New Year brings new arrival for breast cancer survivor and husband

Katie Burke believes everything happens for a reason.

A breast cancer diagnosis at age 23 and the six years that followed changed her life and her perspective.

This month, Katie and her husband, Cameron, are expecting their first child and looking forward to a future of possibilities. They feel fortunate, considering that there was a time when Katie wondered if she would be able to have children at all.

She and Cameron had been married just three months when Katie discovered a lump in her breast. Despite reassurances from those around her who said it couldn't be cancer at her age, Katie underwent a lumpectomy and doctors determined she had cancer.

"You're never too young, and you just have to be aware of your body. Sometimes you get that gut feeling, and you need to pay attention to it. Thank goodness I did, because I think it would have been an entirely different story had I waited just six months."

Katie underwent four rounds of chemotherapy and chose to have a double mastectomy. The chemotherapy sent Katie into early menopause and jeopardized her dream of becoming a mother. Luckily, this particular side effect was temporary.

But then doctors put her on Tamoxifen, a hormone blocker that she would need to take for five years to lessen her chances of cancer recurrence. That meant she and Cameron would have to wait at least five years to start a family.

It was not how they expected to start their life together. Katie felt guilty and bad for Cameron, who had this new wife who was sick and couldn't have kids right away.

"As a survivor, everybody's worried about you. How are you doing? How is everything going? How was surgery? But nobody ever asks the co-survivor how they're doing," says Katie.

"People would say things like, 'that's really great that you stuck in there. A lot of people don't stick around for that,'" Cameron says. "And I guess it's true, but I never saw leaving as an option."

Cameron took his wedding vows to heart, for better or worse, in sickness and in health. There were times he struggled emotionally and was worried for his wife, but his focus was always on Katie and helping her become healthy again.

Cancer gave Katie something she didn't expect: a new focus on what she wanted to do with her life. She applied for and accepted a position at Willamette Valley Cancer Institute as a patient navigator, and last year earned her college degree.

"I feel like it gives me purpose," Katie says. "Everything that happened, happened for a reason, and I'm doing the perfect job. I'm able to help, to provide that sense of hope and give patients a glimpse of what survivorship looks like when you're all done."

Katie likes to say she's a walking resource center for those newly diagnosed.

"Sometimes a person needs a cheerleader. Then there are times when we're scared and just need someone to lean on."

"She's a cancer concierge," Cameron says proudly.

Katie started a support group for young women after she was diagnosed, because there was a need for one. That support group continues to meet regularly.

Amid her accomplishments, Katie and Cameron never gave up on their dream of being parents. The day Katie learned she was pregnant, Cameron was working out of town so she FaceTimed him the good news.

"It was pretty unreal when she told me about it. I couldn't even fathom the thought," he says.

Had cancer not come into Katie and Cameron's lives, they would likely have become parents shortly after getting married.

"It's a good thing we didn't," Cameron says. "Katie's cancer was estrogen driven, so if she had become pregnant, her estrogen levels would have gone through the roof. It could have been a death sentence."

Right now, the Burkes are focused on the next chapter in their lives. And they are excited to meet their daughter. It's been a long time coming, with many lessons learned.

"I think it's important to recognize that life is too short, so you need to enjoy every moment with your loved ones." Katie says. "But it's also important to know that despite what you're going through now, there is a future."


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Posted January 7, 2015


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