Heather Keller joined me on this week’s episode. She created an award-winning solo show, Chemo Barbie, about her breast cancer journey. She has traveled internationally to perform her show. Heather was diagnosed with stage 1, triple positive invasive ductal carcinoma at the end of 2015. She shares her journey from finding her lump, her diagnosis, treatments, and her recovery.
In December 2015, Heather Keller found a lump just before a regular scheduled annual physical. She thought it was a cyst because she had cystic breasts her whole life so she did not have much concern. Following her exam, her doctor suggested that she could just have the lump drained. Given that it was close to the holidays, Heather wanted to get the mammogram and ultrasound done quickly. Luckily, there was a cancellation and Heather was able to get in for diagnostic testing that day.
Heather recalls having a bad experience during the ultrasound. She realized that something was wrong and though she didn’t know it at the time, the tech was teaching a trainee how to identify cancer by repeatedly poking and prodding her. She was referred for further evaluation using a biopsy. Heather wanted to have that scheduled as quickly as possible but given that it was coming up on a holiday weekend, the medical staff was trying to finish their workday. Heather recalls asking the radiologist what she thought it was, she told Heather that she had been doing this for 10 years and knew that the lump was cancerous and if it were her, she would want the lump out.
She was diagnosed with stage 1, triple positive invasive ductal carcinoma.
Heather contacted a friend who had a breast cancer scare and that friend recommended that she see a specific oncologist at the City of Hope. She met with the oncologist on New Year’s Eve 2015 for a 4-hour appointment. Heather was so adamant that she be seen that she went to City of Hope, drove to Burbank to get her medical films, and then drove back to City of Hope.
Results of genetic testing came back the day before Heather’s scheduled lumpectomy. Since she did not test positive for a genetic mutation, it was not recommended that she undergo a hysterectomy. The concern with a possible genetic mutation was the impact on fertility. Heather had a lumpectomy with partial mastectomy with reconstruction from her armpit, as well as lymph node removal and insertion of a port at the same time. Following surgery, Heather underwent fertility treatments, followed by radiation therapy and then Herceptin. Her course of treatments lasted for 13 months.
Heather had a successful experience with fertility preservation. She produced 12 eggs with 3 embryos. It was a long and hard process but she was lucky to get 12 eggs. She had not expected to feel maternal about the experience but she did. The embryos will eventually have to be tested for any genetic mutations that may come from her husband’s side. Currently, she is taking Tamoxifen. When finished with that treatment in a year, she and her husband can revisit having a child. Heather has struggled with the decision to carry the child herself or to use a surrogate as there are dangers of cancer cells forming again while carrying a child.
During radiation, Heather experienced significant pain in her ribs. As the pain became unbearable, Heather had a bone density scan that showed a hole in her rib. The concern was that cancer had metastasized to her ribs but a biopsy of the bone indicated that it was not cancer. The radiation had caused her ribs to crack and develop a hole. It took a long time for Heather to heal.
Heather recalls the terror and the tension she felt that cancer had possibly metastasized. She thought she was almost done with her treatments and only had Herceptin left. It became a realization that it might come back. She kept a video journal of her journey and on the day of her biopsy, she put on makeup because she wanted to feel good and posted a video.
She suffered from severe depression throughout her journey. Heather did not look like what most people think of when someone is going through cancer. She wasn’t bald and she was frail. But she still found herself crying all of the time. She struggled to understand how she got cancer. She took an anti-depressant, did acupuncture, and ran throughout her treatments.
Heather attended a support group at weSpark Cancer Support Community and a young adult survivor group. She found it t be very helpful. Heather had support from her friends as well who were also willing to help out and sometimes scrapped her up off the floor. Heather did a nude photoshoot, had a video journal, had a CaringBridge page, and began writing.
Chemo Barbie started as a monologue based on 3 paintings for a contest. She performed the monologue at Samuel French in LA. She then took the monologue to a writing class and began creating a scene. Heather entered a talent show at weSpark where she also performed the monologue and got positive feedback from cancer survivors of all types. Chemo Barbie then became a solo show that addresses many topics of those that have been diagnosed with cancer. She plays about 35-40 different characters in the show. Heather has traveled the world performing her show. It is a moving and growing piece of work as she continued through her journey and into recovery.
Heather will be having a virtual show that she will perform on October 19, 2020. Information regarding her upcoming show at chemobarbie.com