Kelly Hill, a Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina (Blue Cross NC) medical director, did not have any of the typical risk factors for breast cancer. She was 41 years young, in great shape with a healthy diet, and she had no family history of the disease. Her only potential risk factor? Being a woman.
“Going through this definitely makes me more appreciative of every single day.” – Kelly Hill
So it didn’t seem that big of a deal that she didn’t get her first mammogram right at age 40. She was a busy physician, with two young girls and a hectic schedule. She put the appointment off for a bit. As an OB-GYN, she knew she should follow her own advice, so she finally scheduled something.
A Routine Appointment
That appointment, the one that changed everything for Kelly and her family, was three years ago. It was a routine first mammogram until she got the call saying they needed to see her again immediately.
She was able to get in for a follow-up appointment a few days later but still wasn’t too concerned. “I went to the appointment by myself with the assumption that it would be routine. I was still in complete denial at this point,” she says.
When they told her she needed a biopsy, she says, “I asked them – is this icky or really icky? I couldn’t even bring myself to say or think the word cancer.”
She had to come back again the next day for the biopsy, and this time she brought her husband with her. That is the day she found out she had cancer. She was no longer the physician but was now the patient. A breast cancer patient with two young daughters.
“I sort of shut down,” she says. “I’m so thankful that my best friend, a pediatrician, was able to come to appointments with me and ask the questions that needed to be asked.”
Kelly says she and her husband waited a few weeks to tell their girls, who were 9 and 11 at the time. “We wanted to make sure that we had all of the information that we could get before telling them,” she says.
She ended up having a double mastectomy (removal of both breasts) and reconstructive surgery. “I am one of the very lucky ones,” she says. She did not have to have chemotherapy or radiation treatment. “We were able to catch this cancer really early.”
Of course, the surgery and the recovery following were not an easy road for Kelly or her family. “It was really rough,” Kelly says.
While she is cancer-free, she still has to take daily medication for at least five years and has check-ups with her oncologist every six months.
And then there’s the worry. “Every little symptom makes me think – has cancer come back? Will I get it again?”
But Kelly and her family don’t sit back and let life pass them by. “We have a lot of fun,” she says. Her daughters are now 12 and 15, and they lead active and full lives, with soccer practice, vacations, and all of the joy and drama that comes with raising teen girls.
“Going through this definitely makes me more appreciative of every single day,” Kelly says. “It gives me more perspective. I spend as much time as I can with my family.”
“Just go and get the mammogram”
Current guidelines differ slightly, particularly for women ages 40-50. When she was a practicing OB-GYN, Kelly often had conversations with her patients on breast cancer screenings.
Her advice to all women – “Just go and get the mammogram.” She says, “It’s not pleasant, and it’s not convenient. But it’s a lot easier than having to go through a mastectomy.”
— Blue Cross NC (@BlueCrossNC) September 20, 2018
“Women should talk with their doctors and make an informed decision about when to start screening and how often to screen, based not only upon personal preference, but also risk factors and family history.”
Every year on Oct. 30, the anniversary of her breast cancer diagnosis, her husband throws her a party. That date is coming up soon, and Kelly plans to spend it with her family and closest friends.
“I’m so thankful for every year,” she says. “Life is so short. Take advantage of it, and don’t hold back.”