October is well known as “Breast Cancer Awareness Month” and is often associated with the color pink. The AQUILA website has been transformed into shades of pink to help spread awareness and honor survivors both in our firm and out. It will remain pink for the entire month of October.
Kristi Svec Simmons and I (Kathleen Brennan) are both breast cancer survivors. We were both diagnosed before the age of 30. Read the conversation below that Kristi and I had that tells a little about our stories and why this pink website means so much to us.
Kathleen: I was about to graduate college, and I went in for my annual appointment with my gynecologist. During my routine breast check, she found a lump and ordered a breast ultrasound for the following day and I went in feeling pretty nervous. A couple of days later I heard back with the results from the ultrasound: it was just a cyst, but I should come back in six months to check it again.
Meanwhile, I finished up my degree at Texas Christian University, graduated in December and moved back home to Austin. It felt that the lump in my breast seemed to be growing. Instead of waiting six months like they told me to, I called and requested a follow up ultrasound. A few days later I got a call telling me that the lump had in fact grown, but it still appeared to just be a cyst and they were pretty sure it was benign – I was young, 23 years old, and girls my age just didn’t get breast cancer. Something just didn’t feel right and I think they could sense my hesitation. They referred me to a surgeon if I wanted to have them removed.
I went in for the surgery and two days later, my surgeon called me and told me that he had gotten the pathology report back and that he was completely shocked. It was April Fool’s Day, so I thought he was kidding when he told me that I had breast cancer. When he told me he wouldn’t joke about something like this, my heart dropped and I immediately went into shock. I remember starting to cry, and I don’t think that cry stopped for a week.
Kristi: My story is similar too, because I was diagnosed when I was 29 years old. The only reason I would have ever known was because my mom had cancer twice. They thought it could be hereditary, so we decided to do the BRCA test. I immediately wanted to get tested, even though my doctor was sure that nothing was going to come out of it. It ended up being positive, and shortly after that, I got a mammogram.
On my first mammogram, they found a lump. And again, they thought it was nothing. But we went ahead and tested it, and I remember sitting in the doctor’s office and they said, “You have breast cancer.” I was blown away. I was 29 years old.
It was six weeks before my 30th birthday. I remember I started crying, but I started crying, because I was planning to go to Vegas for my 30th birthday. My husband looked at me and said, “You have a lot more to worry about in your life than going to Vegas.” It set in, and I realized that this is gonna be a battle, and something that we’re gonna overcome. Being diagnosed at such an early age, I feel like people don’t really take it that seriously. If you don’t push and you don’t know your body, then you may be left having something that gets worse and worse over time.
Kathleen: You have to be an advocate for your own health. You have to know your body and know when something isn’t right. Especially when the doctors brush off something because you’re too young.
Kristi: It really is so important to speak up. Most cancer organizations recommend a first mammogram at 40 and even 50 years old…this would have been too late! Which is why young women need to really be their own advocate.
Kathleen: Looking back, I was fortunate to not have found a job yet, so I didn’t have to go to work every day. My job now was to focus on my health. But Kristi, you had a job at this time, and you had to continue going to work and doing all of that while going through treatment. What was that like?
Kristi: It was interesting. I was actually only a year married, so I was not only working, but I was also bald and a newlywed, so that was an interesting time in my life. I didn’t want anybody to know at work. One, I didn’t want anybody to feel sorry for me, or have people constantly come up to me and say, “Are you okay?” So I wore a wig for a long time. A lot of people didn’t even know that I had cancer. The wig I wore just got too hot and I had to take it off. Some people in my office knew because I would have chemo on Fridays, I would be out on Monday, and then I’d come back on Tuesday.
What was really important to me was that none of my clients knew that was what was going on, because I didn’t want them to not think I could do a good job for them.
Kathleen: I can’t imagine. Kristi – you were also named a Champion of Excellence winner the same year you went through treatment. That’s crazy and amazing! How did you do it?
Kristi: That was an award at my former company, the Staubach Company. They give those out to five people a year. I remember sitting there I was so nervous when my name was called because my hair was super short at the time and I had to give a speech in front of a thousand people. I had so many people come up at the end and go, “I didn’t even know you were going through that. You hid it really well.” I just didn’t want anybody to know about it.
And I don’t know how you felt, like if you felt you needed to do that too. I know at a young age, a lot of your friends probably didn’t know how to react to you.
Kathleen: They didn’t and I was at the age where my friends were still going out all the time. Every weekend they’d want to go out and drink, and I was feeling so low and my immune system was so bad that I couldn’t go out with them. Sixth Street was so dirty and gross and I didn’t want it to make me sick. I just didn’t have the energy to do that. It was really hard to try to balance a social life with going through treatment.
