WKU employee copes with breast cancer

Rachel Phelps

Kathryn Steward, assistant director of Health Education, was playing with her 2-year-old son one day in December 2008 when she felt a pain in her chest.

She performed a self-examination on her breasts and discovered a lump. After a whirlwind of doctor’s appointments, she was diagnosed with stage two breast cancer on Dec. 29, 2008.

Kathryn made an appointment with her gynecologist who also found a lump and scheduled her for a mammogram and ultrasound. After her initial mammogram, she was called back to take another image on the side of her breast, where they suspected there was a second lump.

The same day of her second mammogram, she was also scheduled for her ultrasound. A nurse came in and began to measure the first lump, and then she began to measure the place where the second lump was suspected.

“I asked, ‘Is there another one?’ and the lady kind of shook her head, and that’s when I knew that this might not be good and started to get emotional,” Steward said.

That was the moment she knew that she had breast cancer.

Steward’s gynecologist recommended she see a breast surgeon, and said that the surgeon was likely to perform a biopsy.

The day she saw the breast surgeon, he informed her that the lumps looked like cancer. Steward had to wait several days to get the results of the biopsy, which ultimately confirmed she had stage two breast cancer. 

The National Breast Cancer Foundation estimates that one in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer throughout their lifetime, and that each year, over 220,000 women from the United States are diagnosed and over 40,000 will die. Breast cancer risk factors include having a family history, early menstruation before age 12 and late menopause after age 55.

Steward initially underwent chemotherapy in order to shrink the tumor to make it more operable. After her double mastectomy, or breast removal, in August of 2009, she began radiation therapy two months later and the planning of her breast reconstructive surgery began. The procedure was performed in March of 2010.

Steward said for three years, everything looked good. She moved on with her life. She still went to regular checkups, but otherwise lived life normally.

In August of 2013, Steward was scheduled to have one of her regular checkups, but moved the date to December because she had other cancer-related checkups around December as well. 

On Dec. 23, 2013, five years to the day she had been told she may have breast cancer, she got a call saying something was spotted on the breast MRI. This time, it was on her lung.

A PET scan was ordered and a biopsy taken, and to Steward’s fear, it was cancer.

The cancer on her lung proved to be estrogen-positive, which meant it was a recurrence of her breast cancer and not lung cancer. She was prescribed an estrogen blocker, which would prevent estrogen from being released throughout her body and would begin to starve the cancer. Steward also had her ovaries removed.

Steward is participating in an experimental drug trial through the Sarah Cannon Cancer Center in Nashville, using a treatment that cooperates with the estrogen blocker she was on prior to the trial, which prevents the hormone from feeding the tumor. 

Steward said she needed to regroup and focus on living.

“The biggest thing that runs through (your mind) is, ‘Am I going to live?’” she said.

Steward does not know if she is receiving the drug, and there is a chance she is being given the placebo. She began participating in the drug trial in February.

Presently, Steward’s tumor is less than 5 millimeters in size. It was initially 16 millimeters in size, and the decrease in size has led Steward to believe she is receiving the drug. If her condition begins to worsen, however, she will be taken off the blind portion of the study and immediately given the drug if she is not already receiving it.

Steward said the treatment she is undergoing is much less physically taxing than chemotherapy or radiation and said it’s easy to sometimes forget that she has cancer.

“My life hasn’t changed a ton,” she said.  “I’m still able to do everything I need to do.”

Steward said dealing with the emotional side of fighting cancer is much harder than dealing with the treatment. She said it was hard learning she had been diagnosed with breast cancer a second time. 

“It’s a little more raw with the new stuff, so if I put myself there, I get emotional,” Steward said.

Steward said she tries to remain optimistic while dealing with breast cancer.

“You do get down and you do get upset, but you just have to be able to pull yourself out,” she said. “If I’m ever not able to pull myself out of that, then I would go and seek counseling. I’ve not been able to do that yet. I usually block it. Pray. Distract myself. Whatever I can do, because sitting and dwelling on it is not going to get me anywhere.”

Steward uses a variety of tactics to cope with her breast cancer. Steward said she does a lot of prayer, laughter and busywork. She says that she barely misses work, because work is what keeps her mind occupied and away from spiraling into “what-if.”

“I had family and friends that put books together with really great quotes, and my sister put one in there that said, ‘It’s okay to be on the pity potty, just remember to flush it every once in a while,’ and I loved it. It was laughter, and it was a reminder that it was okay,” Steward said.

Steward said the thing that has caused her the most pain throughout the past few years is the way the cancer has affected her family.  

“I didn’t want to burden them,” she said. “But I also needed them. Just them being there was important to me.

“I think I’m more emotional now than I was a year ago because it came back. When I got re-diagnosed…the fear of not surviving was much, much stronger.”

Steward has two sons, a 9-year-old and a 14-year-old. She said she wants to see them grow up, and wants to be able to grow old with her husband.

Her husband, Jeff, said it was difficult seeing his wife battle breast cancer. 

“I guess it would be dealing with all the different emotions and not being able to fix it myself,” Jeff said.

Terri Flood has been a friend of Steward’s for 14 years. Flood, a former employee of Health Services, said she tries to make Steward’s situation as positive as she possibly can, including putting messages on Steward’s desk when Flood worked there.

“I’ve just really tried to stay positive and encouraging to her,” she said.

This past August would have made Steward five years cancer-free, which would have been a major milestone. While Steward is sad that she wasn’t able to make that milestone, she is grateful that she knows the cancer is back.

“I’m glad I’m not sitting here thinking I’m cancer-free when really, I’m not,” she said.

Steward said she is grateful that she has always had a chance at continuing her life. 

“I have always been given a chance to fight,” Steward said. “So I’m going to take that and fight.”