Kristin Zbozien was 32 years old and 25 weeks pregnant when doctors diagnosed her with breast cancer. She had no family history of the disease. The 5-centimeter tumor that she discovered on her own, as well as two smaller tumors that became apparent through ultrasound, never showed up on a mammogram. And she ultimately tested negative for the BRCA gene. The good news is she survived. The longtime Dickson, TN, resident and bank loan officer, who was already mom to three daughters under the age of 7, gave birth to her fourth healthy daughter on June 29, 2016, seven weeks after her diagnosis. She finished chemotherapy on October 28, the same day a scan showed no evidence of cancer in her body. This month’s FACE of TriStar, Kristin Zbozien is one brave mama. She sat down with us in a Dickson coffee shop to share the lows and highs of her journey, which began in Dickson with a mammogram at TriStar Horizon Medical Center’s Natchez Campus and came full circle with radiology oncology treatments at the same facility.
How did you find out you had breast cancer?
I was laying out last April — I know that’s bad — and I burned my chest. So, when it started to peel, I was trying to get the skin off in the shower, and that’s when I felt something. I knew about it for a couple of weeks, but I waited for my regular baby doctor visit. I asked Dr. [Michael] Hawkins [OB/GYN at TriStar Horizon Medical Center] to check it out, and he said, “It’s probably nothing, but to ease your worries, we will do an ultrasound.” I went by myself because I didn’t think it was anything, until I was in the ultrasound room. The tech asked me about my age and how far along I was, and then she reached for a red phone. She said, “There’s a spot with blood flow,” and another nurse came in, and they asked me more questions. I just remember going to my car and calling my husband, and I said, “They found something, and I don’t have a very good feeling about it.”
They did the biopsy a week later, and I got the call after my first field trip with my kindergartner. We went to the Adventure Science Center in Nashville, and we had just walked off the bus, and it started raining and we got in my car, and my phone rang. They said, “We’re sorry, but it’s cancer. We’ve already tested it, and it’s a pretty aggressive type.” I went numb after that. We were on the phone for awhile, and when we got off, I knew I couldn’t drive, but I was in the school parking lot, and I didn’t want to get upset with my child in the backseat. I work at TriStar Bank right across from the school, so I went to the bank. I’ve been there 16 years, and they are all like family. They took my daughter downstairs because they could tell I was upset, and I went to my friend’s office and literally sat down and started crying. I said, “It’s not good.”
I was worried about the baby of course, being 25 weeks. We thought we were going to have to make that decision you or the baby at that point, and I said we’re keeping the baby. They said we can get you to about 32 weeks, and you’ll be good. So, we rode it out, but she did go through some chemo with me.
What did your treatment involve?
I had a unilateral mastectomy in Nashville while I was pregnant on May 23, and two weeks after that, we started chemotherapy. The only reason I didn’t have treatment in Dickson was because of the pregnancy. I had to have a neonatal team that was with me through the chemo because they were taking the baby early. Dr. Hawkins, even though he wasn’t my doctor anymore, kept in touch with me, and I was able to do my radiation treatments in Dickson [at TriStar Horizon’s Natchez Campus] with Dr. [Craig] Collie. That was good because I could do it on my lunch break. I felt like I hid that better than the others. My kids didn’t know because they were all in school or daycare, so they didn’t know mommy was off another day or couldn’t pick them up.
But we started chemo the second week of June, and they took her on June 29. She was a little under 5 pounds, and she was in the NICU for four weeks. We couldn’t bring her home until the end of July. I would do my chemo treatments at Vanderbilt, and then I would go to the NICU and kind of recover. I had a suite in her room so I could rest and still be near her. I couldn’t kiss her on the day of treatment because it was so toxic. So, it was hard. I could hold her, and my mother was with me, so she did a lot of kissing on her for me.
How did your daughters cope with your illness, or did they know about it?
My oldest one knew, and towards the end of it, she would actually bring me the trashcan when I was sick or bring me a wet washcloth. She was a good nurse. I have a friend who told us she was pregnant, and my daughter said, “Oh my gosh, is she going to lose her hair, too?” She was relating losing your hair to being pregnant, so we had to clear that up. But I missed her kindergarten graduation because I was in the hospital for my mastectomy, and I missed a couple of other things. So, she would say, “Do you have to go have chemo today? Is that why you can’t pick me up?” But I think it brought us closer. To be 7, she took good care of me.
How did your husband handle all of it?
He is so considerate. He handled it by letting me sleep. He brought me food in bed, and he brought trashcans, lots of trashcans. He did laundry. He did the little things that really helped me out that other people couldn’t do. Everyone brought food. For months, we had food. But he bathed the kids and got down on the floor with them. He would have the bed ready for me. I kept working because I wanted to keep my mind off of it, but I’d try to leave by about 3 p.m., and then I would just have to sleep. He had everything laid out for me, and he still does. I get home now by about 6 p.m., and I’m about ready to crash still, but he usually gives the kids the bath still to help me out. He’s amazing. I couldn’t have gone through it without him.
