Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma Survivor

Challenges inspire survivor to help others

Kristine Breski’s life has taken quite a few unexpected turns. After receiving two cancer diagnoses by the time she turned 30, she has gracefully pivoted to using her own experiences to help others find hope and strength when facing cancer.

After seeing many specialists over a span of 3 years seeking a solution for leg pain, a kind orthopedic surgeon told me he suspected I had cancer. I’d had degenerative disc disease since I was 16, so other doctors had felt it was tied to that. When I heard the word cancer, I fell back on the examination table in disbelief. It felt surreal — like I was in a movie that needed a happy ending.

The orthopedic surgeon referred me to a well-known cancer center. After two bone marrow biopsies in my left tibia, I learned I had primary large B-cell non-Hodgkin lymphoma. It had begun in the bone marrow and metastasized. This diagnosis usually affects males between 40 and 60. I was a 26-year-old female, so my medical team called me a unicorn.

The doctor encouraged me to begin a strong chemotherapy regimen immediately. It would very likely make me infertile, but he was concerned that we didn’t have time to harvest my eggs. I made the difficult decision to move forward with the chemo, and my care team discussed other common side effects I could expect and when they might happen. They were encouraging, and I could tell they were trying to help me stay optimistic.

About two weeks after my first round of chemotherapy, my hair began to fall out in clumps. I wanted to turn something negative into something positive, so I went online and found Wigs for Kids, an organization that provides free wigs to kids facing hair loss. My husband Tim shaved my head, then shaved his, and I donated my hair.

I preferred hats to wigs and thanks to the generosity of my friends and family, I had a bunch to choose from. I wore them all the time. They became my comfort blanket. Even now, when I’m feeling uncomfortable for any reason, putting on a hat makes me feel better.

Nausea, a strong metallic taste in my mouth and mouth sores caused me to lose my appetite and about 13 pounds. I turned to my care team and my nurse navigator, Barb, who gave me a lot of advice. I would message her on the medical portal at all hours. Sometimes she responded late at night; otherwise it was first thing in the morning. She also worked with my insurance company and provided documentation for my employer when it was needed. She is a saint.

My care team suggested using plastic silverware instead of metal, and that helped. They also recommended magic mouthwash. It numbed my mouth and, because it was the prescription kind that could be swallowed, it also numbed my esophagus. Just a heads up, it feels really odd the first time you use it, almost like you can’t swallow. But you can, and it provides fantastic relief.

Getting dehydrated was a risk, and they encouraged me to get down any liquids I could. For a while, I lived on a steady diet of Jello and ice cream, and to be honest, I was okay with that. I also found a lot of comfort in my dad’s homemade chicken and rice soup.

I don’t know how Barb and the care team have enough hours in the day to do everything they do. Tim and I did sweet things like bring in specialty chocolates from our hometown just to remind them how much we appreciate them, something I don’t think they hear often enough.

At times I struggled, and Tim encouraged me to keep going. We had only been married three and a half years. Our life together was just beginning. And my brother, who is 11 years younger than me, wouldn’t understand if I gave up. I was determined to keep on fighting.

Tim is quite possibly the best human being on the planet. He was my main source of support. He was there for me in ways that I never anticipated another person could be. I truly believe that God made him for me. We joke that he has become the new standard of “man” in our family. All guys we meet now are unknowingly being judged … But, is he a “Tim?”

After all the treatments, I still had severe leg pain, and a PET scan revealed cancer cells in my left tibia. Twenty rounds of radiation therapy later, the pain was still intense. They found that the plugs from the two bone marrow biopsies had melted, making holes in the bone. A carbon fiber rod and cadaver bone were inserted. We found that whenever the weather turned cold, my pain intensified, so we quit our jobs and moved to a warmer climate.

About a year after the move, I was diagnosed with a second cancer that was completely unrelated to my first. There is a one in a million chance of being diagnosed with synovial sarcoma, a rare soft tissue sarcoma, and I had it in my left hand. A wonderful sarcoma specialist performed two surgeries before declaring me no evidence of disease. It happened so fast that I almost didn’t believe it.

This experience took a toll on my emotional well-being, but I didn’t want my family and friends to see that. Instead I put up a strong front, which hid the fact that I was experiencing depression. I met with an oncology therapist a few times, but it wasn’t until we moved that I found one I really connected with. She is phenomenal, and I feel like myself again. Medication, adult coloring books, exercise, power cleaning and reading help me relax.

I’ve always been a reader, but with everything going on, I didn’t have the time or energy to do it. When my mother-in-law gave me Robin Roberts’ book about her cancer journey, Everybody’s Got Something, I made it a nightly ritual to read a little before bed. Her story really changed my mindset. It wasn’t that I was having a pity party, but I did wonder what I’d done in my life to deserve this. Her book reminded me that you could be the best person in the world and still have something like this happen. I stopped thinking, “Why me?” and switched to “Why not me?” That planted the seed for wanting to give back.

I started by participating on two Light the Night teams to raise funds for the local chapter of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. When LLS asked me to share my story, I was terrified but I did it. It turned on a switch inside of me, and now I’m passionate about raising cancer awareness. I am an Honored Hero for the LLS Visionary program. As one of the “faces of the disease,” I have made the first of many videos that provides inspiration and support to staff members, event participants and volunteers who support the mission of LLS.

I speak from experience when I say that I don’t think enough time is spent on preparing young adults for life after cancer. I’ve had people ask me, “So you’re good now, right?” There is much more to survivorship than that, like dealing with infertility, long-term effects and what is next for someone who can’t work at such a young age. As an advocate, I address topics like these and provide encouragement to people with cancer through other nonprofit organizations, including Friend for Life Cancer Support Network. I am a patient consultant on a Cancer Panel for the Department of Defense - Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programs. I’ve also presented to new residents at a medical school about how to communicate and work best with people who have cancer from the patient perspective.

It turns out my body is a bit of a unicorn in side effects, too, meaning I’ve experienced different effects than most people. I was diagnosed with Complex Regional Pain Syndrome, a neurological pain disorder, and Inappropriate Sinus Tachycardia, a heart condition. Both require daily medication.

Did I ever get my happy ending? I believe I have because I have a wonderful husband and family and life, and I get a lot of joy out of helping others.

At the end of the day, regardless of your diagnosis or treatment, remember that it is okay to feel down and scared. But, whatever you do, don’t get stuck thinking about what could go wrong or the unknowns. Look for small blessings along the way. Life is unpredictable. No one, whether you have cancer or not, is guaranteed tomorrow. Live your life in the now, and don’t let your fears for tomorrow limit you.