I also never thought I would go out in public bald. I remember my parents bought me a wig and I wore it one time to dinner and then never wore it again. Everywhere I went I just kind of decided to rock the bald. I was like, “This is what I look like now, and I’m just gonna do it.” And so, I did that. When I lost my eyebrows and eyelashes, I thought that I looked like an alien. I would look in the mirror and be like, “What? Oh my gosh.” That was tough.
Kristi: But you’re way harder on yourself than anybody. When my hair was growing back and it was really short, people just thought I cut it. There are still people to this day that say, “I remember when you cut all your hair off, and it was really short. I love that look.” I always say, “Thank you. I know. It was fun.” Like, how do you answer that?
Kristi: So Kathleen has been here for almost two years, and we were fortunate enough to find her. We have a mutual dentist that we had no idea that we knew. I remember I was at a dentist appointment with our favorite dental hygienist, Lou Ann, and we were talking and she said, “You have to meet this girl, Kathleen. She is absolutely amazing.”
Kathleen: It’s funny because I’m close to Lou Ann too, and when she knew what I was going through she said the exact same thing about Kristi. Lou Ann was like, “You have to meet my friend Kristi – she is amazing!”
Kristi: Our dentist was doing a fundraiser where they were going to donate money to Komen Austin and they invited Kathleen and I to come in to accept the donation on behalf of Komen. I met Kathleen and we immediately hit it off. At that same time, our company was in the process of hiring somebody in our marketing department. I told them, “I met this amazing girl at our dentist’s office, which is really random, but you have to meet her.” Kathleen came in, and shortly after that, she was hired; and she’s been awesome ever since then.
Kathleen: Kristi and I just started talking about everything and I had told her that I hadn’t really started looking for a job yet. She told me that her company, AQUILA, was hiring and to send her my resume that she would forward on. I did and shortly after, I got a call from AQUILA, came in for an interview and here I am!
Kristi: It was kind of a random coincidence meeting Kathleen, but I’m so happy to have her in our office. So, Kathleen, has anything changed in your life since your diagnosis? Do you look at things differently? What do you think the biggest thing is that you gained from it?
Kathleen: I feel like it completely changed my life. I’m sure it changed yours too, Kristi. I look at things so differently. I try to be nice to everyone. I just try to look at the positives of everything because I know how negative life can be. You just have to stay positive to get through things like that. I’ve changed the way I live – I eat healthier and I use natural products. I’ve done research on certain things and now I look at nutrition labels more and product labels and try to choose healthier options.
Kristi: I do the same. You know, back then you felt like it was kind of the end of the world. Looking back now, I go, “I think that was probably one of the best things that happened to me.” I not only learned so much about myself, but how to look at life, work, family – all that is so important to me.
Since I have the gene, I have to look at my children. I have a real passion in my heart about meeting with younger women on this cause, and people like you, who, when you’re young, you don’t have many resources. Most women that have breast cancer are older and so you feel a little bit lost. And so, if I gained anything out of it, it was a better appreciation for that, and meeting people like you and saying, “Look, you can do this. I am 11 years out now. We can do this.”
Kathleen: That’s what gives me so much hope, knowing that you’re 11 years out, and you had kids after treatment. It just makes me look forward to being 11 years out, and someday hopefully having kids of my own. Just looking at you doing that makes me really excited.
Kristi: Kathleen and I are both involved with Susan G. Komen Austin. She’s on the Junior Executive Board and I’m on the Board of Directors. I’m actually the secretary of the local chapter here. AQUILA has been so great to our organization. They sponsored the Junior Executive board’s Neon Pink Party this past year and we also do an AQUILA Race for the Cure team every year. We raise money and we have anywhere from 15 to 20 people participate. We are super supportive of that group, and Kathleen and I try to do as much as we can to bring awareness.
Kathleen: We’re both really fortunate that AQUILA is so supportive of us. Whenever I have an appointment, which I still have periodically, they tell me, “Do what you need to do. Your health comes first.” That’s really important to me. I feel like some workplaces wouldn’t be like that, but ours is just so awesome. They even threw me a one-year cancer-free anniversary party last year which made me feel really loved. And the fact that they are changing their whole website pink in honor of us, is just really awesome. I feel really lucky to be here.
We wanted to share our stories with you because breast cancer awareness month is so important to us, as are organizations like Susan G. Komen Austin and the Breast Cancer Resource Center. They are there for you. And so are we. If you or someone you know is going through this, we are here if there is anything that we could do for you.
And be sure to check out our new pink website this month! We hope you love it as much as we do.
At AQUILA, we celebrate not only Kristi and Kathleen, but all of the AQUILA family and friends who have been affected by cancer of all types. Please join us on our mission to raise awareness and in our fight for a cure, by donating to Komen Austin or the Breast Cancer Resource Center.
And be sure to visit the Susan G. Komen website to learn how to be self-aware and to be your own advocate.