What was it like to lose your hair?
I started losing my hair when I was pregnant after the first round of chemo. I will never forget we were going to see Finding Dory, and I brushed my hair and a huge clump came out. It made me go to my knees. I guess it made it more real because I could pass it off to others that everything was fine, but once you lose your hair, then everyone knows. And so I sucked it up, took them to the movie, and we had popcorn and Coke. That was on a Saturday, and the next Friday, it was still really starting to thin and come out, and it was long blond hair, so it seemed like a lot. My husband and I went on a date to Outback Steakhouse, and when we came home, he buzzed my head. The kids were there, but he did it in the bathroom, and I really think it was tougher on him than it was on me. He didn’t want to do it because he didn’t want to see me get upset, but I think once I got it together, it was fine. I didn’t show the kids that night. I put a hat on right then before I went out of the bedroom, and I showed them the next morning just because we could talk about it. The kids were like, “Why did daddy do that to you?”
But there is a difference between buzzed and bald. I think I handled bald better than buzzed because with buzzed, I still had hair, but I just looked like a boy. I will never forget the pain though. Right before the hair would fall out, it would hurt in spots, and then you could touch it, and it would be in your hand. I guess it’s where the follicles died. It wasn’t an all-over pain; it was spots. It was like a nerve pain almost. So, I was glad when it finally fell out because it didn’t hurt anymore. And then I had to watch You Tube videos on how to tie scarves. I bought wigs that I thought looked like my own hair, but the kids did not like them and were like, “No, Mama, you can’t wear that!” So, of course I wanted to do whatever made them feel more comfortable, so I bought scarves at Walgreens and tied them up in a little bun and went like that. I would leave them tied, and then I could just slip them on and tighten them if I needed to, and one day, my kids came down the hallway with them on, and said, “We’re gonna be Mama today.” That meant so much because they had embraced it. Bella, my oldest, had said before, “Why can’t you have hair like all the other moms in first grade?” So, for her, especially, to put the scarf on, it really made me feel like she’d finally embraced it.
How did you feel when they told you there was no evidence of cancer?
Well, of course I cried. It was a huge relief, but then I kind of felt guilty. I had followed other people on a support group or I had read other stories where they didn’t get that outcome, so I just felt so blessed to have that news, but I felt guilty because others didn’t get it. It was just a relief to know that the children got their mommy because I struggled with that a lot. Of all the people, why did God pick me? And why am I going to be taken from my kids — that was the biggest thing. I still worry about it. A couple nights ago, I had a breakdown. “What if it comes back, and I don’t know it?” I make lists for my husband because you just never know. If something happens to me, I tell him you still have to take the girls to softball, and you hang the softball pants up to dry — don’t put them in the dryer, and Molly doesn’t like this. Of course, it’s being a mother, making sure all of the little things are taken care of.
We are going to do reconstruction. I went back and forth. At first, I didn’t want to put my body through any more, but then, I thought, “You’re only 33,” and for me, it’s not about boobs. It’s just about feeling complete again because it took a lot from me — from my hair to my body to I struggle with the weight, and my purse is full of medicine. It’s just a constant reminder when I shower, or when I put on clothing. Surgery is kind of like the prize to me. That’s the way I’m looking at it. You get to get your body back a little bit. So, I’m looking forward to it.
Do you have any advice for women who might be scared to get something checked out?
Don’t be scared. Be proactive. I guess I felt dumb. I didn’t want to tell even my best friend because I thought, She’s going to think I’m being dramatic. That’s what kept me from calling for the first few weeks. Go with your gut because I just knew something wasn’t right, but in the back of my mind, I’m thinking, You’re not 40. It doesn’t happen to people that are pregnant. But it does happen when it’s not supposed to. I didn’t know anyone who had ever had breast cancer, and then here we go in Dickson, Tennessee. So, just don’t be afraid to check, and don’t be afraid to ask your doctor, “Hey what do you think about this?” I truly am so thankful for Dr. Hawkins. I feel like he saved my life because he sent me that day to get it checked out. And then his nurse came in on a Friday when they aren’t even open to see if my results were back. She called me that evening to check on me, and small town, we live on the same street, so she even offered to come over. They are the ones who got me to my oncologist, and they followed through with me, and they’ve never lost touch with me.
Talk about the picture you brought today.
That was in the NICU. I look at it now, but it’s not what I looked at when I was going through everything. I looked at one when I was pregnant, and all the kids were not posing, and it was just a chaotic moment. I think it was the weekend before the mastectomy. I just remember looking at it a lot and thinking, “Life is not perfect, children are not going to pose when you ask them to pose, and you can get cancer when you least expect it.” My children were a beautiful distraction through all this, and I don’t think I could have gotten through it without having them and being able to still be mom.
Thank you to Kristin Zbozien for so candidly sharing her breast cancer survival story. To learn more about the services offered at TriStar Horizon Medical Center, visit tristarhorizon.com.