What I Learned During Endometrial Cancer Treatment: 'Hug Your Family Every Day'
When Kristen Lummis broke her arm on a skiing expedition with her family in 2015, she was naturally disappointed, but she also accepted the early end to her ski season as a consequence of the sometimes risky sports she and her family love.
She didn’t anticipate, however, that just a few months later she would in the hospital for a completely unrelated surgery, asking the nurses to please be careful of the broken arm while she was under anesthesia. The surgery was one she didn’t feel prepared for: a complete hysterectomy due to a surprise diagnosis of endometrial cancer at age 49.
Although endometrial cancer typically affects older women or women who aren’t as active as Lummis (she mountain bikes and runs when it’s not ski season), Lynch syndrome — a condition that increases the risk of certain cancers — runs in Lummis’ family. And while she was aware of the connection between Lynch and colon cancer, Lummis hadn’t heard of the lesser-known association with endometrial cancer. When she noticed some spotting between periods, she figured it was just the start of menopause.
The surgery and recovery were mentally draining, but three years later, Lummis is back to her regular regimen of running, mountain biking, and downhill skiing — and as a stronger, more balanced person than ever. HealthCentral spoke with Lummis about her journey to recovery after cancer.
HealthCentral (HC): Did fitness help your recovery from endometrial cancer?
Kristen Lummis: [For anyone who has a cancer diagnosis, I’d recommend] getting in the best physical shape you can before you get treated. It’s not only good for your body, but it’s good for your mind to get those endorphins. My gynecologic oncologist always remarks on how much better it is to be fit.
Even though I thought I was in pretty good shape before cancer, I didn’t eat as well as I could [have]. Now I’ve cleaned up the way I eat. I use the Mayo Clinic Diet, which has you eat about 80-90 percent of the volume of your food in fruits and vegetables. Just taking that advice, my whole family got in much better physical condition.
Also, it’s been really helpful to set goals — in 2015, I set a goal of being able to ski by Christmas break, for example, and I keep setting goals like that. Even though I had a truncated ski season that year in 2016, it was absolutely liberating to put on skis and move my body and to have a healthy body that wasn’t working against me.
It was such mental freedom: I may have been through a lot, but I can still do these things, and I don’t have to think about cancer and be identified as a patient or survivor while I’m doing them. On the running side, I ran my first 10K in the spring this year. And in November I’m going to run in the National Race to End Women’s Cancer. I decided that if I got the all-clear at my three-year checkup in August, I’d raise as much money as I could for the race.
Actually, having a passion for anything, whether it be quilting or skiing or cooking — anything that makes you feel part of a community and feel good — is really important.
HC: You live in Colorado but had surgery and follow-up treatment in Minnesota. Why?
Kristen: I got a life-changing bit of advice from the gynecologic oncologist I was referred to. He said, “Go to a one-stop shop like the Mayo Clinic” [in Rochester, Minn.] I have a brother who lives [not far from there], so I thought, that’s not a big deal.
In June of 2015, I arrived at the Mayo Clinic, and I felt really fortunate that I could put 100 percent of my trust in that team. The gynecologic oncologist was great, and they used the most cutting-edge surgical techniques.
If I have advice for anyone, it’s to seek out a location for treatment where you’re getting the best care you can and you don’t have to second-guess anything. I had a complete hysterectomy in June of 2015. One of the great things about Mayo is they didn’t see a need to take my lymph nodes out. And I didn’t have to have chemo or radiation. [If I had been treated where I live], I would have had an open hysterectomy and removal of my lymph nodes, and then definitely either chemo or radiation.
I went back to Mayo every three months for the first year and then every six months after that. I’ve just been released to go every year for a colonoscopy and screening.
HC: Where did you find support during your cancer treatment?
Kristen: A cancer diagnosis turns life upside down: Everything you have planned is thrown into question, both short- and long-term. Even what you’re doing tomorrow — suddenly you’re chasing down imaging to send to doctors; it’s an immediate change.
One of the most difficult things is not feeling isolated or alone. Being able to spend time with other people who have experienced the same thing is one of the most healing things. When you’re treated out of town, you’re cut off from local support, so I banded together with two women locally who had ovarian cancer and were also treated out of town.
HC: What do you wish people knew about endometrial cancer?
Kristen: For women: Don’t ignore your symptoms. Early diagnosis is the most critical thing in cancer. One of the best pieces of advice I got from the oncologist was, if you have consistent symptoms for two weeks, see a doctor. And bloating and bleeding are symptoms — it’s easy to blow both of these off, but in my group of friends [with gynecological cancers], we all wished we had not blown off our symptoms. It took me several months to go get diagnosed.
The other thing is, pay attention to your family history. If anyone in your family has gotten cancer younger than 50, go talk to a genetic counselor. I had not done that; I looked at my mom who had had a hysterectomy [to prevent cancer] and colonoscopies and never got cancer. I did not know how high my risk of endometrial cancer was.
HC: How has your cancer experience changed you and your family?
Kristen: I was diagnosed a week after my oldest son graduated from high school, and I thought I was going to ruin his freshman year of college. My sons were 18 and 16, so they were well able to do research on the internet.
We think about protecting young kids, but teens can be really vulnerable because of the internet and the information you can’t censor or control. But I’ve been so impressed with what remarkably good sports my kids have been; they don’t even complain about going to get colonoscopies.
I have never had such lows as I’ve had after cancer. After I had surgery and found out I wouldn’t need any serious additional treatments, my husband asked me, “Why aren't you happier?” I was still processing. I had to learn to give myself time, to not feel I had to make fast decisions.
You get in that mode as a mother, taking care of other people, and I had to learn to mentally slow down, give myself space, ask for what I needed and wanted. I worked on a gratefulness practice — I found that really, really helpful.
And I focused on things I could control — you can’t control genetics or cancer, so I focused on my diet, yoga, fitness, and a lot on sleep, which was challenging because I’d lost hormones and I had a lot going on in my mind.
Now, I’m a better, stronger, more balanced person. But there are still times I need to turn to my friends who’ve been there and say, “Man, today is hard!” Cancer puts things into perspective, and I have learned it is important to take care of myself. I appreciate my family, my fitness, my dog, the experiences I have. I tell people now, “Hug your family every day.”
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