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NBC's Kristen Dahlgren: The 'lowest' part of breast cancer journey wasn't what I expected

Since I last shared my story on the TODAY show in October 2020, I have endured three more painful surgeries.
I first shared the news of my breast cancer diagnosis on TODAY in December 2019.
I first shared the news of my breast cancer diagnosis on TODAY in December 2019.TODAY

This time last year, I was hopeful. A year out from my cancer diagnosis, I was about to undergo surgery that would reconstruct my breasts and potentially restore the feeling I had lost to mastectomy. I had by all accounts crushed cancer. I found my own disease and advocated for an earlier diagnosis. I hardly missed a beat, working, as I sailed through chemotherapy and radiation with few side effects. I had no evidence of disease. “Life” as I knew it was about to restart, and I was ready.

But cancer is not linear. In fact, for many it hovers, long after the cells have been blasted from your body. As I write this, my right arm is aching and swollen, the result of lymphedema, a potentially crippling side effect of having cancerous lymph nodes removed. Since I last shared my story on the TODAY show in October 2020, I have endured three more painful surgeries. One, to reconstruct my breasts using natural tissue from my abdomen and potentially restore some feeling I had lost, and then two more when that was a devastating failure.

I now have implants, and instead of regaining feeling in my chest, I now also have numbness through my abdomen and even part of my leg.

It’s important to note my experience is completely different than the multiple women I talked to in researching my surgery, reinforcing the fact there is no cancer playbook. Each of us impacted by this disease is affected in unique ways, and for me, reconstruction has been infinitely harder than treatment. My lowest points have come not with diagnosis or chemotherapy, but at a time when I was supposed to be “cancer-free.”

Luckily, while every cancer experience is individual, the battle is not. From the moment I was diagnosed, I have been surrounded by the most amazing network of breast cancer patients and survivors (or as I now prefer to call them, thrivers). There was the colleague who offered to drive hours to spend the night with me when I was stuck alone in an airport hotel, because she knew what it was like to wait for a biopsy. There was the friend and breast cancer survivor who spent her days off at the same hospital where she worked long, grueling hours, so she could sit with me through chemotherapy. There was the complete stranger who talked me through how she told her own young children about her cancer then sent us tips and care packages through my treatment.

Breast cancer is the most common cancer diagnosis among U.S. women. According to the American Cancer Society, as of 2019 more than 3.8 million women were living with a history of breast cancer. It’s a club nobody wants to join, but one full of women who are thoughtful and generous even while dealing with their own medical challenges.

Sharing a moment with my daughter, Cielle.
Sharing a moment with my daughter, Cielle.Courtesy Kristen Dahlgren

In 2021, an estimated 281,550 new cases of invasive beast cancer are expected to be diagnosed in women in the United States, along with other 49,290 new cases of noninvasive. Of that estimate, about 1 in 5 will be, like me, under the age of 49, according to the American Cancer Society.

With early detection, science can do amazing things. Many will live long lives after a cancer diagnosis, but the physical and emotional scars far outlast treatment. Society calls us breast cancer warriors. It can often be hard to feel like one.

So recently, I have been particularly drawn to a charity called the iRise Above Foundation, designed for those of us diagnosed in their 20s, 30s and 40s, women who want to be as active as we have always been, who want to reclaim our lives not just as survivors, but thrivers.

Through wellness programs, adventure travel, webinars and workouts, women once again become authors of their own stories. It is exactly what I need.

Participants have been through the ringer, yet come together to offer support and the tools to live life to the fullest. Today the founder and I talked about the possibility of climbing Kilimanjaro, surfing in Costa Rica or a yoga retreat in Baja California, activities that have, at times over the past year, seemed like something in my past. Instead, today I’m determined to make sure they are my future.

One motto of the group is “we rise by lifting others." I have never found this to be more true. If the millions of women who face this devastating disease can lift complete strangers, why can’t all of us? The world would be a better place, and each of us would know we are much less alone in whatever challenge we face.

So as another October and Breast Cancer Awareness Month dawns, I can’t help but again be hopeful, for myself, and for all of us. It is not the path I would have chosen. It is in no way what I expected. Great challenges remain, but I have seen the best in humanity in the millions of women who have faced this terrible disease and, instead of darkness, chosen generosity and hope. I thank each and every one of them, and I vow to be my best self moving forward. For me, for them, and those who follow us.