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'Filled with emotion': NBC's Kristen Dahlgren reflects on breast cancer journey

"As I write the words cancer-free, I am filled with emotion. There’s relief to be sure, but also worry."
/ Source: NBC News

While on the radiation table for the last time this week, the machine whirring above me as it has every weekday for the past five weeks, the triumphant notes of "The Final Countdown” blared into the speakers. A smile spread beneath my mask. The radiation techs were giving me a warrior’s send off, knowing there could be no hugs or high fives. There was not even a bell, which has become a symbolic graduation of sorts at many cancer centers to mark the end of treatment. In this time of not touching anything touched by others, it’s just too risky. The plaque still sits on the wall where the bell will someday return to celebrate those who come after me.

I think about them a lot. Many are now in limbo, their treatment stalled to protect them and the valiant health care workers fighting COVID-19. In the waiting room, there was rarely another person, but when we did overlap for a minute or two, we often talked about how lucky we were to be getting the lifesaving treatment. “They told me I was the last person to get my surgery,” one said.

I can’t imagine what it’s like for those still waiting. When I was diagnosed with breast cancer in September 2019, things seemed to move so quickly. My amazing colleague Andrea Mitchell introduced me to her doctor, and I have been in his remarkable care ever since.

Within weeks I was getting chemo, and in January, I had my surgery. It was just as we were hearing the first rumblings of a new virus, but I had no idea how it would upend so many lives.

I feel blessed to have gotten through the first parts of treatment before the virus took hold. I imagine there are people now putting off routine screenings or maybe others who can’t easily get an appointment to check out something suspicious. (Remember, I found my own "dent" which was my signal something was wrong.) I hope the incredible effort so many have made to flatten the curve, means EVERYONE will soon be able to get the care or treatments they need.

As I write the words CANCER-FREE, I am filled with emotion. There’s relief to be sure, but also worry. Will it come back? Will my immune system be strong enough before there’s a COVID-19 vaccine? How will I push through all the fears to truly LIVE again?

The answer to the last one is right in front of me: my family, including a little girl turning four who doesn’t understand how hard it is to find a "Frozen 2" cake during a pandemic! (No rest for this survivor, I will do my best attempt at baking!)

When I finally lay my head on a pillow, I’m sure I’ll feel a flood of emotions, and it will likely be some time before I get used to seeing my new barely there hairstyle in the mirror.

There are still surgeries ahead, and years of hormone treatments, but cancer hasn’t taken the most important things. If anything, it has filled me with gratitude. I have received thousands of messages of support from people I have never met cheering me on, including dozens and dozens of survivors who have walked this path before me. From the bottom of my heart, thank you.

I wouldn’t wish a cancer diagnosis on anyone. I hope you never have to find out the depths of strength you have inside, but know that if you are going through it now, or at any time in the future, I will be cheering you on. If the coronavirus has taught us anything it's that we can get through the unimaginable together and words of kindness really do make a difference.