Cancer runs in her family but at only 24, Kayla Redig’s family and doctors weren’t
ready to believe that cancer could be responsible for her sleepless nights, exhaustion and days of just “feeling off.” Kayla, however, knew there was something wrong. After finding a lump in her breast, she pushed for further testing. When the
diagnosis came back as breast cancer, she was upset but not surprised.
From the beginning, Kayla told her family that she didn’t want to hate the chemo treatments that would be responsible for saving her life, so she decided to celebrate
them instead. For Kayla and her friends and family, chemo became Theme-o, themed parties and celebrations surrounding each treatment. Fittingly, superheroes came first, followed by a prom-themed chemo session and even a Blackhawks-themed parade on the way
to her final treatment. Everyone dressed up and everyone celebrated.
Here, Kayla tells us why she found it so important to celebrate during breast cancer treatment and how the love she felt during treatment gave her the strength to fight cancer
and embrace a new direction in life:
Where did your journey to diagnosis begin? Cancer runs in my family. A year before I was diagnosed, I had genetic testing done and found out I had the BRCA 2 gene. So I knew I had a genetic
disposition and a family history of it but I never gave it much thought. A few weeks before my diagnosis, I was always complaining about how tired I felt. My friends noticed how “off” I was and thought I was depressed. I wasn’t sleeping through
the night because I had intense night sweats; I figured that my lack of sleep was to blame for my tiredness. About two weeks after that, I found a lump in my left breast.
You were only 24 when you sought out a doctor’s advice. What
were you being told by family, friends and doctors before you received your diagnosis?When I found the lump I called my mom and two of my friends but no one was worried. One even called me dramatic and told me to go to sleep. The more friends
I told the more I heard, “Get it checked out but I’m sure it’s nothing.”
When I first saw my gynecologist she was hesitant to prescribe further testing because of my age but decided to move forward because of my family
history. When I had the ultrasound done, they were able to rule out a cyst but, again, they hesitated before doing a mammogram because of my age. About a minute into my mammogram the tech said, “You need to see one of our breast surgeons immediately.”
First thing the next morning, I was with Dr. Katherine Yao having a biopsy. She was the first person who didn’t
shuffle me along. Instead, she said, “I’ll be honest with you—this looks and feels a lot like cancer to me.”
What went through your head when you were told it was breast cancer after all?If you’re in touch with your body, I think you just know when something is wrong. So that combined with how off I’d
been feeling … I can’t really say I was surprised. Tears fell immediately but I wasn’t surprised. I remember being driven to where my parents were and talking to Dr.Yao on the phone, hearing more information and what to expect. When I finally
got to my parents, I burst into tears all over again. It wasn’t until I heard my mom say that they were going to move back to Illinois right away that the reality of the situation really hit me. You have to move across the country for me? Whoa. And seeing
my father break down in tears … I started seeing the impact my health was having on others and all I could think about was the damage this disease was causing.
But you wanted to try to keep positive, so where did the idea for Theme-o
come from? After I reached the halfway point with chemo, my health really started to deteriorate. My body was worn out. I was an emotional mess and my spirit was in a bad place. From day one, I had said that I never wanted to hate chemo because
chemo was my partner in the fight. But suddenly I was dreading each treatment and I wanted to stop going. I wanted to stop fighting. With what little energy I had left, I realized I had two choices: Give up or make a drastic change.
Up until then,
all of my treatments had involved at least six friends or family members spending time with me but that was just talking. I decided I needed to make my treatments into parties and, like all good parties, they had to have themes. Chemo became Theme-o. It was
during the darkest time in my life that Theme-o was born.
How did you decide on themes?I shared the idea with my friends and family and told them to start throwing themes at me. We formed a solid list from that. My father
insisted that “Superheroes” be the first theme because he had seen a Superman costume with built-in muscles and wanted to wear it. Before each treatment, we would have the next theme decided.
What were the reactions from people
at your appointments?When we showed up at the hospital dressed as superheroes everyone was amused but also quite confused. There were many “okay … why?” looks thrown our way before we explained the situation. A lot of people
poked their heads in my room because they had to see for themselves. We took pictures with other patients; it was fun to see them light up when they saw us. Once people heard what we were doing, the next question was always: “What are you wearing next
It was amazing to see the community that formed around Theme-o. My whole school participated, many folks at the hospital and friends and family from all over the world dressed up to show their support. I don’t think many people
look forward to chemo but I sure grew to. We had a lot of fun with it!
you most about the entire journey, from diagnosis and now to recovery?The whole experience was a lesson of the power of love. It’s amazing what people can accomplish when we all work together and are fueled by love. From my family to complete
strangers, I had everyone rallying alongside me. This has been the most challenging path I’ve ever found myself on but I was able to see it through because of all of the love I was given. I never felt like I was doing it alone. The beautiful thing about
the strength of love is it shows no sign of running out. I am still fueled by love every day.
