Back from the brink
Kelly Rae’s wild ride with breast cancer
Kelly Rae is used to fighting. A former police officer, special agent with the U.S Drug Enforcement Administration, and the first woman to graduate from the U.S. Army Infantry Ranger Skills Program, she’s broken nearly every bone in her body. While on her motorcycle, she’s been hit by a car and thrown against its windshield. She’s faced death threats from international drug traffickers and broken her back in two places after tackling a fleeing felon, ending her career.
But none of that was like the blow of breast cancer.
Rae, now an urban infill developer with life partner Pam Haberman, vividly recalls May 22, 2006, the day, at age 46, her doctor called to say, “Kelly, I’m very sorry to tell you this, but you have breast cancer.”
“It’s like this dark wall. This rain just starts coming down. Raw rain. Black. Starts coming down from that moment on. That’s what it felt like to me,” says Rae. “Then, after the initial first few minutes—and it only lasted a few minutes; I want to be very specific with this—it only lasted for a few minutes. OK? It’s not that way for a lot of women. With me, that darkness, that cloud, lasted a few minutes. Then it was like the darkness left. It was sort of drifting. And Pam and I both felt like this: ‘OK. I have breast cancer. That’s right.’ [smacks fist into hand] ‘Let’s fight it. This is it. … We’re going to tackle this. There’s no stopping us.’”
Not messing around
Two weeks later, Rae had a double mastectomy.
A week after that, she had another surgery, the mastectomy not having gotten all of the cancer.
One surgeon had recommended a lumpectomy—where the actual lump is removed, but the breast is left intact—followed by radiation and chemo.
“We said no,” says Haberman. “Kelly had invasive breast cancer, where it spread past the boundary of the tumor. In situ [non-invasive] cases are easier to deal with. We said, let’s not mess around with this.”
Rae was young and had caught it early, but it was by then a Grade 3, meaning it was aggressive and moving fast.
“We thought, ‘Let’s not goof around,’” says Haberman.
The doctors suggested removing one breast. ”What am I going to do with one boob?” reasoned Rae. Others encouraged her to think about breast reconstruction.
“I don’t want to rebuild or reconstruct anything,” says Rae. “I want to deal with my cancer.” She says her doctor was shocked by her choice. “I say get it out. Take ’em off. There’s a term we use in the DEA: damage control. … I don’t want cancer in my body. If I take the things off causing my cancer, I won’t have it again.”
Haberman imagines that for many of the women doctors see, breast reconstruction is a bigger issue. The couple knows women whose husbands want their wives to reconstruct, and women who simply want to feel as attractive as they were before breast cancer, and who don’t want such a visible reminder.
“Certainly, women want to be feminine, and they want to have a nice body and nice breasts,” says Rae. “That’s what we’re all taught, right? But all that should go way in the back closet when you’re faced with life or death. Nobody should try to talk you out of it. It’s a personal decision. You need to let the feminine thing go, the looks thing go, when you’re faced with life or death. It’s quite simple. Being alive, to me, is much greater than having two breasts.”
How a breast cancer support group saved Kelly Rae’s life
After her mastectomy, the day after being released from the hospital, Rae went to a breast cancer support group.
“I was the youngest person in there by 20 years,“ says Rae. “But it can be a tremendous source of information. For a person just diagnosed, they should go immediately. You will be embraced. You will have information first-hand. You’re going to be bombarded by a lot of information, and it’s up to you to see the best course of action for you, what you’re comfortable with.”
But this is why she says the group saved her life: Members take turns telling their stories. Rae told hers—that she’d been diagnosed two weeks ago, just had a double mastectomy, and the breast cancer websites said she should come to the group, so here she was. The moderator asked why she thought she got breast cancer. She speculated it may have had to do with her stressful life, maybe diet … The moderator then noticed Rae’s necklace—a chai, the Jewish symbol for life.
“Are you Jewish?” the moderator asked.
“Oh, well, yeah, I guess so,” she responded.
Rae is the product of a 17-year-old girl’s “Saturday night special,” as she calls it. Rae was in her teens before she learned that the man she thought was her father was not. She’d found and met her real father (and her half brother, who she hadn’t known existed) just a few years before her diagnoses, and learned he was Jewish.
The moderator asked, “Are you an Ashkenazi Jew, by chance?
“I said, ‘What? Ashkenazi? What is that?’”
Ashkenazi Jews are descended from a medieval Jewish community in what’s now Germany and its borderlands. About 80 percent of the world’s Jews are thought to be Ashkenazi. About 1 in 40 Ashkenazi Jews carry the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene, a genetic mutation that increases their risk for breast cancer.
Rae called her half brother, whom she’d met just a few times, and left him a message asking if they were Ashkenazi Jews: “I’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer, so if you can get back to me on that? Thanks. Click.”
He called back and said, yes, they were. Why?
She explained and said, “You’d better tell your sisters.”
Rae was genetically tested and found she was positive for the BRCA1 gene mutation.
“That’s where I say it saved my life,” she says. Ashkenazi Jews diagnosed with breast cancer have a much higher—Rae says up to 90 percent—chance of getting ovarian cancer, too.
“So there was no doubt about it, after I knew that, that after I recovered from my chemo, I was going in for a full hysterectomy, as well.”
Which she did, in January 2007.
“I told my mom, ‘Couldn’t you have met a nice Italian guy in that bar when you were 17?’”
Chemo and the brink of death
Rae playfully calls Haberman “Nurse Ratched” for her strict watch during Rae’s chemotherapy treatments. She allowed very few people to see Rae and rarely allowed her to leave the house but for doctor’s appointments.
“We found out that most people don’t die from breast cancer but from infection,” says Rae, which is partly why she calls Haberman her other lifesaver. The chemo kills good cells along with bad cells, zapping the body’s immunity.
Not everyone has chemo after having a double mastectomy, but Rae didn’t want to take any chances.
“I wanted to kill the fucker,” she says through clenched teeth. “This was my insurance policy.”
Her last chemo treatment was two years ago this month.
“I’ve been through a lot of training,” says Rae. “Army Ranger Skills is the thing I’m most proud of in my life, except for my relationship. Chemo was tough. It just depletes you. You’re just a shell of a person.”
During her last treatment, she was alone, in a fetal position on the bed. She was afraid to close her eyes. “I literally thought if I closed my eyes, I wouldn’t wake up. I would die. So I just kept my eyes open and waited for Pam to come home.”
Her doctor had told her that with chemo, he would bring her to the brink of death, and then bring her back.
“I don’t want to scare people, but that’s what it feels like,” says Rae.
The perfect Jeep ride
And yet, Rae says, quite seriously, that cancer was the best thing that ever happened to her. It put everything into perspective.
“It’s a cliche,” she says. “People say, ‘Life is short. Life is short.’ But it doesn’t mean anything. You go through something like this, and it does.”
A few days after her last chemo treatment, Rae and Haberman decided to buy an open-air Jeep and go for a ride in the desert.
“A thing about chemo that’s literally amazing: You go to the brink of death. You lose every hair in your body. But what happens when you’re reborn?
“We’re out there in the desert, the wind touching my face, the sun on my skin. It was like I’d never felt it before in my life. It was so new. I wish I could feel that every day. To be so thankful each and every day for the wind on your face, the sun on your skin—and be so thankful.”