In her new book STRONG[ER+]: Becoming My Own Best Advocate and Discovering My Purpose, today’s guest, Kimberly Irvine shares her story about how her battle with cancer changed her life for the better. In this interview, Kimberly describes how she emerged from cancer and divorce, stronger in every facet of life than she was to begin with. As Dr. Ann Partridge with Dana Farber, Cancer Institute at Harvard Medical school puts it, Kimberly’s experience and dedicated advocacy should empower other young women and cancer survivors–an example of not only surviving but thriving.
Nikki Van Noy: Today I’m here with Kimberly Irvine, the author of the new book Stronger. Kimberly, thank you so much for joining us today.
Kimberly Irvine: Thanks so much for having me on.
Nikki Van Noy: I am so excited to get into your story but let’s begin by painting a picture of what your background was like for listeners?
Kimberly Irvine: Sure, I was a typical young mom with two small children–my kids were six and four. I was actually a caregiver to my mom who had just come out of her own battle with brain cancer. Young family, just working on life really, just navigating life and all of a sudden cancer kind of hits us out of nowhere and you start jumping in and figuring out okay, how do I adjust our sails?
How do I help support not just my mom through that cancer journey but also my dad who kind of went into this shock mode of how do I navigate something like this? It was challenging to say the least, but it was certainly something that I think we all have been touched by in one shape or way or form.
Nikki Van Noy: That’s a lot to go through, especially parenting your kids at the same time as you’re on such an emotional journey.
Kimberly Irvine: It was not easy. I think you know it’s devastating. I look at my parent’s life and they were ready to retire. They moved to Nashville and it really just came out of nowhere. For me particularly, it was just really sad to see, that they had two grandkids and really wanted to embrace their retirement and wanted to enjoy their grandkids and then cancer comes out of nowhere.
All of a sudden, you’re starting to question–am I going to survive this, am I going to be able to enjoy the life that we always hoped and dreamed of?
Nikki Van Noy: Did your mom ultimately survive?
Kimberly Irvine: Yeah, she’s doing great. She’s alive and she’s well. I believe in the power of prayers and she’s an amazing testimony for sure. My mom obviously, went through her own battle and it was about a year and a half later when I was just visiting her at her house over Memorial Day weekend and I had some achiness in my left breast and, overall, I wasn’t feeling well.
I had a lot of migraines, I just didn’t feel well, I lost weight, my appetite wasn’t there and to be honest, I attributed it to being the care partner to my mom. I was sitting at our kitchen table in this specific visit and I’d felt this achiness in my left breast. I remember sitting there thinking that I just didn’t feel good, and my mom looked at me and her first reaction was, “Are you pregnant?”
I thought, no. I knew I wasn’t pregnant, but she said, “Have you given yourself a breast exam?” I remember sitting there thinking to myself, are you crazy? I vocalized it. I said, “Mom, I’m 31 years old, why would I give myself a breast exam?”
She looked at me and said, “Well, why not?”
She was right. I mean, at 31, nowhere in my mind was I thinking that I needed to give myself a breast exam. I ran upstairs to the bathroom and I proceeded to give myself a breast exam.
It was the first time ever that I had done it and I remember lifting up my left arm and kind of feeling around and it really wasn’t even my breast area, it ended up being in my armpit. I felt this kind of nodule and I remember, putting my hand over it and trying to figure out if it was hard and if it was moveable and all these different things. Then I ran right downstairs to my mom and I said, “Do you feel this lump?”
She said, “I think you should probably call your gynecologist.”
So, the next day, I called my OBGYN. I made an appointment and I went in a couple of days later. I sat down with my OBGYN and I said, “Hey, I feel this lump.” She looked at me and she said, “You know, I know young women like you get these kinds of lumps all the time and I’m sure it’s probably just a fibroadenoma. The other thing is honey, you just came out of this horrific path with your mom having brain cancer and I’m sure you are probably just a little sensitive.”
I remember thinking for a minute, she’s probably right, I’m probably overreacting, and maybe feeling a bit of a hypochondriac. But I really felt like my gut was telling me something and it was my instinct.
I needed to really advocate for myself and so I just responded to her and I said, “You know, I appreciate your thought, but I would feel so much better if you would just order me a mammogram.” She kind of paused for a minute and she looked at me and she looked up from writing and she huffed and puffed and said, “I’m going to order you a mammogram but you’re going to see, this is just a fibroadenoma.”
I remember sitting there thinking to myself, my gosh, here I am, I’ve challenged her and maybe I was wrong and maybe I shouldn’t do this, but it was the first moment, Nikki, that I realized that I had to be my own best advocate. It was great that I was because then she ordered a mammogram, which then immediately turned into an immediate ultrasound when I went for my test. I remember the radiologist coming in and doing the scan themselves after the tech had completed it.
