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KELLN ZIMMER
Surviving Since:
2003
Home Town:
Amarillo, Texas
Age: 27
Occupation: Attorney
Family: Amazing parents Mark and Jill; twin brothers Reed and Ryan, 23.


'I'll be surviving every day of my life'

I was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer in December of 2003 at the age of 22.   I spent the spring of the next year bald and sick - and occasionally working - but mostly waiting for it all to be over.  I spent my 23rd birthday in a hospital having a double mastectomy.  And I spent the summer having radiation everyday.  And then, on the same day that I had my last radiation session in September 2004, I proclaimed my status as a survivor, said the cancer was gone, and delivered the keynote speech at In the Pink in Amarillo. 

Fast forward a year, I finally came back to Lubbock to start law school.  I'd deferred my admission twice and couldn't wait to get back to school.   They made it crystal clear during orientation that law school was unlike any other academic experience, and the old rules of bringing a doctorís note wouldn't excuse you from your responsibility to be in the classroom each and every day.  Youíre allowed only a small number of absences, no matter the reason, and once you have missed too many classes, youíre no longer eligible to receive credit for the course. 

But no sooner than I'd finished my first day of orientation, Dr. Shalaby delivered the news that the cancer was not gone and had metastasized to my liver.  My parents and I flew to Dallas the very first week of law school to meet with my doctors there, and Iíd have to go back in a few weeks for a surgery to try and remove the tumors.   

The very worst part of the second diagnosis was not that I had cancer - I'd long ago come to terms with that - the worst part was that I was going to have to go through it all again and I wasn't going to get to go to law school.  I was devastated.  I prayed so hard for the Lord to help me know what to do -- I'd been here before and Iíd known that putting everything else aside to focus on treatment was the right thing to do, but I couldnít believe that it was happening again and that everything was going to yield to cancer treatment again.     

I prayed and prayed and I waited patiently for the right words to come.  And when they did, the first emails I sent were to my professors, explaining my situation the best I could and asking for permission to stay in their classes despite the fact that I would miss the maximum number of classes allowed in only the first weeks of school.  Instantly, I was met with amazing responses, assuring me that I would be allowed to stay enrolled no matter how much I had to miss.  Then I talked to Dr. Shalaby and his staff and gave them my class schedule to see what they could do ñ and they have been scheduling my treatments around my classes ever since. 

In hindsight, I say "well of course they let me stay in class, I have cancer" - but then I was so afraid because it seemed like I was asking for a pretty large exception, and asking for special treatment wasn't something I liked doing.  Iíd wanted so badly to go to school and be like everyone else, and I had to immediately single myself out.  But in a time when I was so sad, so scared, and so hopeless, it was revealed to me that my life on this earth is so blessed because I am surrounded by compassionate, understanding, and supportive people - and having cancer is nothing I should ever feel I need to hide.  

 

 

 

In the last three years, I have had two liver surgeries, completed my breast reconstruction, and spent more than a few weeks in the hospital.  And I've been on chemotherapy pretty much the entire time.  Besides my doctors, my family, and my dearest friends, my professors and some of the staff at the law school are the only people I ever told what was going on.

During my very first diagnosis, I sent an email update that reached so many people and they, in turn, prayed for me at church, sent my name to their friends to pray, and lifted me up everyday.  But after I had my second liver surgery I kind of stopped talking about having cancer and lost touch with so many of the people whoíd prayed for me and seen me through my initial diagnosis.  I felt that because the cancer had come back, Iíd let them down and I hadnít really survived it at all.  But today Iíve come to realize that by hiding and allowing only a few people to know what was happening, I did a real disservice to myself, to my faith, and to the people who loved me.  Itís not my fault it didnít go away and it's not something to hide.  I celebrate how lucky I am and how much the work that groups like Komen do.  Even though I have Stage 4 breast cancer, Iím living a pretty great life - house, job, friends, family, and a full head of hair.  That's not something women in my position might have been able to say a decade ago. 

So, my story is an ongoing one - Iíve been on almost every kind of chemotherapy approved to treat breast cancer - and I know that someday I won't have to be on chemotherapy anymore.  My story has been written by all of the people who helped me get through the last three years, both at the law school and at JACC - and even though I have not named them all here, they know who they are. 

As I write today, I am again moved by the incredible experience law school was for me.  Not because it was what I'd always wanted to do, or because it feels like an amazing achievement to have graduated, or even because it trained me a career I know I will love -- it will always be the most incredible experience of my life because the people who were my teachers and caregivers during law school helped me learn how to live my life with cancer. 

I'll be surviving everyday of my life - and they taught me how.


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