It started off as a typical evening at Kelly Corrigan's home in Piedmont, Calif. The 36-year-old mother was bathing her two young daughters Claire, age 1 and Georgia, age 3 when she discovered a "rock-like" lump in her breast.
A week later, in August 2004, a mammogram detected a seven-centimeter tumor about the size of a golf ball in Kelly's breast. The diagnosis was Stage III breast cancer.
In 2005 alone, it is estimated that about 212,000 new cases of invasive breast cancer will be diagnosed in the United States and 40,000 women will die of the disease.
Kelly immediately researched her options for cancer care in the Bay Area. "Obviously I wanted the best possible care, the most advanced machines, the doctors who just returned from the conference where they were talking about the latest treatments," says Kelly.
Dr. Laura Esserman, director of the Carol Franc Buck Breast Care Center at UCSF Medical Center, was highly recommended by numerous friends and family members. A few days later Kelly had her first visit with Esserman.
"That day I met every single person who would be part of my health care team and had a guided tour of the Breast Cancer Center and Infusion Center," Kelly says, who was also cared for by Dr. John Park. "Immediately I knew that I was going to be cared for by the best. It felt like the Four Seasons of health care."
Right away, Kelly started an aggressive treatment regimen, including eight cycles of chemotherapy, a lumpectomy and two months of radiation therapy.
"Kelly had a lot to deal with at the beginning, given her large tumor and all of the required tests and treatments," says Park. "After getting over the initial jolt of the diagnosis, she went through her treatment with aplomb and a great sense of humor."
Currently, Kelly is in remission and receiving treatments of Herceptin at UCSF. The therapy significantly reduces the risk of cancer recurrence in women with HER2-positive cancer cells, like Kelly's. The HER2/neu antigen is the protein involved in the growth of some cancer cells.
Since receiving her life-altering diagnosis, Kelly, who is a seasoned writer and photographer, has been documenting her "cancer journey" experience in personal essays and photographscapturing honest moments ranging from receiving her chemotherapy infusions to losing her hair to the seconds right before surgery.
"At first, I was documenting my experience for myself and friends and family, especially my daughters," says Kelly. "If I didn't get to grow old like everyone else, I wanted my daughters to see and understand what happened to me."
But what started out as a personal project, evolved into something much greater. Kelly posted her photos and essays on a Web site she created with friend and designer Nan Davenport called Circus of Cancer (www.circusofcancer.org).
"The site is one giant piece of advice for women with breast cancer and their loved ones," says Kelly, who has received hundreds of emails from people affected in some way by the condition. "It teaches us how to be more empathetic to all people with breast cancer, so that the next time a friend gets diagnosed they can be up to speed and be there for her on a deeper level. It's for all of us 'gals in the chair.'"
And Kelly knows what it's like to love someone stricken with cancer. Her 75-year-old father, George, battled prostate cancer and two bouts of bladder cancer.
"It's so much harder to love someone with cancer than actually having it yourself," Kelly says.
Two days before Thanksgiving, after finishing her last round of chemotherapy, Kelly and her family received a piece of devastating news — her father had been diagnosed with a recurrence of the most advanced stage of bladder cancer, which had spread throughout his body.
"I was just finishing my treatment and my family thought we'd have so much to be thankful for," says Kelly. "We were convinced that it was the beginning of the end."
Fortunately, however, both Kelly and her father are in remission and doing well, which she calls a "complete miracle." Kelly recently wrote a "coming of age" memoir called, "The Middle Place" about her and her father's parallel journeys and their enduring relationship.
Story written in October 2005.
Abby Sinnott is a San Francisco-based freelance writer.
Carol Franc Buck Breast Care Center
1600 Divisadero St., Second Floor
San Francisco, CA 94115
Phone: (415) 353-7070
Fax: (415) 353-7050