With purple lines and pen marks still visible on her upper chest, Donelson resident Christine Kennard is already sharing her important message: get your routine mammogram screenings.
The optimistic 52-year-old single mother of two is recovering from breast reconstruction surgery after a rare Triple-negative cancer diagnosis early last year led to her double mastectomy.
“Get your mammograms,” Kennard strongly insisted while sitting on her living room couch less than 24 hours after surgery. “The best way to find breast cancer is through mammograms.”
She also encourages women to utilize 3D image screening because it helps look for breast cancer in people who do not have signs or symptoms. The Mayo Clinic said studies show that combining 3D mammograms with standard mammograms reduces the need for additional imaging and slightly increases the number of cancers detected during screening. They are gaining popularity and covered by more insurance providers.
“We’re taught as women to look for lumps, they preach that at a young age, how to look for lumps in your breasts to see if you have breast cancer. By that time, it’s already pretty bad,” said Kennard.
“Get a 3D screening, too, that is real important and I’m glad I did it. When they found a cluster of cells, I didn’t have any lumps, but they saw it on the 3D mammogram,” she said.
Bad news in the new year
After skipping her screenings for four years, Kennard started the New Year in 2020 with a mammogram where doctors saw something irregular in her results. After a second screening and waiting for two weeks on the biopsy results, “I was getting scared,” she recalls.
“I had already done some research and I cried in my car on the way home,” because she was thinking about her kids, a son, Conor Kennard, 19, and a daughter, Olivia Kennard, 16.
“I was thinking about my kids and how they were going to take it, because I hadn’t told them anything until I knew for sure what it was,” she said. Her kids were strong when the heard about her breast cancer and pitched in to help while surgeries sidelined their mother.
Walking into work at Amerigo Italian restaurant one afternoon in late February, the food server received a phone call from her doctor confirming the news that sent her head spinning and caused her a lot of stress.
“When I got the call, I went numb, I was crying at work and they sent me home,” Kennard said. “I stress ate a lot. Thank goodness I had a cherry pie in my purse that I took to work,” she said through a chuckle of embarrassment. “I was carrying the pie around in my purse because I was nervous and upset.”
Help from friends
According to the American Cancer Society, Triple-negative breast cancer accounts for about 10-15% of all breast cancers. The Triple-negative term means that the cancer cells don’t have estrogen or progesterone receptors and also don’t make too much of the protein called HER2. These cancers tend to be more common in women younger than age 40. Triple-negative cells usually grow and spread faster, have limited treatment options, and have a worse prognosis.
Kennard immediately began the first of six chemotherapy treatments on March 2 where doctors gave her a big dose to start with. The initial treatment literally left her lying on the floor, she said.
Although exhausted from starting chemo, the resilient woman showed up for her part-time bartending shift at Trax in south Nashville on the eve of the county-wide Coronavirus pandemic that shut down both her jobs.
“Everybody was so generous because it was all over the news that we were shutting down. People were so generous. If it hadn’t been for my Trax family and some friends, financially I wouldn’t have made it,” Kennard admitted.
The Indiana-born woman, who is usually volunteering to help others, was relying on friends to help her cover commitments such as making pickles for a birthday party and cooking meals for Launch Pad, a charity that feeds homeless LBGTQ+ teens. Other friends, many she’s met through Trax, were helping keep her bills paid and the kitchen stocked with groceries.
A hair stylist friend preemptively cut Kennard’s hair short and died it pink after her breast cancer diagnosis. He then helped her shave her head when she started to lose chunks of hair during chemotherapy.
“It just started coming out in big clumps, it would hurt my head” she said. “Brushing it would make my scalp feel better, so I would go outside to brush it because so much hair was coming out. For a hot minute last year there were pink hairballs flying around the yard. I had pink tumbleweeds floating around the yard.”
On her birthday a day after her last chemo treatment June 17, still in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, friends organized a surprise drive-thru birthday celebration through Kennard’s neighborhood. Two friends surprised Kennard when showed up displaying shaved heads to show solidarity of support.
At the same time, after haggling with the state for months, she finally received her unemployment benefits retroactively, which were stalled since March by the bureaucracy because “cancer doesn’t count for unemployment,” explained Kennard. “I literally had to patch my life together.”
“Having cancer during a pandemic was a blessing,” she said. “It was a blessing because I had all these people to help me and if it wasn’t for my LBGTQ family, I wouldn’t have made it. Having my friends supporting me is how I got through. I had so many angels, my friends; the family you choose as they say.”
A tough decision
Later that summer after chemo treatments, doctors told Kennard she faced a 30% chance of cancer returning because there was an inch large mass left in her chest. Her decision to get a double mastectomy was stressful, but really, a no-brainer for her. Originally, Kennard was told there is a 30% chance she had cancer when the cluster cells were first discovered.
“There’s that dang 30% chance again. I opted for the double mastectomy so this way the cancer couldn’t come back, since they don’t know what caused it in the first place. It was really hard to lose them. Making that decision was stressful, but I don’t want it to come back and for my children to have to take care of me,” Kennard explains.
She spent very little time crying about her diagnosis, “only twice,” she said proudly, and gave no time feeling sorry for herself. Like with all things in her life, Kennard is always “looking for the silver lining in situations,” she said. “Being a single mom creates strength in you for dealing with stuff when things go wrong.”
While the mastectomy was healing, Kennard quickly went back to helping others, cooking meals and working at Trax to keep busy and “get out of my own head and relieve my anxiety,” she said. “Anxiety is crippling to a lot of people. I am a big fan of getting up, getting out there and you fake it till you make it.”
Around Christmas time, her appearance was much different sporting a bald head, a face mask, and loose-fitting men’s plaid button-up shirts. Some people at the bar “thought I was transitioning into a man,” she said with tempered laughter as she gently stretches her arm across her chest.
Getting back in shape
What Kennard didn’t find humorous was the 30 pounds she gained from stress eating and being sidelined on the couch after her surgeries. With some online research, she was able to find a Nashville organization that helped her get back into shape.
Survivor Fitness Foundation, a local organization helps cancer survivors regain their health and wellness through one-on-one personal training and nutritional support. She applied for and received a scholarship from them to get active again.
“I was so out of shape because I hadn’t done anything since being stuck on this couch for a year,” she said. “Survivor Fitness really helped me, they’re awesome. I ended up losing six inches here,” she said, pointing at her midsection. “That’s a lot to lose six inches through exercise.”
As soon as she recovers from her latest surgery, Kennard plans to continue exercising by walking and running every day. Her focus now is to be ready to complete a half marathon in November and walk Oct. 30 in the 2021 Susan G. Komen Greater Nashville More Than Pink Walk, to support fellow cancer survivors.
There’s little doubt Kennard will be walking in stride at those events. Her road to a full recovery is paved with her strength and a positive outlook.
“A good attitude for me is a choice every day. You just have to choose.”