In honor of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Patch sat down for a Q & A session with local breast-cancer survivor and activist, Kerri Conner-Matchett. She was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer at the age of 33, when her daughter, Madison, was just 2. An Elkins Park resident, she is the author of My Mommy Has Breast Cancer, But She Is Ok.
Patch: When were you diagnosed with breast cancer?
Kerri: April 2008, 10 years after my mother's diagnosis.
Patch: How did you find the cancer? Was there a family history? Did you have higher-than-normal risk for developing breast cancer?
Kerri: I have been getting mammograms since the age of 29, because my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 41. The only year I did not get a mammogram was when I had my daughter and I was breastfeeding. One morning I could not only feel, but I saw a lump in my left upper breast. We all though it was just milk in my milk ducks from the breast feeding. It turned out to be not one, but three masses and it had spread to my lymph nodes. I had an aggressive stage 3 breast cancer.
Patch: How did you feel about the diagnosis?
Kerri: Overwhelmed. I also thought it was ironic. Here I was going around spreading the word about breast cancer (doing fundraisers and "think pink" events) and then I end up getting it myself and at such a young age. I knew I could definitely get the disease, but I never thought it would be at the age of 33 and so aggressive. I thought I was doing all the right things to get an early diagnosis.
I say overwhelming because of all the doctors and all the tests and all the decisions. I was lucky, because I had my mother who had done all this before me. She really guided me with my decisions. I feel really bad for those people who do not have the support that I had. It is truly a lot to deal with.
Patch: What did your treatment involve?
Kerri: Because my cancer was aggressive, I started with a round of high dose chemo, then a double mastectomy, then more high dose chemo, 30 radiation treatments, two more years of chemo, breast reconstructions surgery, and physical therapy. I had six surgeries in two years.
Patch: After treatment, did you get a clean bill of health? How did that make you feel?
Kerri: My doctor is very hesitant to give me a clean bill of health since it has not beenfive5 years yet. He is very careful with his words, but I can tell he is happy with how I am doing. To be honest, I still think about whether I still have the cancer. I try to tell myself to enjoy life and not get bogged down by what could be. I have a family to enjoy and if it does come back, I will deal with it then. Just like I did the first time. But I think about it honestly every day!
Patch: Do you think of yourself as a survivor?
Kerri: Definitely. I think in the beginning I took how well my treatments went for granted. It was not until I saw other mothers, young like me with children, that did not make it. It really made me appreciate that I am still here, because it could have been the other way around. Unfortunately, all mommies do not beat this disease. But I did and I want everyone to know that I made it and I am a survivor.
Patch: How have you gotten involved in the breast cancer awareness movement? Why?
Kerri: I have been heavily involved with breast cancer movements since my mother was diagnosed in 1998. Doing fundraisers and participating in breast health events. The year I was diagnosed, I was the race chair along with my mother for the Philadelphia Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure. I initially got involved because of my mother. We really wanted to show her support. But as time went on, it became much deeper. I learned so much.
One thing I learned was that African American women get the disease less than other ethnic groups, but are dying at greater rates. I could not believe this. African American women were dying at greater rates than any other ethnic group from the disease. Since then, through our nonprofit, we started an initiative called Praise Is the Cure. The mission is to motivate, educate and encourage women of color to get breast health screenings and treatments. So far this month, we have handed out over 15,000 pieces of breast health literature to our community.
Patch: Tell us about the book, My Mommy Has Breast Cancer. Why did you write it? What was your hope for the book?
Kerri: When I was diagnosed, there was nothing out there that I could read my my daughter that would tell her what I was getting ready to go through. I wanted something that I could read to her, with bright fun colors, that would explain my situation in a non-scary way. I thought about writing a book, but it was not until two young mothers at my daughter's day care were diagnosed, that I said, "I have to do this." I wanted to give them something for their children to read, as well as encourage the women themselves to never give up. Breast cancer is not a death sentence. You have to believe and if nothing else, fight for your children. I had little shirts made up to give to the mothers that said, "I never knew what bravery was until I saw it in my mommy!" And it is true. We have to be brave and beat this disease.
Patch: How successful has the book been?
Kerri: I am very pleased. I have heard nothing but great things about the book. Even adults have told me it has inspired them. And that is my goal. I have been asked to speak at elementary schools, high schools and colleges, and have been the keynote speaker at quite a few events sharing my story. I go around my community doing children's festivals (the Maddie Movement). To me it's about spreading the word, educating and inspiring at the same time. If the book does that, I have met my goal. Proceeds from the book also go towards breast cancer awareness programs, which is great as well. You can purchase the book from the website at www.mymommyhasbreastcancer.com. I want to give Patch readers $5 off. Just need to type in "discount" at the check out.
Patch: What other BC activist roles have you taken?
Kerri: If it has to do with spreading the word, I am open. I have spoken at so many venues, from churches and schools to support groups.
Patch: How does the overwhelming showing of "pink" and outpouring of support for breast cancer awareness, especially during the month of October, make you feel?
Kerri: Grateful. Grateful to be among them. It also gives me hope for the future. With all this awareness, I believe the focus will continue to be on finding a cure. And that would be great news for daughters, like my Madison. I never want her to go through what I went through. As long as we keep talking about the disease and putting it in the forefront of people's minds. We will continue to find a cure.
Patch: What advice would you give to women as far as prevention and early detection?
Kerri: Take care of yourself. We are so busy of taking care of others, we often put off taking care of ourselves. We say, we will go to the doctor later, or we will take care of it later. This must stop. We cannot take care of anyone if we are sick ourselves. Also, be aware of changes in your body and get them looked at ASAP. Don't put off taking care of yourself. Your family needs you. Society needs you.
Patch: What would you say to a woman who has recently been diagnosed with breast cancer?
Kerri: Take your time to know all of your options. Make sure you are comfortable with your doctors. Get your support system lined up, and most importantly, keep your chin up and hang in there. It is only a journey. It may have some tough spots, but you will see: This too shall pass.