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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 week?”
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!
What surprised 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.
What’s 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.