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Breast Center

Debra's Story

Debra Kelsay, RN

wife, mom, grandmother, nurse, breast health advocate

Last October, Hill Country Memorial staff gathered in the HCM café to schedule their mammograms. Though ICU nurse Debra Kelsay wore light blue scrubs like many of the staff that day, she was hard to miss. The cloth cap on her head told those around her that she was undergoing chemotherapy—treatment for breast cancer. That day Debra jumped right in and began talking to other staff members about her experience. As a patient and a caregiver, here Debra shares her story.

My grandmother had breast cancer, and because of that family history, I got my first mammogram at age 30. I had a second, routine mammogram at age 35. When I turned 40 I began getting annual mammograms, always free from any signs of lumps or problems.

Until April 29, 2014. That evening I felt a small, pea-sized nodule next to my right nipple, and it really surprised me. I have always done breast self-exams in the shower each month, and I had a mammogram a few months earlier in October. How did I miss this small lump?

I told my husband Dede, and he encouraged me to get it checked quickly. The next day, after talking to my supervisor, I spoke with my doctor who scheduled a mammogram and an ultrasound for May 6. At that time, only my husband, my supervisor and the hospital chaplain knew what was happening.

On May 6 I went by myself to the Breast Center for the mammogram and the ultrasound. I really wanted to believe that it was nothing. Afterward, I was able to schedule an appointment with a surgeon for that afternoon.

I called my husband and then my two daughters. That was very hard. We all cried. They wanted to come, but I wanted to do this by myself.

That afternoon the surgeon performed a biopsy of my right breast in the office. As a nurse, I asked him, you see a lot of this, what does it look like? He replied, “I am suspicious and concerned.” Right then and there I knew it was cancer.

On Monday, May 12, I was working in ICU. The surgeon came to me, put his arm around me and said, “I’m sorry, but it is cancer.” At that moment, I thought, “This can’t be happening to me. I am a nurse. I take care of myself. I do all the preventive things. Why me?”

On Friday, May 16, I spent all day at the hospital having tests: lab tests, an MRI, CXR, CT and bone scan to make sure the cancer was not anywhere else.

The next week my husband and I visited with the surgeon about treatment options. On May 28, I arrived at the hospital early in the morning with my husband and my loving, supportive daughters by my side for my lumpectomy.

After being a nurse at Hill Country Memorial since 1994, it was really hard to be the patient in the beginning. I had to let others take care of me. The love and special care my family gave me was so wonderful. I had so much support and well wishes, prayers and cards.

For five months I had chemo treatments every three weeks, labs and injections. The last treatment was October 1, 2014, shortly before my 55th birthday. My family and friends helped me celebrate with a birthday pink party, and everyone wore pink.

Throughout this process, I learned so much about the love and goodness people have. Where I work, the kindness and generosity that everyone gave me was wonderful. So many people cared for me and helped me get through treatments.

For example, I began radiation treatments last November and had a treatment every day for 33 days. At that time, I also went back to work in ICU for two days a week. The treatments made me very tired and weak.

Each day, I would leave work around 10 a.m., have my radiation treatment, and return to work within 30 minutes. Often I would lose my parking spot near the ICU and have to walk back to work from more than a block away. A colleague told me that the HCM Facilities crew could put out a yellow cone to save my spot. They did this for me, and it helped me so much.

This Christmas Eve will mark one year after completing all of my treatments. This new chapter in my life includes spending a lot of quality fun time with my four grandchildren, daughters, sons-in-law and the love of my life, my husband of almost 40 years. I look forward to lake trips on the pontoon boat, RV camping, swimming in our tropical backyard pool, traveling and making a lot of memories.

I continue to be a nurse at Hill Country Memorial, caring for others and helping those who go through cancer, in order to give back what was given to me. I have a new outlook on life, and I enjoy every day and am thankful for all my blessings. I have learned to be thankful for life, family, friends and my faith in God.

My advice to women: If you are too young for a mammogram, please check your breasts every month. Do it well. Only you know your own body. Only you will feel changes. Start those mammograms at 40. Have a baseline. There is help out there to pay for this. Find it early and treat it early. Be proactive about your health. Your loved ones and friends want you around for a long time. God bless!