What did you find most challenging about the experience?The most challenging thing for me was how my family and others I love were/are
still affected by this. I hated seeing them suffer because of my suffering. I hate thinking of all the tears that were shed on my behalf. A lot of lives were changed because of this.
What advice would you give to other women facing
a breast cancer diagnosis?Find ways to celebrate yourself. Your body is being dragged through the gutter and will undergo a ton of changes in a very short period of time. I created a “Pretty Committee” that was in charge of making
sure I still felt beautiful and feminine throughout. Get a makeover, take a Look Good, Feel Better class, buy something sparkly—you’re still beautiful and you’re still you. Little earrings and cute pajama bottoms can go a long way.
Along with celebrating you, celebrate everything else too. Every little benchmark you hit or appointment you get through is worth celebrating. We had a Christmas in July party to celebrate finishing my first round of chemo and a big dinner at the halfway
point. I had a pre-op party and a post-radiation blow out. No matter how small or silly it may seem, celebrate it! Make a big deal out of every moment you get through. People will be happy to join you. If you can’t find joy, create it.
next? What’s happening now? What do you hope to achieve?I just had my final reconstruction surgery at the end of September and it feels amazing knowing I don’t have more surgeries looming. Before surgery I took a new job with a company
based in Los Angeles called Reimagine and am so excited to resume work with them once I have recovered. Reimagine offers an evidence-based, online live class that helps patients and caregivers take
their lives back from cancer. They have built an entire community of support to help people thrive in the face of adversity. I knew early on that I wanted to surround myself with other patients and survivors and change the experience of cancer for every life
it touches. It’s incredible to have found others who wake up every morning wanting to do the same. I’m very blessed to have a career that is fueled not only by life experience but also love. Every bit of love I’m given I try to pour back
into the community of survivors, fighters and caregivers.
For more information on Reimagine, click here.
This October during National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, help us spread the word about the importance of early detection and prevention. Yearly mammograms can help identify breast cancer in its early, treatable stages and various lifestyle
changes may help reduce your risk of developing the disease.
NorthShore University HealthSystem has created a breast cancer infographic
that includes a brief history of the disease, risk factors and preventative measures. Click on the image below to view our full breast cancer infographic and find out what you can do now to reduce your risk.
Hulick, MD, MMsc, Medical Geneticist at NorthShore, discusses the increased risk for breast and ovarian cancer in women who carry the BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene mutation. He responds to the recent study from the
Journal of Clinical Oncology on the impacts these mutations have on women as well as identifies ways women can minimize their risk.
What are your general impressions of the new study?
The study, particularly given its size, helps further parse out the details of risk differences between BRCA1 and BRCA2. There have been retrospective studies that have suggested this, but here we have a prospective study that adds further evidence.
In addition, it looks at overall reduction in mortality which shows the gains go beyond the ovarian cancer risk reduction.
Who is most at risk for having the BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutation?
There are many potential ways someone can be at risk, but certain characteristics stand out:
Ultimately, if you have been diagnosed with breast and or ovarian cancer, or multiple family members have, you should discuss the family history with a cancer risk specialist.
What is the difference between the two genes?
Both genes are involved in how the body repairs DNA damage that accumulates and maintaining the “checks and balances” that control cell growth. As this study reinforces, there are differences in cancer risks associated with each. While the risk for ovarian
and breast cancer might be somewhat lower for BRCA2 than BRCA1 (though still considered high compared to average risk), BRCA2 mutation carriers tend to have higher risk for other BRCA-related cancers (e.g. pancreatic, prostate).
What preventative measures can women engage in to minimize their risk of breast and ovarian cancer?
The first step is to get an accurate assessment of one’s risk. Women may still be at elevated risk even if BRCA testing is negative. Other genes and non-genetic factors contribute to ovarian and breast cancer risk. Depending on the risk level, certain
options exist for increased screening, preventative medications or preventative risk-reducing surgery. This is a complex and very personal decision and accurate information about risk is key.
What screening options are available for women to learn more about their risk?
The first thing women can do is to get an accurate family history from BOTH sides of the family, then discuss with one’s physician.
What next steps would you recommend for women with the BRCA1 / BRCA2 mutation?
I would recommend women talk to their doctors about speaking to someone familiar with cancer genetics such as a geneticist, a genetics counselor, or a gynecologist/oncologist/breast surgeon knowledgeable about the management of BRCA carriers. There
are online resources from Be Bright Pink and FORCE that can be helpful in understanding the implications of having BRCA mutation and putting in a plan to reduce risk. As this study and others have shown, we have the ability to greatly reduce one’s risk if
we know one faces these risks.