Kirsten: Rad Nurse #2

The Beauty in Brokenness: One Nurse’s extraordinary story of gratitude and gumption in the face of a terminal cancer diagnosis.

The following interview took place March 22, 2019 after Kirsten’s second round of chemotherapy in a clinical trial at Moffitt Cancer Center in Florida.

Initially, Kirsten and I wanted to film this interview, but we quickly discovered that our schedules were too unpredictable to pull it off. We settled for an afternoon of FaceTime after one of her appointments at Moffitt, and we launched into her story without missing a beat.

“I don’t look like a typical chemo patient right now,” laughed Kirsten over our FaceTime call. “I look more like a junkie with all my track marks from the Arterial lines, Central Venous Catheters, and IVs, and I still have my hair for the most part! I mean, outside of the bruises and scars, I look like a million bucks!” And anyone who has met Kirsten face to face would agree. During our conversation, she exuded this inextinguishable vibrant beauty despite the exhausting hell of chemotherapy.

“I’d had a liver resection in 2018, and eight weeks later, they discovered that the tumors had spread to multiple sites in my liver. In November, my oncologist told me I had 10 months to live. That was a really really really bad day. Here I am a mother, a wife, a daughter, and I was just told that I’m gonna be removed from my story. Over the next couple weeks, the emotions settled down and I decided that I still had to live my life right now. I couldn’t put my remaining time on this earth in the hands of one physician’s hypothesis. Heck, I could die in a car crash leaving his office long before any illness claimed me. So I get up everyday and find the good. That’s the example I’m setting. It’s what I would want my kids to do if they were in my situation. I could have cancer, or the cancer could have me.

“Shortly after being declared terminal, I learned about a clinical trial at Moffitt Cancer Center in Florida for my EXACT diagnosis. So I went for my first staging Cat Scan in November. Between that initial scan and my follow ups in January, there was progression. I realized that this stuff is not only back, it’s SUPER aggressive! Fortunately, my head/chest/pelvis scan were negative. The tumors had only progressed in my liver, and my largest tumor at 1.2 cm. So, even with my health, young age, and medical history, I qualified for this treatment by 0.2cm. I mean, I was relieved, but I was bummed out because of the tumor size. My husband had a really beautiful perspective: he said a large tumor was just a bigger target for the chemotherapy. With my military background, I can hit a big target easier than a little target. So that’s how I visualize my treatment.”

Think of Kirsten’s current chemotherapy like bypass for the Liver: It requires a multidisciplinary medical team, an ICU stay, and extremely detailed follow up to ensure patient safety and recovery. “They’re very tight lipped about the treatment and the outcome because it’s a clinical trial, “ Kirsten said, “But they did slip up a few times regarding my outcomes. I’ve overheard the members of the medical team say ‘We’re seeing really good results’ and ‘oh yeah, really good things are coming from this’. Prior to my first cycle, I had a lot of pain in the right side of my abdomen due to the amount of liver removed. They were able to see tumor recurrence in the resection bed, but they weren’t able to get an exact measurement on that. Since my first treatment, I’ve only had minor pain there, so I am incredibly optimistic that this is working.”

Here’s where we need prayer: “I’m scheduled for my third session on May 10th, but I have to come back down April 16th for restaging scans, and if I don’t show stable to regression then I don’t stay in the trial. I’ll fly down the morning of the 16th, and I’ll be scanned by the cutting edge machines at Moffitt. I land at 11am, and my scans are at 1 PM. I fly back to STL on the 17th, and then I’ll get a call with my scan results sometime within the next couple days. I’m hoping that they call me THAT day, because the results will be available, and I just want to know my next step. The hardest days of cancer are the in-between, the ‘there’s nothing for you to do right now, we don’t really know what’s happening, and you’re not in treatment’, so yeah. Good or bad, I just want to know what to do next.”

Despite the anxiety that the month of April brings, Kirsten is unstoppably positive.

“We’ve received SO much help already. Our flight and hotel costs are already booked and covered by the ‘Dennis B. Cooper Foundation’, an incredible nonprofit started by an influencer named Maverick. His organization honors his Veteran father’s battle with cancer, and focuses on Veterans receiving funding and support so that they can obtain the medical care they need. Typically, the program only covers local Florida veterans, but by the grace of God, I was accepted into that as well.”

