From Diagnosis to Treatment to that ‘Glimmer of Hope’

The Diagnosis
Of all the things Kris Gaston, a full-time working mother of three young boys, had on her mind in the winter of 1999, it wasn’t her health. She was getting ready to go to Cancun with her husband to celebrate their tenth wedding anniversary and looking forward to many more celebratory trips in the future. While scuba diving on their trip, Kris had a lot of problems breathing and decided to contact her doctor once she returned home. She also decided to follow up with her OBGYN on some new lumps that had appeared in her breasts. She had felt them for years, but ultrasounds and further exams had always determined they were cysts. This time, her doctor ordered a biopsy immediately.

Her physician initially thought her breathing problems might be related to asthma, but after Kris urged him to take another look, x-rays and additional tests were run. Once her OBGYN and physician talked, a sense of urgency appeared.

A biopsy on one of the lumps in her breast happened on Friday and the following Monday, while Kris was at work in the lab of Central Ohio Primary Care (COPC), she received the news. “You have breast cancer.”

“I know what malignant means – I know how serious it is, but when he said that, every brain cell went out of my head and I couldn’t understand what he was saying,” Kris said.

The results of the bone scans and chest x-rays were back as well, and as Kris gazed up at her own x-ray, she realized that her right lung was almost entirely filled with a milky white shadow.

“That week I met with Dr. Chidiac [my oncologist] and learned that not only did I have breast cancer, but it was Stage 4 Metastatic and I would die from it. They told me it was incurable. I was not expected to live until the next year.”

Kris took one look at her young sons and realized she was going to do everything she could to fight, to defy the odds and to be there when her sons graduated high school and college, regardless of what the doctors said.

Kris and her son shortly after losing her hair.

“Even if it just got me one more day with them,” Kris said. “It’d be worth it.”

Kris immediately began with a high-dosage chemotherapy, shortly losing her hair and much of her energy. She went through having a central line put in, giving bone marrow samples, going through additional x-rays and hours in the chemo chair all while caring for her young family.

After deciding with her oncologist that a mastectomy would be beneficial, Kris approached a surgeon at a Central Ohio hospital about the surgery.

“He said, ‘You are going to die from this. There’s no sense in doing the surgery,’” Kris remembered. “The chemo I had been getting had already shrunk the tumors in my breast and lung, and that was all the hope I needed to keep fighting.”

Kris and her oncologist found another surgeon willing to do the operation, even offering to do it considering her insurance wouldn’t cover all of the cost.

While going through such a serious diagnosis at the young age of 34, Kris often felt alone.

“I attended my first Race for the Cure in 2001 and at that moment I realized I wasn’t in this position by myself…there were others like me, perhaps even others who had been fighting Stage 4 for years. I wasn’t alone.”

That Glimmer of Hope
The first six months of 2000 passed in a flurry for Kris. Appointments, surgeries, weekends spent in the hospital with infections and recovery time kept her busy, but time kept ticking on and Kris was focused on being there for her kids. She brought her IV bags full of life-saving medicine into work and hung them from the wall so she could continue working full-time while getting treatment.

Kris and her eldest son, who shaved his head when Kris first lost her hair.

“COPC has been so supportive throughout this entire process,” Kris said. “It’s a privately owned company and I’m absolutely humbled when I think of how much they’ve put into my insurance to pay for my treatment.”

Fast-forward to 2006 and Kris is still here, going into the hospital every three weeks (since 2003) for a dose of Herceptin, a drug often used to treat metastatic breast cancer or other types of breast cancer that have high amounts of a protein called HER2/neu, on the surface of the cancer cells.

Dr. Chidiac, currently practicing at the Mark H. Zangmeister Center in Columbus, has been with Kris since her diagnosis and refers to her as his “feel good patient,” since six years after that initial dismal diagnosis, she’s still here.

During the six years on Herceptin, Kris was taking Tamoxifen, an oral pill that is used to treat breast cancers that are hormone-receptor positive. The drug attaches to the hormone receptor in the cancer cell, blocking the estrogen the cells need to grow and slowing or stopping the growth of the cancer cells. Keeping the hormones at bay had been key for keeping Kris’ tumors away for many years, but in 2009, on the eve of the 10th anniversary of her diagnosis, her breathing problems resurfaced.

Ten Years Later
“Almost ten years from when I first started having issues, the tumors returned in my lung and my breathing worsened. I felt like I was drowning again,” Kris said. “Dr. Chidiac put me in a very targeted clinical trial that involved having chemo and Herceptin delivered at one time making the drug more effective.”

After three doses, Kris’ cancer cells began to reduce, but the drugs, known to be hard on the heart, started to take a toll on Kris. She was removed from the trial and began an oral chemo of five pills a day that worked for four months, until they affected her liver too much and turned her skin yellow.

“Even with having to go off of the oral chemo pills to let my liver recover, everything started to stabilize again,” Kris said.

Kris and her husband James enjoyed a short period of relative calm in their house, or as calm as one can be with three now-teenage boys.

She started forming Race for the Cure teams within COPC as a way “to give back to Komen all that it had given to me.”

(Susan G. Komen funding has supported the development of all of the chemotherapy drugs that Kris has used throughout the past 12 years.)

Kris and her husband early on in her treatment.

Curable Cancer
In early 2011, Kris’ husband, who had recently discovered a blood clot in his leg and was placed on blood thinners, went to the doctor for a persistent cough. The couple heard that fateful cancer sentence again.

“He said [to my husband], ‘you have tonsil cancer,’” Kris said. “But it’s completely curable.”

James and Kris referred to the diagnosis as “a bump in the road.”

“We thought, ‘we can handle this, we have been thru worse. This is curable,’” Kris said.

To prepare for his tonsillectomy, James went off of his blood thinners for the surgery. Several days after his surgery, James, just back on the blood thinners, decided to go for a walk with his sons. Minutes later, he had collapsed on the ground.  A clot formed in his lung and James passed way in the ambulance of a pulmonary embolism before reaching the hospital.

The Future
Kris and James’ sons are now 19, 16 and 15. Kris has seen her oldest son earn his Eagle Scout and graduate high school, and is confident she’ll see the other two through the same accomplishments.

Even though Kris has been cancer-free for years, the malignant cells are still in her body. The doctors’ visits, while they’ve slowed down in frequency, are present in her life every six months, along with the scans, the tests and the fear that one day the results will show the cancer has returned.

Kris shows no signs of slowing down or stopping, however, and her resolve to be around for her boys has only strengthened.

Kris at the 2012 Pink Tie Ball.

“Now I have to be here for them. I’m all they have left and I won’t leave them by themselves.”

After the words she first heard 12 years ago, “You won’t make it until the end of the year,” Kris is still here and her fight has strengthened. She’s here because of the lifesaving drugs that were developed through the financial support of Susan G. Komen for the Cure, directly because of Race for the Cure registrations and donations. She’s alive, and making beautiful memories with her three sons because of your support.

Keep Kris and others like her alive by providing a lifesaving donation today. Help provide that glimmer of hope for thousands of others like Kris who will hear that fateful “cancer sentence” one day too soon.

Watch Kris share her story in her own words.