She looked at me and said, “Honey, this node looks suspicious. It’s about 8 millimeters, which is the size of a pea but we’re going to need to order a biopsy.” I remember thinking at that moment, thank goodness, that I had challenged my doctor. But more importantly, thank goodness that I had gotten that mammogram and that ultrasound, and then the biopsy and shortly after that biopsy, I got the call that said I had cancer at 31 years old, with a six-year-old little girl and a four-year-old little boy.
Never in a million years did I think after coming out of my mom’s diagnosis that I would be experiencing it myself.
Nikki Van Noy: What was your mindset at that point?
Kimberly Irvine: My mindset was certainly what every cancer patient feels. I certainly felt overwhelmed, I had a lot of fear and anxiety, I had a lack of control and I certainly started to think, “My gosh, am I going to be alive to raise my kids?”
We started on this journey, which turned into surgery. I had to have my breasts removed and I did immediate reconstruction, and then based on final pathology, I ended up doing six rounds of chemotherapy and it was a long journey.
You adjust to your new normal life and it wasn’t easy. I remember one moment specifically when I was going through chemotherapy. Because you’re trying to navigate getting through life and everyone was helping us take care of our kids.
I was sick and tired from the treatments and I remember my six-year-old daughter at one point looking at me and she said, “Mommy, can you tuck me into bed?”
I thought, I don’t have any strength to tuck her into bed. She kind of put her hands on her hip and she was a little sassy at that point because she was six years old, and she looks at me with her pretty little blue eyes and her hands on her hip and she started stomping and she said, “You never tuck me into bed any more mommy.”
I remember sitting there thinking to myself, she’s so right. Through the eyes of a six-year-old little girl, I never did tuck her into bed. So, I looked at my husband at the time and I said, “You’re going to have to help me get up those stairs and tuck her into bed.”
I said, “Honey, go on upstairs, mommy will be there in just a moment.” We went upstairs and we got up to the top of the stairs. I stopped for a second to catch my breath and I remember I looked all the way down the hallway, and I could see her kneeling at her bedside. She had her hands folded and she was praying, and she said, “Dear God, please give mommy the strength to fight breast cancer.”
I remember that moment, standing in the hallway, tears rolling down my face, falling to my knees, crying so hard that I could show her that my six-year-old little girl didn’t have to pray that mommy was going to fight cancer. I was going to do it. I was going to show her that I could, and I was proud that I did.
I overcame that diagnosis and life returned to normal. Then three and a half years later, I woke up in the middle of the night, felt an achiness in my rib, called the doctor the next day and had a PET scan. By that afternoon, I got a call back that said my rib had no area of concern, but they had found another mass in my chest wall that was suspicious. I needed to have it removed and a week later, I went in, had another biopsy, and it turned out, that I got cancer again at the age of 35. It recurred.
By this point, I had a ten-year-old girl and an eight-year-old boy. I started to think to myself, how in the world am I going to overcome cancer for the second time? I really thought that my outlook was really grim, and I started to understand that from an eight and ten-year-old perspective, they understood life and death. They immediately responded with, “My gosh mommy, are you going to die?”
As a mom, 35-years-old, how do you respond to your children and answer that? The only way that I knew how was just to help them understand that we had a belief in our higher power who is God and that we were going to pray about it. I assured them that we had a great medical team in place and that we were going to use our faith and we were going to pray really hard and that mommy was going to fight really hard.
But I really didn’t have an answer. Because the last thing you want to do as a parent is to give your child false hope. When you don’t know the answer and, quite honestly, none of us do. We went through another round of cancer, which was more surgery and chemotherapy and radiation. That second time, I had to lose my implants. I went flat. I wasn’t reconstructing at all, but it was so irrelevant in the grand scheme of things because you’re starting to really understand life or death.
A year and a half of rough treatment, you come out of it and you’re pretty much on this every three-month scanning and trying to navigate your life. It was difficult to adjust to that new normal. I’m proud to say that I was able to overcome that battle.
Life as we knew it was difficult. But the one thing that I did know is I had no certainty, I had no control, I had no way of understanding what was going to happen, and I had to take that story and I had to really use it for a purpose.
Nikki Van Noy: Kimberly, I want to ask you one question. I’m not well versed in breast cancer at all, but my feeling was that, with a mastectomy, the rate of reoccurrence decreased significantly, is that true or not?
Kimberly Irvine: It does, yeah. You do anything to reduce your risk. It could be surgery, or there are women who will do a lumpectomy or a mastectomy, and chemotherapy’s another form of reducing your risk of reoccurrence and radiation, if it’s necessary.
