Jefferson Health Northeast

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The Promise of Tomorrow

03/22/21

Hands holding breast cancer ribbon

On July 29, 2020, Kathleen McDowell visited Jefferson Health – Northeast for a mammogram, with suspicions that something was wrong. Immediately after her mammogram, she was sent to get an ultrasound and, after a full day of testing, she landed in Dr. Yi Huang’s office. She was diagnosed with breast cancer.

McDowell started chemotherapy for stage 2B invasive lobular cancer in early August 2020, and just recently completed her multiple rounds of chemo in January 2021. “I had just about every side effect that you could get with chemo,” said McDowell. While her cancer treatment hasn’t been easy so far, it pales in comparison to a few recent heartbreaking experiences.

A History of Heartbreak

The past few years haven’t been easy for McDowell. Her sister, who fought breast cancer for six years, just passed away in March of 2020. And at the time of McDowell’s own cancer diagnosis, her husband was fighting metastatic neuroendocrine pancreatic cancer, a rare and serious form of cancer. “When I was diagnosed, all my focus was on taking care of my husband,” McDowell said. “I didn’t even tell him I had cancer until the day before I started chemo.”

On November 10, 2020, while McDowell was still in the midst of her chemo treatments, her husband passed away. Facing such incredible challenges, especially amid a global pandemic, only made McDowell more resilient. “My focus went immediately to my sons, who are all in their 20s and just lost their father,” said McDowell. “Losing my husband made me want to fight even harder against my cancer. I want to do everything possible to make sure I’m still around for my children and grandchildren. They keep me going every day.”

Battling COVID with Cancer  

After an already-rough year, the last thing McDowell expected was to get even sicker. After celebrating Thanksgiving with her immediate family, she started exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19, which she initially brushed off as the effects of her recent chemo treatments. Unfortunately, she ended up in the hospital for a week after testing positive for COVID-19 and her chemotherapy was put on pause for the rest of the month.

Hats for Chemo Patients

January marked the end of McDowell’s chemo treatments, although she still has a journey ahead of her before remission. On her last day of chemo, one of her friends donated a box of hats for cancer patients in McDowell’s name. “A lot of people get the chills during chemo treatments,” said McDowell.
“My girlfriend wanted to show her support for me, so she learned how to crochet in order to start donating hats in my name. She got a whole group of friends to crochet and knit hats and ended up donating a big container of them on my last day of treatment.”

A Family at Jefferson and Beyond

Through all of her challenges, McDowell found solace and support from the Jefferson Health team. “The staff has become family to me—from the nurses and front desk staff to Dr. Ziebelli, the oncologist. They even sent me a beautiful flower arrangement when my husband passed away. I know they really care for me and my family,” McDowell said.

“The most important thing when battling cancer is having a support system by your side,” she said. McDowell’s sons, nieces and daughter-in-law take turns going to doctor’s appointments with her and staying with her to help out around the house. She even has an old friend from high school who reached out and offered to cook a meal for her family every week. “I have a terrific support system between my family and friends.”

What Comes Next

McDowell is still fighting breast cancer—she’s scheduled for a double mastectomy with a double lymph node resection in early March, followed by radiation treatments. Yet she still radiates positivity, selflessness and resilience. “My advice for others who have been diagnosed with cancer is to stay positive. Focus on the fact that there are people who still need you around. It’s going to be a long process, but you can get through it,” said McDowell.

McDowell has her down moments, but she’ll always be a fighter. “I want to be the first one in my family to beat cancer. I want to prove it can be done.”