A cancer diagnosis during a pandemic can feel like a double whammy, but Kelli Stanko ended up stumbling onto joy in the process.
As 2020 approached, I embraced it as a pivotal year. A year of growth, change and self-acceptance, my quest to attain personal clarity and contentment. I took control of my mental and physical health and immersed myself in hot yoga, meditation and talk therapy. The year was off to a productive start.
I was way overdue for my yearly mammogram which was supposed to take place in May 2019. I had finally scheduled it for February 2020. It was the second mammogram of my life. I never had reason to be concerned as cancer was not a factor in my family’s history. I remember walking into the Women’s Health Center for my first time thinking, “Wow! I guess if you’re ever going to learn you have breast cancer, this is the place to hear it!” The office had the look and feel of a luxury spa. Never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined that in just a few short weeks, I would have that exact fate.
A week after my mammogram, I got a call from my doctor while at work saying there was indeed a concerning lump and I needed to schedule a biopsy. I immediately ran to the bathroom and there it was—a large lump in my right breast similar to the size of a large marble. How could I have missed it? To be honest, I had never done a self exam, which is exactly how I missed it.
Getting the biopsy was scary. I don’t handle things like this very well, but luckily, my husband was with me and the nurses reassured me that no matter the outcome, I would be in great care. That was the last time I was ever accompanied by a loved one at any appointment.
A week later, life as we all knew it had changed. COVID-19 made its way into the U.S., the country started shutting down and kids moved to remote learning. As a photographer for a national retail company, it was my first day working in my make-shift home studio when I got the call on March 17, 2020 indicating that I indeed had stage II breast cancer. My entire existence collapsed in that moment. My journey into the unknown gave me a front row seat on a ride I never thought I’d be on.
A few days later, I went in for an MRI and a few days after that, I was dropped off at the front doors of the hospital by my husband. The coronavirus forced everything into restrictions. Like thousands of others across the globe, I faced cancer alone. After surgery, I learned that not only did I have a lumpectomy, but I also had 24 lymph nodes removed, 22 of which came back positive with cancer. Before starting chemotherapy, I had a port-a-cath placed in my chest that connects to the large vein under your collarbone to make the infusions easier and more accessible. To me, that was invasive and solidified the reality of my fate. Because the cancer spread, the extent of my treatment was eight rounds (four months) of chemotherapy, followed by six weeks of radiation and five years on an anti-estrogen drug called Tamoxifen.
Going to the first few chemo infusions alone was isolating, terrifying and, honestly, the hardest thing I have ever gone through. Both my family and my husband’s family live out of state. Since getting diagnosed, it has been almost impossible getting them here to help with the kids and to support me when I felt down and vulnerable during chemo. My parents have yet to come and visit. The curtains were pulled so you couldn’t even talk with other patients. In a normal world, patients are able to interact with each other and help make the day a little better, a little lighter. The oncology nurses made my infusion days a bit more tolerable because of their kindness and genuine care for my well being, but I never got over the brazen feeling of having poison pumped through my body in order to save my life.
However, as I write this, I have completed chemotherapy. I am currently going through radiation and preventative lymphedema therapy. Like many others, COVID-19 has me missing out on the community of in-person support groups and integrated therapy like yoga, massage and acupuncture. I’ve been heavily active on social media and having that online community has been extraordinary in helping me navigate through this voyage.
On the flip side, getting a cancer diagnosis during a pandemic has been a little more comforting in the sense that I don’t feel like I’ve been missing out on all of the fun activities, travel and adventures. Festivals have been canceled and (most) everyone has been following guidelines by wearing masks to keep each other and my immune-compromised self extra safe. My husband has been able to work from home, making it easier to help take care of me, the kids and home life.
This cancer diagnosis has taken a lot from me, including my hair, my energy, my summer and the stark realization of my mortality. However, it has also shown me—point blank—all that I was searching for at the beginning of the year, like self-acceptance, clarity, contentedness in the present, the importance of everyday health, my family, and gratitude for each day. I am the happiest I’ve ever been, my family is the closest we’ve ever been, and for that, I am grateful.
Learn more about Kelli by visiting her on Instagram @myholisticvoyage.