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‘I have a 7-cm mass ... I don't feel so glib’

A survivor talks about her personal struggle with breast cancer treatment.
/ Source: TODAY

This year alone, an estimated 200,000 new cases of breast cancer will be diagnosed in the U.S. But beyond all the medical information and all the statistics, every battle with cancer is a personal struggle, wrought with emotion, tempered by attitude and softened by the support of friends and family. “Today” host Katie Couric reports on one woman's moving story.

“Before I got diagnosed, I was totally untested in any way," says writer-photographer Kelly Corrigan. "My parents are married. I love my brothers. I have two great kids. It was easy for me to get pregnant. I married a great guy. So I did have this feeling like I have never survived anything.”

Last year, Corrigan, had just moved into a new house in Piedmont, Calif., with her husband and two young girls. While planning her 36th birthday party, Kelly found a lump the size of a baseball.

“I went to have a mammogram and the guy who read my mammogram films never made eye contact with me," says Corrigan. "And when he finally did, he said, 'I'm very concerned.' And I said why and he said, 'It looks like an explosion.' And I thought, This is it, this is the thing that's going to happen to me.”

On August 2, 2004, Corrigan was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer — a diagnosis that four out of 10 women don't survive. She called her best friend, Mary Hope McQuisten.

“She just said to me, ‘Mare, it came back positive.’ And I knew, I could hear in her voice she was scared, she was nervous. She didn't know what to expect,” says McQuisten.

Corrigan admits she didn’t know what to expect. She says, “I mean people do die. There is loss. And then, when you think those thoughts in your mind, you immediately start thinking about who will raise my children?”

Doctors prescribed surgery, 16 weeks of chemotherapy, radiation and five years of hormone therapy which put an end to Kelly’s goal of four children by age 40. What she was most unprepared for was the way cancer made relationships awkward.

“Sometimes I felt like people would say, ‘Oh my God, my friend had this and she did chemo and she's fine!’ I didn't like hearing that right from the get-go, because I felt like all cancer isn't the same. I have a 7-centimeter mass that has tentacles in my breast and I don't feel so glib,” says Corrigan.

To help cope, Kelly made the unusual decision to make her private pain very public. She photographed every excruciating detail of her treatment and shared them with friends.

“I just took pictures because it's my instinct to take pictures," she says. "I'm a photographer and my camera is never far from my hand. And I should just show you, so you'll understand once and for all what happens. I woke up one morning and ran my fingers through my hair, and there was just, I mean, there were a hundred hairs in my hand. Then it just starts coming out in clumps."

McQuisten adds, “The day that Kelly decided to shave her head was typical Kelly. She wanted to be proactive, she didn't want it to happen to her [and] she wanted to do it to herself.”

So Kelly threw herself a haircutting party. Corrigan says, “We had the girls and we had a couple beers, somebody brought their shaving kit and they took it all off. It was a totally powerful moment. It was like, all right, not so bad.”

Kelly says despite her positive attitude, nothing prepared her for her first public appearance. She said she wasn’t going to sit in her house for the next six months.

Her first trip out she went to the neighbor’s house to pick up their daughter and go for a ride and her neighbor said, “You look like a monster.”

“I came home and called Edward and said, ‘She called me a monster, the first person I saw called me a monster. I can't go to Georgia's pre-school. I'm going to have 25 four-year-olds pointing at me!’ So I called my friend Chad and said, ‘You've got to come and take Georgia to school. I just can't do it, I feel like a total idiot, I underestimated this.’ ”

A child psychologist advised Corrigan to be up front with her children about her cancer.

The psychologist told the Corrigans to use real words like “I'm going to the doctor” and “I'm going to get medicine and it’s going to make mommy all better” — instead of “owwie and booboo,” because those terms are too familiar to kids and they might become concerned that the same thing is going to happen them.

Corrigan’s biggest supporter was her dad, Big George, who, at 75, has beat cancer twice and is still coaching the lacrosse team at Kelly’s old high school.

“In order to get us out of bed, he would throw open the window, lean his whole head out and say, ‘Hello world! Hello, George. I'm coming out world! I'm waitin' for ya, Georgie,’ " says Corrigan. "Then he'd just turn around and say, ‘Let's go get 'em!’ My dad is my guy. When I was sick he came three times, he mothered my children [and] he took them to the park.”

Two days before Thanksgiving, after surviving her last round of chemo, Kelly was dealt the ultimate blow. Corrigan says, “My mom said kind of all in one sentence, ‘Your father found some blood in his urine and had a biopsy and it turns out it's cancer.’ I cannot tell you how much worse it was to love someone who's sick than to be the one who is sick. There's no comparison.”

Kelly is currently in remission but is still undergoing treatments. Her father, George, is waiting for final test results but his doctors are optimistic about the outcome.