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Kristin’s Journey: One Woman, Two Cancers

“I have never met anyone who survived cancer without a good attitude. It may not keep you alive, but a bad attitude definitely won’t.” ~ Kristin Parks

Kristin and Warren Parks had majestic holiday plans in mind to celebrate the successful end of her breast cancer treatment. They scrolled through Trip Advisor for hotels in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, starting with the most expensive, for they had something to celebrate.

Great ending to a year-long journey that began in fall 2010, when Kristin, just 43, discovered a lump under her arm. Surprised, not that worried—she was young, had no family history, and routinely self-examined—she headed to her doctor, who immediately sent her for tests.

The phone call from the radiologist stunned her: she had Stage 3B breast cancer: a 4-centimeter-large tumor, the size of a golf ball. That spot she felt under her arm was a group of swollen lymph nodes, for the cancer had metastasized.

“I was angry, really angry,” she says, cupping her fingers around a pumpkin latte. “Cancer was about to screw up my life. I had just been married, I was hoping to start a family. And now this.”

She frowns slightly. “No one tells you that if anything feels different to be aware. We’re taught to feel a hard lump.”

Kristin, a retention specialist at ADP, sits upright. She met with a surgical oncologist, and began chemo immediately. When she started to lose her hair, her husband shaved her head, and remained even-keeled in the wake of her fears and discomfort. Five months of chemo were so successful that there was no evidence of cancer when she had a lumpectomy and 33 nodes under her arm removed.  Meanwhile she’d started Herceptin, which she would continue for a year, followed  by radiation. And then she was done.

Time to head for the Dominican Republic. It was spring 2012.

The afternoon sun reflects on the intricately designed silver pendant hanging on a chain around Kristin’s neck. “An 8, 1, and 3,” she gently fingers it.  “Eight letters, three words, one phrase: ‘I love you.’”

On their second night, while dancing, Kristin suddenly became short of breath and her heart began to race. Utterly overcome by exhaustion, she couldn’t walk 100 feet. She was so pale that even her gums had faded. The resort’s doctor pricked her finger to evaluate her red blood count. It was too low, way too low. He sent her to the local hospital for lab work.

Kristin phoned her oncologist, who, when hearing her labs, told her to come home—but first she’d need to raise her platelet and red blood cell count, so she could fly without risking a hemorrhage.

She and Warren paid $6,000 cash for the red blood cell transfusion. What choice was there when U.S. insurance wasn’t accepted? Once she received the transfusion, the doctors told her to drive to a Santa Domingo hospital, 118 miles away, for the platelet transfusion and more red blood cells. They suggested she take a taxi. Meanwhile her white blood cell count—indicating massive infection—was rising.

Kristin was imprisoned in a small, remote hospital in a tourist town: too ill to fly three hours home; a garbled understanding of the language; excellent health insurance, but worthless in the Dominican Republic; a rising white blood cell count, and declining platelet and red blood cell count.  She was getting sicker.

And then her stalwart husband made a phone call. He called Kristin’s brother who called her congressman who called the U.S. Embassy. An ambulance—a Dodge Caravan with a tip jar—suddenly became available. At least it wasn’t a taxi.

But when she arrived at the Santa Domingo hospital, neither red blood cells nor platelets were available for transfusion, and her husband wasn’t a suitable donor. Panicked and stymied, Kristin and Warren didn’t know where to turn. Should they risk the flight home? Then a doctor told Warren to go to the Red Cross where he could find red blood cells. He took a taxi.

“And that’s where the miracle started,” says Kristin, fiddling with the rim of her horn-rimmed glasses. “The hospital and the Embassy said they would find a platelet donor.” She sits upright, “Suddenly, Embassy and hotel employees and relatives showed up to donate platelets.”

At last. Her platelets rose above 12,000, the magic number which permitted Kristin, the life-long Allentown resident, to fly home. The next day, she had a bone marrow biopsy at her own hospital with her own doctors. She was diagnosed with acute myloid leukemia.

As she lay in the transfusion center, receiving a massive 24-hour induction dose, followed by smaller consolidation doses over six months in 2012, she wondered how she got leukemia two years after breast cancer. A lousy coincidence, or somehow caused by breast cancer treatment?

Statistically, the two cancers go hand-in-hand in three out of 1,000 women who take the drug Adriamycin. Her doctor doubted that treatment caused leukemia; he didn’t think the chromosomal abnormality was typical of chemo. Kristin, needing more definition, searched out another expert for a second opinion. In this doctor’s view, the drug caused the leukemia.

“Leukemia isn’t discussed as a by-product of breast cancer treatment,” she says, pushing up the lace-lined sleeves of her black top. “Knowing this wouldn’t have changed anything for me since the odds are low that I’d get this, while the odds of dying from breast cancer are high. Still,” she sighs, “I wish I’d known.

“The irony is that I’ve built relationships with people I never would have known, and gained a perspective on life I never would have had.

“Because I survived both cancers, had such generosity in Santa Domingo, and have realized that so many people don’t survive and don’t have support systems, I feel obligated to live the best life I can. I try to be kind. I think the world is in desperate need of kindness and understanding, and if that is all I can do while I am here, that is important.

“I’d like to think my life would be rich and full if I hadn’t gotten sick, but I certainly cherish it more now, and work hard to be positive in every situation.” Kristin smiles widely and runs her fingers through her short brown hair.

“Believe me, it takes effort not to get negative. I forced myself to get out of my funk and push ahead. When I was sick, I would literally say, ‘Get up, Kris, walk two laps down the hallway.’ Being positive is often a conscious decision I have to make.

“I have never met anyone who survived cancer without a good attitude. It may not keep you alive, but a bad attitude definitely won’t.” Kristen fingers the pendant around her neck.

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Kristin participated in the Cancer Support Community’s Young Survivor Coalition, a community of young people who knew exactly what she was facing.