, reaching five years without recurrence means a higher chance of improved survival rates.
So it was devastating news when Crowe’s health took a drastic turn, and her breast cancer returned.
This time, her doctor recommended a double mastectomy and an aromatase inhibitor. An aromatase inhibitor is a medication that helps block estrogen, a hormone that stimulates cancer growth. The treatments worked. Crowe’s cancer is now in remission again.
But being in remission isn’t the same as being cured, and the possibility of recurrence significantly alters how a person experiences their day-to-day life. While Crowe doesn’t experience the usual symptoms of breast cancer anymore, feelings of uncertainty still loom over her perspective in many ways.
“Survivor” isn’t the right term
Even though the word “survivor” is frequently used to describe women who have overcome breast cancer, Crowe doesn’t identify with this label.
“Survivor suggests that something horrible like an automobile accident or the loss of a loved one happened, and you were lucky enough to get past it, but cancer is not a one-time event,” she says.
Crowe explains that for many people, cancer returns. For this reason, being on the other side of chemo feels more like disease management than survival.
It can never be “just a cold” again
Because she’s had a double mastectomy, mammograms are no longer an effective way to detect recurrences.
“If my cancer returns, the breast cancer will have spread to my bones, lungs, or liver,” she says.
This means she needs to pay particular attention to any bodily aches and pains. In the back of her mind, whenever Crowe has a cough, a backache, or when her energy levels take a dip, she worries.
Pink ribbons aren’t a sign of positivity
“It’s often referred to as the ‘good cancer,’ and the pink ribbon campaign communicates that women diagnosed with the disease should feel positive,” Crowe mentions, believing our culture paints breast cancer in a positive light. The month of October has even been called “Pink October.” But pink is a color most people associate with peppy things, like bubblegum, cotton candy, and lemonade.
Crowe says she and many other women living with breast cancer are concerned the pink ribbon campaign may suggest we should “celebrate” finding a cure for breast cancer. One potential downside of this positivity is that it can ignore many women’s fears about recurrence and death. The ribbon campaign may also cause women with late stage or metastatic cancer to feel left out, since they won’t ever recover from their illnesses.
Cancer isn’t the journey, remission is
Crowe says she doesn’t know very many women who would describe their treatment experience — from hair loss to nausea to surgery scars — as a journey. This word is frequently used to describe chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery, but in the cancer community, it’s a loaded term.
But, now that Crowe is in remission, life does feel like a journey, because nothing is finite.
“There are times when I feel well, and then there are times when I hold onto every precious moment as if it might be my last. Sometimes, I think of future, long-term projects that I want to complete, and there are also moments when I’m scared and sad that I might lose my family because of cancer,” she says.
Finding meaning through helping others
Crowe tries to find balance in her life in the best way she can. She spends more quality time with her family than she used to. Recently, she co-authored her first book, “There Is No Good Card for This,” with artist Emily McDowell. The book is a “how-to” guide for friends and family members who want to support their loved ones during tough times. Crowe is also a board member for a nonprofit cancer organization, and as a social worker, she leads empathy boot camps as a way to teach others the meaning of compassion.
“[My work] and spending time with my family and friends is very rewarding. This is the meaningful work that sustains me,” she says.
In the end, Crowe wants people, including other women living with cancer and in remission, to know that this disease leaves an everlasting mark on your identity.
And it shows. Through all of her work, Crowe does her best to teach women living with the illness that, even during profound times of frustration and fear, they’re never alone.
Juli Fraga is a licensed psychologist based in San Francisco. She graduated with a PsyD from University of Northern Colorado and attended a postdoctoral fellowship at UC Berkeley. Passionate about women’s health, she approaches all her sessions with warmth, honesty, and compassion.