Cancer screenings are an important way to find breast cancer early, when it’s more likely to be treated successfully. Although no single test can detect all breast cancers early, many people report that performing a breast self-exam in combination with other screening methods can increase the odds of early detection.
That was the case for Kari Nickell. Kari was always regular with her yearly screenings. In the summer of 2021, she went in for her annual mammogram, which came back clean. She thought she was fine. Then, on a whim, she performed a quick self-exam in the shower one day and found a lump.
Kari responded to the discovery immediately. She booked an appointment with her doctor as soon as possible, and tests confirmed the diagnosis: breast cancer. Kari’s radiologist was blunt; if she had waited until her next mammogram, it would have been too late.
In just six months, Kari had gone from a clean mammogram to stage 3 breast cancer, which had spread into her lymph nodes.
“I’m a huge proponent of self-exams now,” Kari says, “that exam saved my life.”
Kari’s treatment was aggressive- a few months, she had a double mastectomy, a surgery that also removed several lymph nodes. That was followed by 16 months of chemotherapy and then radiation two months after that.
It was after those treatments that Kari hit her lowest point.
“I was in fight mode,” Kari remembers, “in every step, there was always a definite end point I was working towards.” But then, after radiation, Kari started hormone therapy that was scheduled to last several years. The hormone therapy itself had side effects and Kari was struggling with ongoing lymphedema as well. “I hit a wall,” said Kari.
During an appointment with her occupational therapist, Kari learned about A Time to Heal. “I signed up right away,” Kari said.
“I have an amazing support system,” Kari remembers, “but none of them had been through the same thing, so the class was amazing. I didn’t have to sugarcoat anything about my experience. I could just be myself.”
“The Survivorship class helped me heal through connection. I was able to grow by hearing about other survivors’ perspectives and experiences.”
Kari is now looking forward to the next step of her journey, breast reconstruction surgery this summer.
Kari’s advice for other survivors is this: “Look for the good every day. Even if it’s just something small, like a song you enjoy or a snack. When you actively look for good, you find good.”
And, on a more practical note, write everything down. Between chemo brain and fatigue, you’re going to forget if you don’t write it down. “I carried a little notebook in my purse to every appointment and it helped so much. It made me less anxious to know that I had it and that I could always go back and check.”