“My mom had breast cancer in 1963, so it has always been on my radar to get checked,” she said.
She began getting mammograms every other year at age 30 and then annually at 35. At age 39 in October 2009, she found a lump in one breast while showering.
“At 39, I had never encountered anything like that,” she said. “My health had never been in jeopardy. I had never even considered death at that age.”
She immediately called her gynecologist, who couldn’t work her in for a couple of weeks. A friend at church referred her to another facility that saw her within a day and diagnosed her with Stage 1 breast cancer. She was grateful to find out quickly.
Further tests showed that she had triple-negative breast cancer, meaning that treatment was limited because the cancer cells didn’t have certain receptors. It is a particularly aggressive form of breast cancer. According to ScienceDaily.com, it accounts for 15 percent of breast cancer in the Caucasian population and 35 percent in the African American population. It is also associated with high recurrence risk and poor five-year survival rate.
Her treatment was surgery and chemotherapy, so she had a double-mastectomy and later several rounds of breast reconstruction. There was no need for radiation.
She also learned that this type of breast cancer put her at about a 50 percent increased risk of developing ovarian cancer. So she also had a hysterectomy to eliminate that risk.
She underwent eight rounds of intravenous chemo, one round every two or three weeks. One of the chemo drugs was Adriamycin (generic: Doxorubicin), nicknamed the “Red Devil” for its bright red color and how it makes recipients nauseated. She had to take other medicines to fight the nausea, and they made her sleep a lot. Another drug, Taxol, made her ache like she had the flu for about two months.
Her little girls were four and five at the time, and she worried about being there for them.
“They were my reason to fight as hard as you can, you know. That’s what you do,” she said. “… I had waited to have children for a long time, and by the time they were here, I thought, ‘This can’t be it, they are just babies. I’ve got to do whatever I can do.’”
She was young and otherwise healthy, so she and her oncologist agreed to throw everything they could at her cancer. “I was willing to do whatever it took to fight it and keep it away.”
“I was that person who did everything – did everything for my family, and I just didn’t even think to ask for support. I was married, and he was a wonderful support for me, and his family were a great support too. But as time went on, and what I kind of learned was that I was kind of over it as far as all the attention being on me.”
When her own treatments were over and she had healed, Culbreath’s focus was on making the process easier for other breast cancer patients.
She wasn’t a doctor or nurse, but she knew what it felt like to be a newly diagnosed cancer patient. “You feel clueless and lost,” she said.
She remembers feeling terrified when she first walked into West Cancer Center.
“You don’t know what to ask because you’ve never done this before. And you feel kind of stupid asking your doctor silly questions about, ‘When exactly is my hair going to fall out?’ Because they’re trying to save your life.”
Dealing with the questions and a storm of emotions can be overwhelming.
“Your husband is trying to help you in every way, and he’s got to support the family, and everything that’s happening in the family, and you’re trying to be tough and brave and put on a good face for everybody, but it’s not always easy.”
After her treatment, Culbreath encouraged her oncologist to consider setting up layman advocates at West Cancer Center to meet people on that first day. He agreed. Others had suggested the same thing, and the center was already working on the concept.
Then God just worked everything out for her, she said. Next to Sun Studio, the American Cancer Society had built Harrah’s Hope Lodge in 2010. The facility is a residential facility for caregivers and qualifying patients undergoing active cancer treatment. They were looking for a director, and Culbreath fit the bill. She worked there for a couple of years.
Then West Cancer merged with Methodist and developed a care support department with an advocate for each cancer patient. That job drew in Culbreath, who knew she could relate to the patients.
She worked there for a couple of years, talking with patients, arranging transportation for their treatments, visiting them in the hospital, going to funerals and helping in other ways. She eventually left the emotionally taxing position.
Now when she hears about someone with a new cancer diagnosis, her contribution is to try to meet with the person or at least makes herself accessible to them.
“And that’s been a wonderful experience,” she said. “Because I realize that that’s what we all need, is hope. That’s what we’re all looking for. … They need to talk to someone who’s on the other side of it.”
Culbreath remembers that talking to a few triple-negative survivors and a friend who had survived breast cancer gave her hope.
“If I could turn that around and help give that to somebody else, that’s the least, the very least I can do,” Culbreath said. “And I think that’s kind of what my responsibility was, what I was charged with once I was diagnosed and went through what I went through. I think that’s why we go through the things we go through in life. So we have those experiences, and we can turn around and help other people.”
Her experiences also shaped her children. Her oldest daughter, now 14, wants to be a pediatric oncologist, and Culbreath says she expects her to be a great doctor. Her 13-year-old also advised someone at school facing a possible breast cancer diagnosis that she could talk with her mother. Culbreath said she was proud her younger child wasn’t shying away from scary stuff.
Oct. 30 this year will be nine years since her breast cancer diagnosis. She is healthier than ever, and she and friends recently developed a cancer support group at Highpoint Church. She is recently divorced and studying at Southwest Tennessee Community College to be a radiology technician and then a radiation therapist.
She believes she’s found her niche, and she has found blessings out of her experiences with cancer.
“It changed me for the better,” Culbreath said. “I will say all day long that it was a gift. It was the weirdest gift, but it was still a beautiful gift. Because it changed the way that I view relationships. It changed the course of conversations I have with people. They are richer and they mean more. And my friendships are deeper and I don’t waste a lot of time with the casual conversations. If I’m going to have a conversation, I like to have a really good emotional conversation with somebody, and I think that’s what we need to do. There are just so many surface relationships out there. … I have a much broader sense of why we’re here now.”
She continued, “And it feels great. I feel like a light was turned on. And I’ve always said, ‘I feel like Kim 2.0 now.’ I’m a much better version. I love more and I understand more. Every day is a true gift. It sounds like something you just read somewhere, but it really is. It is a true gift. I don’t take anything for granted now.”