I mean, those are all things that you can do and it’s really dependent on your specific tumor type, the stage that you’re at and your doctors giving that kind of recommendation. Of course, 10 years ago, the standard of care is completely different than what it is today. We have learned so much in terms of our genetic disposition and how our genetics play out and the risks and things associated. I really did follow every recommendation that was given to me. Not just once, but twice.
Becoming an Advocate
Nikki Van Noy: It sounds like the second time as soon as you felt that feeling in your rib, you knew something could be off based on your first experience?
Kimberly Irvine: Right, it was really about advocating for myself. I think as women, we have intuition. We often don’t listen to intuition. That’s part of you what I want my story to be able to do. It’s not just from overcoming cancer twice, we talk about women in general and how we can advocate for ourselves from a health perspective. There are so many different ways that we can advocate and trust our intuition.
Nikki Van Noy: Talk to me a little bit about your experience. I am very intrigued by this idea of advocacy especially as it pertains to cancer because this seems to me like a blind spot for people who have no history with cancer, being diagnosed and then getting into the system and finding out that advocacy is necessary. I think most of us believe that our doctors are going to take care of us and that is not an element that is going to come into play here.
Kimberly Irvine: Right, I think what happens to anyone when you’re thrown into any type of health crisis, whether that’s cancer, chronic illness, or a disease, it is a completely different path you have to take. You start to almost have to be your own MD.
You have to educate yourself because education brings knowledge and knowledge brings power, and from that, you can make the best decisions for your own health care journey.
I think you have people that take that journey and they can sometimes become paralyzed by it because it is overwhelming. But the biggest message I often tell people when they are faced with any health crisis is that it is so important to embrace your care partners around you. That care partner could be your spouse, your partner, your friend, your family, whoever that person might be–there might be a team of them working alongside you.
You really need to embrace those care partners and have them with you as you start to navigate this crisis. It is really about education and educating yourself so that you can be the CEO of what I call your healthcare decisions. You are assembling a team no matter what that might be, and you’re the person that is in charge. So, by putting these people in play it gives you a sense of control, right? Because we often feel out of control in situations like that.
So, the more we can be educated, the more empowered we can be, and the more informed we can be to make our decisions.
Nikki Van Noy: Are there any primary sources of education you would recommend to people who might be going through this right now?
Kimberly Irvine: I get that question all the time, my biggest recommendation that is cancer-specific–there are so many great resources–Cancer Support Community and CancerCare are two great global national organizations that give great information across all cancer types. If you want to be very specific in terms of breast cancer, breastcancer.org is phenomenal. It is an online platform where you can connect and see credible information.
You can connect with other women who are in similar situations as you, whether you are newly diagnosed, maybe considering surgery, whatever it might be, it is just great to have those resources.
For me specifically, I will tell you the other layer, which is just being a parent. That added another layer of challenge for me of how to navigate talking to my kids. I often say seek out great resources, but then you should also leverage your health care team.
Maybe even consider the psycho-social part of it, where you look for a psychologist and you talk to somebody about how to navigate the emotions that you are going to have, and specifically if you have children, how to talk to your children and navigate that piece as well.
Parenting During a Medical Crisis
Nikki Van Noy: How did your children come out of this situation?
Kimberly Irvine: It is challenging. I am not going to lie, six and four-year-old kids tend to be a little more resilient. They were worried more so, “Did I give this to you? Can I catch it? Why is mommy so sick? Did I do something wrong to cause mommy to get cancer?” Those are pretty typical things that they go through.
The second time was a lot more challenging when they were eight and ten, they understand life and death, they were much more clingy, much more concerned, and worried about getting me sick, those kinds of things.
But now here we are, they are eighteen and sixteen years old and I am forty-three and I think the fear has changed. The fear is probably more so based on, “Oh my gosh, if mom has a headache, does she have cancer and is she lying to us?” The other fear is more I’d say for my daughter, “Am I going to get cancer? My mom had it, I am probably going to get it myself.”
I remember my daughter being fifteen and starting to develop herself and she came running into my room and immediately she was like, “Mom, I have a lump, I have a lump and I have cancer.” I remember just, oh my gosh, my heart started racing so fast, thinking to myself, “How in the world could that be possible?” I had to really pause for a moment and think to myself, “This is her reality now,” right?
She is often going to go to that same place, and it turned out to be nothing, but it was really a moment to help her empower herself to be her own advocate and to ensure that she was giving herself her own breast exams. Still those fears never leave, and I can tell you from a giving back perspective, my kids have always wanted to give back to other people and try to leverage our story to help other people. Now that my daughter is eighteen, she wants to become a lawyer and work in the healthcare field. I think it is a testament to what she’s gone through. It is how she can share her story, and how she can help other people.
