Unlike many young women, Katie Hartline half expected the news that she had breast cancer. That’s because her mother had been diagnosed at 31.
Due to her mother’s young age at diagnosis, Katie began getting annual mammograms at 26. Six years later, she found a lump. On her 33rd birthday, Katie found out she had breast cancer.
Her father was there with her for support, and she worried about him as much as herself. “It was awful, devastating,” Katie says. “I think I always knew in the back of my mind it was going to happen.”
She was concerned about her future and about losing her breasts and hair. “I didn’t have a boyfriend at the time and I thought, ‘How am I going to date?’ Those are the things you think about when you’re 33.”
She then traveled 145 miles to see an oncologist who specialized in young women with breast cancer. That doctor immediately suggested she have genetic testing for the BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene mutations, or mistakes, that increase the risk of breast and ovarian cancer.
The test results would not be known for about a month. At her surgeon’s urging, Katie had a lumpectomy right away. She heard she tested positive for BRCA1 at the post-surgical follow-up. She then had four rounds of chemotherapy, followed by a double mastectomy and reconstruction.
Katie’s two older sisters then went for genetic testing. They, too, tested positive for the BRCA1 mutation.
After reconstruction, Katie’s breasts weren’t the size and shape of her natural breasts, the skin was indented and the nipples pointed in different directions. The nipples were fixed; the rest was not.
“I was so tired at that point, I didn’t care,” she says. “I was in a deep, deep depression. I couldn’t even get out of bed.”
While in chemotherapy, Katie worked her sales job from home. Her sisters kept her company during treatments. “They were there for me when I was miserable,” she says. So was her dad. “It was really hard for him, after watching my mom go through what she went through (she died at 36), to see his youngest daughter go through it.”
Katie lost her job after chemotherapy. Living alone, she had no work for six months and used credit cards to pay bills. She talked with her oncologist about how she was feeling. A psychiatrist put her on an antidepressant, which helped.
“I definitely recommend professional help for everyone,” she says. “Your caregivers—even if you’re married—can’t do it.”
Around that time, Katie attended C4YW, the annual conference for young women affected by breast cancer. She and the woman sitting next to her discovered they lived five minutes apart, despite traveling hundreds of miles to the conference. The other woman was BRCA1 positive, and her two sisters were as well.
“Today, she is still one of my best friends,” Katie says. “We’ve gone through everything together.”
Four years after Katie’s diagnosis, her 41-year-old sister, Ann, learned she had triple-negative breast cancer. Katie struggled emotionally as she watched her sister. Then Ann had a recurrence within a year.
That convinced Katie to have her ovaries removed to further reduce her risk for recurrence. “That was another loss to grieve, not being able to bear children,” she says. (Her other sister, not diagnosed with breast cancer, has also had her ovaries removed.)
Katie counts the closeness of her family and friends as having helped sustain her through the difficult times. She also uses her own strengths.
“I do a lot of meditation and prayer and learning that I cannot control things,” she says. “I take life for the fullest now. I couldn’t see that for a long time.”
A new surgeon replaced Katie’s reconstructed breasts . Her insurance covered the surgery because of the poor first reconstruction. “I feel like a part of me is back,” she says.
After treatment, Katie says she kept up an emotional wall. But in 2011, she reconnected with a boyfriend from her teen years, and they’ve been together since. He has two daughters. “They’re a big part of my life,” she says.
Now 41, Katie recently moved to South Carolina, to work for her boyfriend’s recycling firm. Things are looking brighter.
“I’m excited,” she says. “It’s a new chapter.”
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This article was supported by Cooperative Agreement Number DP11-1111 from The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Its contents are solely the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official views of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.