A strong support system coupled with a disciplined lifestyle keeps Kirsten grateful on a daily basis. Here are a few practices she put into place to bring about and sustain positive mental health:

“Coming out of Cycle 1 of Chemo, I had no limitations, so I started working out at CrossFit again. Six workouts in, I got rhabdomyolysis so bad that I couldn’t even lift my hands to my face to feed myself. Of course, Moffitt called me freaking out about my liver enzymes, my CK was through the roof, etc. That said, exercise has been a challenge, and that sucks because I survive on endorphins to keep me positive and lifted. So I had to change something.

The healthiest habit that I’ve started is I get out of bed at 4:00 in the morning, and I spend no less than one hour of time with God. I have a devotional, I read at least 2 chapters of my Bible, and then I pray. In this journey, I’ve met so many amazing people so I have a prayer of gratitude. Only through God will my gratitude ever be shown to these amazing people because I literally cannot keep up. Everyone has been beyond amazing: from work, to family, to friends, to acquaintances. 

Also, I walk. I can’t run yet due to the femoral line site healing, but at least I can walk. I’ve been building my endurance slowly to avoid the Rhabdo again. Rather than running again (and risk harming my joints), I think I’m going to take up swimming. The aerobics and water resistance will be better for my weight management as well because I want to avoid muscle wasting.”

Which leads me to ask, why Nursing? Why continue to work at all when your time is seemingly limited?

“I believe that I’m called to Nursing. And sure, my white blood count varies week to week, but if I’m gonna get sick, I’m gonna get sick. Obviously, I take proper precautions, but I’d rather be taking care of others than lying in bed waiting to die. It’s very therapeutic to go to work. I’m surrounded by a strong, positive work family. Might sound strange, but taking care of someone else’s crazy puts your own stuff in perspective. Makes you realize that what you’re dealing with is not so bad.”

Ok. So a terminal cancer diagnosis isn’t SO bad?! Well, that’s a humbling perspective, considering I was complaining about cold coffee this morning. Kirsten continues,

“My Saint Luke’s work family is irreplaceable: they are incredibly supportive. I was fatigued and blue this past Christmas, and not really in the mood for decorations or presents. My husband was still fighting his cancer at that time, so our holiday cheer was nonexistent. But my team insisted on a wish list and ensured that my kids got presents. I pulled up to my house one day in December and there’s a laundry basket full of wrapped gifts for my kids on the front porch. I thought, ‘well, I can’t just set this in a corner”, so we got out the tree and decorated the house for Christmas that evening. That simple act of provision brought real joy into our home. It’s March, and my eleven and twelve year old are still talking about how this was the best Christmas! They were just floored that strangers would care so much about them. My coworkers continue to donate ETO, so I still get a paycheck even when I’m getting treatment. To simply say thank you sounds hollow. They will never understand how much their support means to me.”

Kirsten’s journey is far from over. There is so much more to her story than this interview, and Rad Nurse is rallying with her coworkers, and coordinating student nurse volunteers to provide additional assistance to Kirsten and her family.

Sharing her story is important because it humanizes the nursing profession, and connects people from all walks of life. It’s a reminder that we are not defined by our circumstances, that we can find joy and goodness in heartbreak.

Rad Nurse will continue to provide updates on Kirsten in the coming month. Here are a few ways you can partner with Rad Nurse to support Kirsten and her family:

  • Send a direct donation: No matter the dollar amount, 100% of donations provide a paycheck for Kirsten as she misses work due to chemotherapy treatments and recovery.

  • Send a postcard: For $5, you can send a prayer or a word of encouragement to Kirsten, her kids (Kristine and Andrew), or her entire family. Rad Nurse pays for postage and forwards the postcard while protecting our Nurse’s personal info.

  • Share this article. Kirsten’s story is powerful and deserves to be heard.

  • Pray for Kirsten’s upcoming tests and treatments. April 16th is fast approaching, and we are believing that the treatments are working, and that she will stay in this clinical trial until the cancer is eradicated!