Kylie Hinson wasn’t just celebrating her 29th birthday when she went to a Charlotte tattoo parlor last weekend. The design she picked out was a pink ribbon – one large enough to cover the 10-inch surgical scar on her back.
“Kind of marking something negative with a positive,” says Hinson, who on Tuesday celebrated three and a half years in remission from Stage 2 breast cancer.
Hinson contacted The Herald to tell her story because, she said, as a 24-year-old with no family history of breast cancer, she didn’t fit the typical profile for a breast cancer patient.
“I didn’t have too much experience with it,” she said. “As far as genetics, it wasn’t anything in my genetics. We really couldn’t explain where it had come from.”
Hinson, who lives in Sharon, had recently given birth to her son when she noticed a lump in her right breast, which she dismissed as a clogged milk duct. Nine months after doctors told her to “let it go” and “don’t worry about it,” the lump had grown. Hinson’s primary physician, who attributed the lump to a calcium buildup, recommended a mammogram.
“There’s no way it could be cancer,” she recalled the doctor telling her. “You’re too young.”
A mammogram, an ultrasound and a biopsy later, Hinson and her then-husband learned the lump was cancerous. Initially, she said, they were told it was ductal carcinoma in situ, a non-invasive form of the disease. But further testing revealed the cancer was also in her lymph nodes.
“It had spread,” she said. “It had spread very fast.”
In 2012, the most recent year for which numbers are available, more than 224,000 women were diagnosed with breast cancer in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than 41,000 died during the same year. The CDC also reports that about 11 percent of all new cases of breast cancer are found in women younger than 45.
The American Cancer Society estimates 231,800 breast cancer cases will be diagnosed in in the United States in 2015. Of those diagnosed, more than 40,700 will likely die.
Breast cancer incidence rates have remained steady since 2007, researchers say, but mortality rates have decreased 34 percent since 1990, mainly due to improved treatments and early detection.
The news of her diagnosis didn’t sink in for Hinson until they walked out of the doctor’s office, at which point, she said, “I just bawled.” Then she realized crying wouldn’t do any good.
“I said, let’s make our phone calls and let’s do this,” she recalled. “Whatever they’ve got to do, we’re gonna do it. We’re gonna go all the way, 100 percent, and I’m not gonna stop until I hear the words ‘cancer-free.’”
In the weeks and months that followed, she endured 10 surgeries, including a bilateral mastectomy and the removal of some of her lymph nodes. She had her first chemotherapy treatment in November 2011, and the side effects and sickness set in just in time for the holidays.
“My son’s second Christmas – the Christmas he’s starting to realize what Christmas is all about – it’s pretty much just gone,” she said. “I couldn’t have any of the great holiday turkey or ham. My mom makes a killer baked macaroni and cheese, and I couldn’t even eat that.”
As the weeks went on and the nauseating chemo treatments became blistering radiation therapy, Hinson said the cancer had taken its toll on her marriage as well as her health. She and her husband had been married about a year when she was diagnosed. They separated after she finished radiation therapy but before her reconstruction surgery.
“We just couldn’t handle it anymore,” she said. “We still get along. He’s still very much there if I need him. He’s still very much a friend to me.”
Of all the things cancer took from her, Hinson said the most difficult part was the time lost with her son, Noah, who celebrated his first birthday three weeks before her diagnosis.
“Having my arm in a sling after having a mastectomy,” she said, “and hearing the doctor tell me I can’t pick him up, I can’t hold him because he might hit something, he might knock out a stitch, he might pull out a drain – hearing you can’t be a mom 100 percent is probably the worst part of it.”
Hinson said she kept her son in mind throughout her illness. She remembers the advice of a friend who lost her battle to the same type of cancer, and passes the same encouragement on to those carrying on.
“She told me this exact same thing: that you fight,” Hinson said. “You fight, even if it’s not for you. Fight for the people in your life, because that’s gonna be your legacy. Realizing you’re fighting for somebody else besides yourself, it gives you the initiative to continue and it makes you stronger in a way you wouldn’t realize.”
Today, Hinson still deals with residual effects of the treatments and medications that wreaked havoc on her body. Her self-esteem, though never touched by a surgeon’s knife, is also still healing.
“I look at girls that get to wear cute bikinis and strapless stuff,” she says. “It hits you when you realize that’s never gonna be you again.”
Dating again proved to be a challenge, Hinson said, adding that she felt like “damaged goods.” Then, she met a soldier from Fort Jackson who helped her see her scars differently.
U.S. Army Spc. Brandon Johnson says he was impressed with Hinson’s resiliency after she told him her story. He got Hinson to see her scars as a mark of dignity.
“We all have our battles and we have our scars from them,” he recalled telling her. “And these are your battle scars.”
After dating nine months, Johnson said Hinson is a source of strength and inspiration.
“If I think I’m having a bad day,” he said, “I think, ‘She beat cancer. She beat chemotherapy.’”
Cancer doesn’t define her or their relationship, he said, but it “fits into the back story.”
Hinson said she was disappointed by the lack of educational resources for young women diagnosed with breast cancer. She gets almost-daily messages from women asking for help or advice.
“I tell them, it doesn’t matter how old you are. At the end of the day, cancer doesn’t discriminate,” she said. “If you feel like there’s something wrong with your body, you’re the one who’s gonna know more than anybody. Don’t listen to anybody else; go do what you need to get done.”
Hinson still visits the doctor for regular checkups and to tend to the ailments left behind by the cancer and treatment.
“At the end of the day, no matter what I’m dealing with on that front, it’s still not as bad as going back there,” she said.
She knows there’s an increased risk of the cancer recurring in her uterus if she becomes pregnant, and she said she isn’t sure pregnancy is even possible now.
“I really want another child and would love to have a little girl, but I feel that adoption will probably be my only way to get that one wish,” she said. “So far, all my other wishes have come true. I’ve made it this far. I feel like I’m gonna make it to my five-year marker.”