It was spring of 2017 and Kathy James was living her best life. “I was a very busy mom of four, plus two chocolate labs & a bunny. I also worked part-time at the free clinic.”
In addition to being a mother of four children ranging in age from 12 to 21 years, Kathy was an active volunteer, an Odyssey of the Mind coach, involved in a leadership class through the Gulf Coast Community Foundation and a race car driving instructor. She also took great care of her health, running two miles a day, and had no family history of breast cancer.
“I never in a million years suspected anything was wrong.”
May 18, 2017, Kathy performed her monthly self-breast exam.
“I did this fairly regularly, usually while in the shower. I was due for my annual mammogram in July but having just come home from a stressful week helping my dad with his dementia, I thought I should perform this self-exam. I felt a pea-sized lump at the 2 o’clock position in my left breast, something that I had never felt before. I was always told that I had dense, fibrous breasts and I had a couple mammogram ‘scares’ in the past, so I didn’t think too much of it.”
On May 13, 2017, Kathy had her mammogram, followed by a biopsy on May 24.
May 25, 2017 was Kathy’s 26th wedding anniversary with her husband Ray, It was also the day she received the confirmation that she had breast cancer.
May 26, 2017: Kathy learned that she had stage 3C, HER2 positive, hormone negative breast cancer. The prognosis was a 5-year survival rate of 40 percent.
Kathy’s first thought was of her family, her husband, and her four precious children, including 12-year-old daughter.
“I think the Mama bear kicks in. I thought that there is no way that I die right now. There is no way that I can be in that majority statistic that says in five years I won’t be here. It’s a motivating factor. Interestingly, I never felt fear. I only felt motivated and had deep faith before all of this happened, but I never felt ‘why me.’ I can handle this. I can persevere and I’ll take it as far as it goes.”
June 17, 2017: Kathy began her year of chemotherapy, every three weeks.
“The first six sessions I had a cocktail of four drugs: docetaxel, carboplatin, Herceptin, and Perjeta. The first two drugs in this list are the ones that make your hair fall out and cause the most side effects. After those first six treatments, the rest of the year, I only had Herceptin and Perjeta.”
Kathy learned many lessons along the way. “When in doubt, the best thing friends and family can do is to say something, do something, email or text something to let the person with cancer know you are thinking of them. Don’t worry about saying ‘the right thing’ because there isn’t a right thing. Just let them know you’re thinking of them, praying for them, or just plain there for them. A little kindness goes a long way. Cancer is a beast. All support is a blessing.”
For many people, it is easier to give than it is to receive, and Kathy was no exception. “I learned a lot about myself and how you have to let people in. I would say that just even a small gesture is huge, and you don’t know how impactful that small gesture can be for someone. One person in Boca Grande sent me a little card and it had a tea bag in it, one of her favorite teas. People shouldn’t shy away from telling somebody that they care, especially nowadays when kindness seems to be so scarce.”
October 17, 20217: Kathy had a lumpectomy of the tumor.
“I wanted a radical double mastectomy because I never again wanted to hear the words, ‘You have breast cancer.’ But when I researched this, I learned that usually this cancer does not come back to the breast, and I needed to keep my immune system as strong as possible to stay as healthy as possible through my chemotherapy, radiation, and whatever else life threw at me.”
Vigilant in her research, Kathy learned that a double mastectomy could present complications. During the lumpectomy, they removed 42 lymph nodes and found active cancer was still in one of those nodes.
“The bad news was that I was not a ‘Complete Responder.’ The good news was that I was eligible for clinical trials, so I started researching my options,” Kathy said.
November 17, 2017 through January 2018: Kathy had 30 rounds of radiation, five times a week for a total of six weeks.
June, 2018: Kathy finished chemotherapy and signed up for a clinical trial.
It was Kathy’s determination to fight that lead to her participation in clinical trials.
“My oncologist had told me that the kind of cancer that I have likes to come back. It’s aggressive, so for me that signals I can never be complacent. I can never just relax and say I’m in remission because when they did the 42-lymph node removal and they found one with active breast cancer in it, that told me that I’ll never be able to say I’m in remission.”
Kathy dove in headfirst, did extensive research to determine her next step.
July 2018 to July 2021: Kathy started her three-year clinical trial at Moffitt Cancer Center, which involved using a vaccine to prevent the growth and spread of her HER2+ cancer cells, created by Dr. Brian Czerniecki.
“When your back is to the wall and when you don’t have a cancer that’s in remission, you need to do everything you can to support your own personal health. For me, it was a non-issue. It wasn’t even a question anymore. I had to rely on science, and I had to rely on my investigation of what that science would entail. Then I’ve had to be all in because there are limited choices otherwise.
“It’s all about people and their ability to feel like they’re in control,” explained Kathy. “You’re going to have both controllable and uncontrollable factors involved. You can eat right. You can get sleep, you can remove stress from your world, but you cannot change the risk factors, which I had none.”
Kathy wants people to be aware of the importance of early detection and prevention.
“In my situation, I thought that I was living my best life. I didn’t have a family history. I didn’t have the risk factors, but I got really lucky in that I did this self-breast exam fairly routinely between annual mammograms and I still found it two months before my next mammogram was due. And to think that it was stage three at that point two months before my next mammogram. How aggressive and how fast-growing is that tumor. That’s pretty sobering. I can’t emphasize it enough the importance of people being proactive in their health. You may think that you’re going to live to be 90 and your biggest worry is dementia, but life can throw you curves. The earlier you can catch something like breast cancer, the better the prognosis.”
Today: So far, NED = No Evidence of Disease = no known recurrence.
Kathy is now awaiting approval of a new clinical trial at Moffitt that involves utilizing a booster vaccine, an extension of the clinical trial that she just completed.
“Fast forward four and a half years and now my youngest daughter is 16 years old. Family is the most important thing and the biggest priority for all of us. For my kids, this has made them find their own faith, it’s made them more independent, and it made me push them towards being their own self-advocate.”
Women make up at least half if not more of our American population, but only in the last 30 years has there been significant breast cancer research.
“If we can keep this conversation going and keep bringing it to the forefront, emphasizing the importance of the research and development of new cancer drugs, that’s huge,” Kathy said. “If that’s my mission, then so be it.”
In addition to raising a family and fighting cancer, Kathy and her husband Ray serve on the board of directors of Dollars for Mammograms, a local non-profit which helps women to get access to mammograms regardless of their income status.
Kathy is also taking the stage for the first time this season with the Royal Palm Player’s production of “Inherit the Wind.”
“It’s my first try. I was memorizing lines to boost my brainpower post-chemo and submitted my audition on a whim. So here we are, and I’ll be on the stage soon. I am very excited about it. What a fun thing to look forward to. I love life and I’m so blessed. I’m still motivated to keep going and I can’t help but feel that this is a mission, if you will, to maybe help others or help create awareness and bring attention to breast cancer. Why not me? If I can inspire somebody else to keep running, keep researching, keep eating, right protecting their immune system. Studies are coming out all the time about breast cancer and research. I want to continue to connect with others who may be starting their journey and to help them.”
Kathy’s number one priority has always been her family.
“I have a husband who is my soul mate; I’ve been so lucky,” she said. “We just celebrated our 30th anniversary. And we have four healthy children, so I’ve won the lottery ticket in life. They are my legacy. They are the piece of me that will continue on and hopefully, they will propagate these same things in their lives, among their family and their friends.”
For more information about clinical trials https://clinicaltrials.gov.