My son, he’s a boy. He kind of copes in his own way. He’s sweet, he is loving, and he shows it in his own way, he’ll wear pink baseball cleats. He’ll ask me to buy him a pink baseball glove.
My kids are doing fantastic and I could not be any more blessed and grateful to see where we are in life overcoming cancer.
I’ll tell you the other piece of it is not just going through cancer.
As we started to navigate, unfortunately, a lot of people, when you go through a diagnosis like that, something very serious, it can make or break a relationship. In our situation, it was just so challenging for us and unfortunately, we couldn’t navigate it, and we had to go through a divorce. So, that was another adversity, I like to say, that my kids had to experience. But we got through it.
For me specifically, it was probably more so the fear of, “Oh my gosh, I am going to make a decision to get divorced. Am I going to find somebody that’s going to love me after having cancer, not once but twice? Oh my gosh, how am I going to date without having breasts? What is that going to be like?”
Then the other layer of being a single parent and then the fear of, “Oh my gosh, what if I don’t find somebody, am I going to die alone?”
Along that same path, I had to decide, because I was at a stay at home mom, and I didn’t have a college degree, I was at a fork in my life. I decided I am going to go on with my life and what direction was I going to take? I started realizing that I wanted to go out and start a business to help bridge this gap between pharmaceutical biotech companies when they are bringing products to market and start to consult and share that patient perspective.
I went out and I started a business on top of all of those adversities and I think that’s where Stronger came into play, you know? There was a period in my life when I realized I had overcome all of that adversity. I had a friend, a really great mentor of mine who is the CEO of his own company and he said to me one day, “You know you should really consider writing a book.” I looked at him and thought to myself, “What? I am not going to write a book. What are you talking about?”
He said, “You really should consider it. You have such a powerful story and your voice is really one of passion. You can touch a lot of people.”
I went home and I did some research and I started to really understand that this could be an opportunity. So, I looked at people who’d had cancer and I started looking at books and I wanted to understand how I could be different.
I didn’t want to be another person who wrote a book about cancer. I thought that there was such a bigger story to tell. I realized that my story, the bigger part of it was that I was a woman, a young woman who had multiple layers of adversity, not just cancer, but divorce. And then, dating in a very unique way, not just normal dating in today’s world. And single parenting and starting a business without a college degree. So, all of those layers were just adversity that I thought people could relate to.
At the end of the day, across all of that adversity, it was really about how to empower people to be their own best advocate in any situation they might be faced with. So, I created an outline in terms of what I thought my story would entail and what the lessons learned through those adversities were, and how people can apply that adversity in their own lives and really make a difference. That is the preface of Stronger, becoming my best advocate in discovering my purpose.
The book is really to empower women and men to be their own best advocates, to look at their life and understand that we all have adversity and it’s really how we apply it in our own lives and overcome it. I talk a lot about faith. I am just a huge fan and whatever your higher power or belief is, it is so important to have. For us that played a huge part in all of our journey and we relied heavily on that to get us through.
I do believe that God has me here for a purpose and my voice needs to be heard. My book is going to touch a lot of people. The preface too for me is I am a huge philanthropist. I believe in giving back and I didn’t want to have the book as a revenue stream. It was about trying to raise money for breast cancer research. So, while my story is one of hope and resilience and a lot of strength that’s come from adversity, the other side of it is I know it is going to educate, empower, and inspire other people and then it is going to fund breast cancer research.
Nikki Van Noy: That’s beautiful. I am curious what the process of writing this book and, with that, going back to all of these periods in your life where you did have these obstacles to overcome, the two cancer diagnoses and treatments, the divorce, what did that feel like to relive those phases in some way through writing the book?
Kimberly Irvine: Well, I’ll tell you, to be very transparent, I wrote my book in three months, which I would never recommend to anyone ever. I really wanted to get this book out during a cancer conference and the timeline just really pushed me to write it in three months and it was challenging. I will not lie–I don’t recommend doing that, but I worked with an amazing woman that really helped me bring it to life.
What I wasn’t prepared for is the emotion tied to it Because as you’re pointing out, you’re literally having to go back and relive all of those moments and sometimes you don’t remember everything. It is challenging, but on the other side of it, it is so cathartic to really look back and say, “Wow, I didn’t let cancer define me. I didn’t let my divorce define me. I didn’t let the fear of finding love again define me.” I did find somebody, and I fell in love and unfortunately, it didn’t last.
It certainly is something that I can give hope to people to help them understand that you can allow yourself to be vulnerable. You can allow yourself to overcome the fear and the anxiety that you are dealt with.
Nikki Van Noy: Kimberly, thank you so much for sharing your story and for joining us on this podcast. The book is Stronger: Becoming My Own Best Advocate and Discovering My Purpose. Thank you for joining us today.