In her words

Kimmie Durham, board chairwoman for Novant Health Brunswick Medical Center Foundation, reflects on 23 years as a breast cancer survivor

The following is a personal essay from Kimmie Durham, chairwoman of the board of Novant Health Brunswick Medical Center, reflecting on her breast cancer journey, from diagnosis to treatment to two decades of survival.

For 23 years, I have been a survivor.

My journey began on April 6, 1997, when I found a lump in my breast. I was 38 years old. I was healthy and ran between 75 and 100 miles a week. But I was also a third-generation breast cancer survivor. So when I heard those words — “you have cancer” — it was shocking, but not surprising.

My grandmother was 67 when she was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer. She was a tough woman and went through a tough battle — a radical mastectomy and then cobalt radiation back in June 1958. Twenty years later, my mother got her cancer diagnosis at the age of 52. She had what was then the “new” modified radical mastectomy, and she lived. Nineteen years after that, I found my lump, and I knew exactly what it was, right from the start.

At first, the doctors told me it was nothing. The biopsies all came back negative. But I knew they were wrong. I had been living in Atlanta for 10 years, and yet suddenly, every time I ran, I just about died of overheating. On those same, intolerable runs, I could feel the lump in my chest. None of that was normal — not for me.

So, over Labor Day weekend in 1997, I had my lump removed. It was cancer, all right — and the size of a golf ball. My body had grown benign cells around it, and back then, the needle biopsies didn’t penetrate enough to pick up the cancer cells. The tests had come back negative, but they were wrong and I was right.

Two weeks after my lumpectomy, I had 80% of my breast removed. I was supposed to be running the Marine Corps Marathon; instead, I was getting all the cancer taken out of my body. Over the course of the next year, I went through radiation and, because of my age and family history, chemotherapy — or what I called my “toxic waste.” I also had an axillary excision of my lymph nodes.

At the end of my treatment, there was still part of me on my chest — one cute, perky breast. Sixteen years later, I sized the other one down to match. I could have gone through my reconstruction sooner, but I wanted to heal and get used to my new body first. When I finally made the time for my surgery and myself, my body was healed and ready. Anyone who knows me has heard me say cancer is a journey. Everyone is different. This was mine.

So, why share all of this, after so many years? I share to advocate for others. That has become my career and my calling. I am the chief passion officer for Third Generation by Design, the organization I founded to advocate for those navigating their own journeys through cancer and other conditions. The role gives me the opportunity to meet women like Sharonda Hankins Davis, who, along with her four sisters, enlisted my help in advocating for their mother during her breast cancer journey. They are five beautiful souls, a family entrenched in our community, and working with them was a blessing. In fact, it inspired me to ask Sharonda to join the board of Novant Health Brunswick Medical Center Foundation. She agreed, and now we are putting our servant hearts to good use ensuring our community has access to remarkable healthcare, now and in the future.

These last 23 years, I’ve collected numerous stories like that — too many to count, really. And it’s left me beyond grateful, for the wonderful people I’ve met, the life lessons I’ve learned and the community impact I get to focus on. Now, I am living to enjoy my family, friends and my tribe.

To all those going through cancer, remember: Survival rates are excellent now, especially with early detection. To all we have lost to their cancer, I remember each of you and I pray for those who love you and miss you each day.

I also pray diligently we will find a cure.

Remember to take care of your health, have all the preventive tests and always advocate for yourself. Cancer is your journey, and you need to be comfortable with each decision you make. Remember, the most important part of your journey is to trust yourself and be grateful for the chance to live.

Early detection saves lives.

We are beyond grateful for the support of individuals like Kimmie Durham. Her commitment to this community is evident in everything she does, both within Novant Health Brunswick Medical Center Foundation and beyond.

You can do your part, too, by making a donation to Brunswick Medical Center Foundation. Your gifts help provide remarkable care to all those in need. Join us, and make your contribution today.

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