The following story was featured in the Fall 2019 issue of the OneSpirit Magazine.
At 43 years old with a 13-year-old son, Kristina Garcia, Market Magnet Manager, never imagined that she would be diagnosed with – and beat – an exceptionally rare and aggressive form of cancer called inflammatory breast cancer. She noticed redness of the skin on her left breast around Thanksgiving 2015, but because her yearly mammogram was coming up, she decided to postpone seeing a doctor. After her mammogram came back completely clear, Kristina put her worries out of her mind. It was only after a bad sinus infection that required multiple rounds of antibiotics that she realized the reddened area on her breast was more than just a rash.
“Doctors had given me steroids and oral antibiotics for my sinus infection, and I knew that it should have cleared up whatever was happening on my breast. It had actually gotten worse in that time, and I knew I was in trouble,” remembers Kristina. “My internet search about visual changes on the breast kept turning up as inflammatory breast cancer, and I really started to get scared.”
With inflammatory breast cancer (IBC), the majority of cases have no lumps, which means it cannot be identified with a mammogram. Cancer cells block lymph vessels in the skin of the breast and, by the time the cancer reveals itself through the swelling and/or reddening of the victim’s breast, the disease has already reached Stage 3.
Kristina faced a long road to her IBC diagnosis – in fact, none of her doctors had even seen a case of this cancer. She was told that her breast redness did not coincide with the symptoms of inflammatory breast cancer. Kristina strongly advocated for herself time and again with her OB/GYN and the radiologist who were overseeing the results of testing and, after nearly three months, Kristina got the diagnosis she feared.
The next hurdle was finding the right course of treatment. Unbeknownst to Kristina and her physicians, IBC is treated in an entirely different way than other forms of breast cancer. Seeking understanding and support, Kristina started connecting with women online who were living with or, had beaten IBC.
“The survivors I spoke with, warned me against the treatment plan my local oncologist had put me on. They strongly encouraged me to get a second opinion from MD Anderson, which at the time of my diagnosis, was the only hospital in the country with a specific clinic dedicated treating this aggressive disease. Thankfully, I was able to get that second opinion and MD Anderson confirmed the diagnosis. The doctor I saw there, shared her recommended IBC treatment protocol with my local oncologist which, included a full course of chemotherapy before a radical, non-skin sparing mastectomy, followed by 36 rounds of radiation,” says Kristina “After treatment, I received news that many do not – I had a complete response to the chemo and my cancer was staged at a 0 after surgery. That alone increased my chance of 5-year survival from 40 to 80 percent.”
Through it all, Kristina was supported, loved and encouraged by her son, her parents and a large network of friends – those in real life and those she met through online support. Today, she keeps in touch with these same women who live all around the world, and she shares about her experience at every opportunity. Her son recently asked why she still stays in such close contact now that she’s no longer fighting IBC. She quickly reminded him the reason she’s here today, is because someone took the time to educate her, share resources, answer her questions and be supportive in extremely trying times. “I don’t know why I’m still here when so many other women aren’t, but I know that I need to be available for the woman who is diagnosed today or tomorrow and needs answers and needs hope.”
Today, Kristina has fully recovered and works tirelessly to educate women about IBC and the importance of advocating for their health. She’s also grateful for the gift of life she’s been given and the time she has to spend with her son.
“Going through this trial felt like hell on Earth, and there were times that I didn’t think I was going to live. I just kept focusing on the things I wanted to teach my son to do – to drive, to fill out a job application, to graduate and help him prepare for college,” says Kristina. “I’m so thankful I have the opportunity to be here for those milestones, and I don’t want to waste one minute of my second chance at life.”