Houston, Texas, native Kirby Jamail was diagnosed with Stage III, triple-negative breast cancer in August 2013 at age 28. A fitness instructor, Kirby had just moved out on her own at the time and was reveling in her newfound independence. When cancer entered the picture, she found herself thrown headfirst into an aggressive treatment schedule and all the accompanying side effects and life changes that can come in the wake of a diagnosis. She underwent six months of chemotherapy, followed by a lumpectomy and reconstructive surgery and six and a half weeks of radiation therapy—all at MD Anderson Cancer Center. Having completed treatment, Kirby is looking ahead to life after cancer. Here she answers some questions about her experience as a young adult with cancer.
What were your initial thoughts and biggest concerns upon learning of your diagnosis?
I said a prayer before I went into the room because I knew the news could go either way. I told myself that if it was cancer, I would fight the fight. So, I went in with that strong mental armor on; still I was shocked when I heard the diagnosis. My concerns and worries included: How is this going to change my life? For how long? What’s going to happen? How would I continue to work? Could I be Wonder Woman and still do it all? I didn’t want to feel different, special, or sick. I didn’t want to lose my hair: I had always had long hair, and it was just tough to think that it would all be gone. I was scared of what the medicine was going to put my body through. Mostly, it was fear of the unknown.
Where did you find support throughout your journey?
I was embraced by my work family, my own family, many friends, other cancer patients, and caregivers from day one, and my faith carried me through. There were wonderful surprises all the time—some that absolutely took my breath away and blew my mind—as loved ones went out of their way to make my days better. I grew close to people I never expected to, and they will be in my life forever.
As a young woman, what aspects of your experience do you think were unique to your age and stage in life?
My independence was shaken, which is probably pretty common among young adults diagnosed with cancer. I had just moved out on my own, and I felt I was living like I should at 28—I was dating, I loved to travel, to dress up, exercise, go out. I wanted to still feel as though I could handle it all, but I was totally kidding myself. It’s hard to accept help sometimes, but it’s a beautiful thing if you can allow others to help and do for you in a time of need. You’ll do it for someone else one day when you can. Ultimately, when cancer hit, my priorities changed, as I was just thankful to be living and breathing.
What would you want other young women diagnosed with cancer to know?
I would tell them that I did it, and they can do it. The process will not be glamorous or easy, but through the challenge we find out how strong and resilient we are, body and spirit. This process can change you and can bring so many good things into your life. I would also strongly encourage asking for help; when you have tough moments, reach out or reach up. And gather information about what you are going through, but be cautious of reading other patients’ stories—everyone is going to have a different journey.
Having completed treatment, what are your hopes for the future?
I am currently working on rebuilding my physical strength to get back to work teaching fitness classes; I am exercising again and developing a yoga practice. Movement, healthy eating, and rest all help reduce my fatigue, fuel me for activity, and help me recover faster.
Music has always been a love of mine, and I’ve dreamed of being a DJ. During my treatment, my friends from work all pitched in and bought me a DJ mixing board, and I couldn’t be more excited to use it! My goal is to start learning how to mix music myself and maybe create some cool, fun tracks.
This experience left me wanting to give back, and I feel drawn to helping children who are going through cancer and to the breast cancer community. I don’t know just yet what the future holds, but I know that when I get stronger things will become more clear. Life already feels crisper.