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Stories of Perseverance: Mary Kimble

“…it doesn’t make you less of a woman…”

“…your breasts don’t define you…”

“…get rid of them mom, you can’t trust them…”

These are all words that were spoken to me as encouragement, and spoken by people I love. I try to remember them every day. I consider myself a survivor, but I’m not sure that the journey ever really ends.

My name is Mary Kimble, I grew up on a farm in Greenville, MI.  We have called Lowell home since 1979. I have been a graphic designer for over 30 years, starting out at the Lowell Ledger and Buyers Guide. My three children attended Lowell Schools, and my husband, Bryan, was a professional firefighter for 37 years serving with Lowell Fire and Rescue for 25 years. 

My story starts with a routine mammogram on Friday, July 21, 2017. I always had my yearly exam. The following Monday, I got a phone call from the hospital asking me to come in and have another mammogram, and possibly a biopsy. I wasn’t very alarmed, as I have always had very thick breast tissue and I had been called back many other times.

This time was different. They did, indeed, do a biopsy that day. The mammogram had seen a mass on my right breast. On August 1, I received a call no one wants to receive. My doctor’s office called me, and the nurse simply said, “I’m sorry, but you have breast cancer.” She told me I would be hearing from the hospital that afternoon with more tests results. I picked up the phone and called my husband, who was helping a friend at the time. He came right home. I remember being pretty calm about it, and as I look back, I realize it was mostly shock.  That afternoon I got the call from the hospital confirming what I didn’t want to believe. I had invasive ductal carcinoma in my right breast. Wow, invasive, that sounds scary. They asked me if I could come back in Thursday and have another biopsy on my lymph nodes.

I was introduced to my “Nurse Navigator,” who would help me work through the whole hospital process. She gave me a book to read, a video to watch, gave me a brief explanation of what to expect next and told me my appointment with the surgeon was next Wednesday.  This was real, and moving fast. 

My appointment with my surgeon was next. My husband, my sister and I sat and listened to the surgeon explain that there was a mass that was approximately 5 cm., making my cancer stage 2A as far as they could tell. There was a question as to if the tumor was one large tumor, or two connected tumors. A lumpectomy was not an option, because of the location of the tumor. My family and I had talked about this, and there really wasn’t any question, in their minds, or mine. I chose to take no chances.  I would have the whole breast removed. 

Of all the advice I was given at the beginning, one of my friends, who had experienced cancer herself, told me, “…get an MRI.” I suggested that to my surgeon, and he scheduled it for the next day. I was surprised to hear so quickly that the MRI showed that I had another mass about 8 cm. on the left breast. The decision was now out of my hands.

So, exactly one month since I had my routine mammogram done, my breasts were surgically removed, a bilateral mastectomy. There was no cancer found in the lymph nodes and I only had to stay one night. 

The first three weeks home from the hospital, friends and neighbors brought us a meal each night. That was a so helpful and thoughtful. The healing went pretty well, not too much pain, and I went back to work in about eight weeks. 

My oncologist told me that I would not need chemotherapy or radiation. That was very good news. I had made a pretty big sacrifice, but would not have to endure chemo, as so many others. I would be taking an estrogen blocker for the next five years at least, as my cancer was estrogen driven. 

Nothing can prepare you for the first time you see yourself in the mirror, after the bandages are removed. Although, I never felt that my breasts defined me, it is still a very hard pill to swallow. I was left with pretty good size balls of loose skin under both arms that were very uncomfortable and unattractive, hopefully I could have those removed in a few months. 

There were some wonderful people in the Ionia area, where I worked at the time, which held a benefit for a cancer survivor every year, and this year they chose me. There were silent auctions, raffles, food, prizes, and they raised a lot of money toward my medical bills. A month later, some very close friends held another small benefit for me, and between the two, enough money was raised to pay my medical bills. I will be forever grateful for all my friends, relatives, and total strangers who helped me out.

I would be lying if I said everything was fine from then on in. The emotional toll that this takes on a person is extremely hard to describe. It feels like you have a whole new reality, and you have no choice but to adapt to all the changes. Your clothes fit differently, there is intermittent nerve pain, side effects from the cancer medicine, not to mention an endless array of emotions.

After my surgery, my sister did some research and told me I needed to look into Gilda’s Club in Lowell. I worked up the courage to make the call. I didn’t know what to expect. What I found was a group of people that were willing to listen, offer advice, and share their own experiences. They really cared about me, and my journey. I have made some wonderful friends, and we have become very close. So comforting to have a place to go, where you are understood.

I had some revision surgery in late July 2017, to fix the excess skin under my arms. I was so happy with the results, and felt maybe I could finally get used to my new “normal,” and get on with my life. I spoke too soon, I guess.

In June of 2018, I had discovered a small lump on the left side of my face. After ultrasounds and a biopsy, it could not be determined for sure that the lump was not cancer. As anyone who has had cancer can tell you, once you’ve had it, it always raises its ugly head when anything questionable comes up. So we decided to just remove it in a routine surgery.

I was scheduled for a parotidectomy (the parotid gland is on the side of your face), to remove it. The surgery took about 90 minutes. While I was in recovery, my surgeon came in and said “Mary, we need to talk.” Nothing could have prepared me for what he would say next.

He told me that he could not identify my facial nerve during surgery and somehow it was damaged and he had paralyzed the left side of my face. My eye would not close, and nothing on the left side functioned. He didn’t know how it happened, but he had set me up with a specialist in Novi to see if anything could be done.

I went home in disbelief and broke the news to my family. They, of course, were furious with the surgeon, as was I. (I have since forgiven him.) In less than a week, I found myself in Novi, meeting with a neurosurgeon who told me the only thing he could do was surgery to try to find both halves of my facial nerve and reattach them.

The very next day, I found myself in surgery again. The beginning of the nerve was at the base of my ear and he had to micro-dissect through the face to find the other half. It took him three hours to find the other half of the nerve. It took another three hours to reconnect the nerve and put a gold weight in my eyelid so I could close it.

The main facial nerve is like a tube, which contains many tiny nerves. It turns out that the nerve was not severed evenly, but, rather, torn in two by some kind of instrument. So, the only way to reconnect it was to put a little connector between the two pieces. I was told that he thought the eye would function again, but he wasn’t real optimistic about my chances of regaining movement of anything else. He told me any spontaneous regeneration should occur in a year’s time. That year is up on August 8 of this year, and I do have some use of my eye, but nothing else functions on that side.

I now need to use a straw whenever I drink anything, food needs to be cut into small pieces, as I can only chew on one side of my mouth, my eye does not open all the way, because the lid doesn’t move, and I have lost my smile for the most part. I was forced to retire from my graphic design job, as my eye doesn’t work well enough to use the computer for any length of time. Another “new normal.”

My friends at Gilda’s Club have been a tremendous help through this process as well, and they definitely support me and push me to keep going. 

There have been so many supporters in my life. My husband, Bryan, is my rock. Overcoming his own fear, (he lost his own mother to breast cancer) he was there every minute, letting me cry, scream, or just feel sorry for myself. I can never thank my children, my sister, and my best friend, enough for all their support, in helping me to take one day at a time, and not hide from the world.  

So, the journey, for me, continues. I am gradually accepting what cannot be changed, and I am truly grateful for each and every day. I try to surround myself with positive people, less drama, and just enjoy what I have, and try not to think so much of what I have lost. One day at a time, right?

Love what you have,

Before life teaches you 

To love what you lost.

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