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It was the first day of her sophomore year of high school in suburban Cleveland when 15-year-old Kristina Cowan lost her mother to breast cancer.
Cowan’s mother was only 46 when she died. She had waited to see a doctor, and by the time she went, the disease was stage IV. Within a year, she was gone.
“When you lose your mom young, you learn to mother yourself,” said Cowan, now 42, of Naperville. And Cowan did just that. She made it a point to be as healthy as she could. She took care of her herself, ate well, exercised and never smoked.
Always watchful of breast cancer—which afflicted her grandmother and great grandmother, as well—Cowan had her first baseline mammogram when she was in her 20s, and regular screening mammograms after that.
Cowan became a journalist and moved to Washington, D.C., where she met her French-born husband, Matt. In 2008, the couple returned to the Chicago suburbs and a year later, they welcomed their son, Noah, followed by their daughter, Syma, (whose name means “joy”) in 2011.
Shortly after Cowan turned 40, in the summer of 2014, she went for another mammogram. This time, her Edward radiologist, Allan Haggar, M.D., said there was suspicious tissue in her breast. Cowan was floored. She worried she’d die young, as her mother had, and leave her young children behind.
A series of tests followed as Cowan met with more doctors, including oncologist Samir Undevia, M.D., and a genetic counselor. Genetic testing showed she didn’t have the BRCA mutations. But an MRI-guided breast biopsy—a test Cowan describes as horrific—revealed suspicious cells.
In December 2014, Cowan had a lumpectomy, performed by Edward breast surgeon Christine Gresik, M.D. The results showed abnormal cells in her left breast, characteristic of two conditions considered markers for an increased risk of breast cancer: atypical ductal hyperplasia (ADH) and flat epithelial atypia (FEA). Her Edward doctors, including Drs. Haggar, Gresik and Undevia, as well as reconstructive surgeon Lucio Pavone, M.D., laid out her options: a double mastectomy, surveillance every six months, or surveillance plus Tamoxifen.
Cowan opted for the six-month surveillance. Meanwhile, she changed up her diet and started seeing a doctor of applied kinesiology. But when she returned for another grueling MRI-guided breast biopsy in June 2015, the results again indicated suspicious growth.
Cowan decided she couldn’t tolerate a six-month pendulum, swinging between worry and test results. She poured herself into research, posed a slew of questions for her doctors, and joined an online support group. As a wife and mother of young children, she knew surgery was the choice she needed to make for her family.
“I saw it as a preventative measure--to save my life--and the best thing I could do for my kids and my husband,” she said. “I thought, ‘I have a lot more knowledge than my mom ever did. She went in far too late. I have a chance that she didn’t have.’”
On Sept. 29, 2015, Cowan had a prophylactic bilateral mastectomy with Dr. Gresik and breast reconstruction with Dr. Pavone, at Edward Hospital.
“It couldn’t have gone better. I came home, and people had told me, ‘You won’t be able to lift your arms over your head for a while.’ But that morning, I lifted my arms straight up over my head,’” said Cowan.
“I remember looking in the mirror and thinking, I look better than I’ve ever looked. It was funny to me that I would go through all this, relive my mom’s whole experience, and then feel like my body looked more proportional than it ever looked. I just thought that was hilarious. God really has a sense of humor,” she said.
A week later, when Cowan had her surgery drains removed, Dr. Gresik revealed just how fortunate she was. The pathology report uncovered supsicious cells yet again—more ADH, and a very small patch of ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), often called stage-zero breast cancer. The growths were so tiny, not even MRI technology snagged them. But left undetected, they might’ve morphed into invasive cancer.
“It was one of the best decisions I ever made. I have no regrets,” she said. “I love to tell people that the care I received at Edward was the finest I’ve seen. I was supported all the way around. There wasn’t a question they didn’t answer.”
It wasn’t just the clinical expertise that impressed Cowan, but the emotional support she received. “Dr. Undevia was a calming agent. He would have me laughing when I was in there, and that was exactly what I needed,” she said.
As she wrapped things up with Dr. Undevia in the fall of 2015, he stirred laughter when he said, ‘I don’t ever want to see you here again! Get out. You’re done.’”
Cowan now sees Dr. Pavone once a year to check on her implants, which will need to be replaced in about 10 to 15 years. Aside from that, she’s happy to be moving on.
“I feel good--very healthy. We never have control over how long our lives are, but I knew I didn’t want to die from breast cancer. I felt like I addressed it in the best way I could.”
Cowan recently finished her first manuscript on a nonfiction book about postpartum depression, one she spent the past four years researching and writing. She also has her own blog, at kristinacowan.com. She and her husband Matt just celebrated 10 years of marriage. She knows life doesn’t hold guarantees. But she’s thankful to be here for her kids.
“I’m grateful because so many women in so many parts of the world don’t have access to this level of care. I had the forewarning from my mom. I had this great medical care. I had supportive family and friends. I can’t be anything but grateful,” Cowan said.
Breast Reconstruction Awareness Day Event
Bring a guest and celebrate Breast Reconstruction Awareness Day (BRA Day) on Tuesday, Oct. 18 from 6 to 8 p.m. at Edward Cancer Center in Naperville. BRA Day focuses on education, access and support for women who are undergoing or have completed treatment.
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