Kathryn’s story – travelling her journey with tenacity and celebration
Kathryn Clout was recovering from a broken ankle when she felt a lump in her breast. Initially she thought it was a muscular strain brought on by hobbling around on crutches, but a mammogram told otherwise. Two tiny lumps were discovered in different quadrants of her breast – both so small doctors were incredulous she had felt anything at all.
In February 2015 she had a mastectomy with reconstruction, and fortunately didn’t require chemo or radiotherapy because the tumours were caught early. She could focus on her recovery while preparing herself for what was shaping up to be a year of medical procedures – ahead lay further surgery on her ankle as well as elective breast reduction surgery following the reconstruction.
While she had to ease back her busy schedule, Kathryn still had responsibilities to attend to. Her business – The Treehouse Private Kindergarten – employed five staff and Kathryn managed the centre on a daily basis. She also continued to appear at public events and functions – sometimes heavily bandaged underneath – with her husband Kelvin, Tauranga’s deputy mayor.
Her resolve was tested however as the year wore on. She lost her grandparents within a few months of each other, and between those events, in October, she found another lump. This one – a rare rogue tumour – was lodged between the implant and her skin. It was quickly removed, but this time Kathryn was advised to have chemotherapy followed by six weeks of radiotherapy.
“Chemo is rough but I chose to look upon my treatment as life giving. Still, there were times when I felt I wasn’t contributing to life anymore and I found that really hard. I couldn’t even get off the bed let alone do anything.”
The sadness of hair loss
Losing her long hair was a particularly difficult time for Kathryn, especially happening just at the time her grandfather died a few days before Christmas. The day of the funeral it started to fall out in clumps.
“It was just very sad seeing all this hair coming out. Up until then I knew the steps I had to take to come out the other side but the day I had my head shaved was very hard. I sat in the chair and felt massive hot tears coming down.”
Kathryn wore a “beautiful” wig for seven months which was cut to the style of her own hair and she remembers a few close calls when it sometimes slipped back on her forehead.
“Kelvin and I would have a little code so when we were at functions and he noticed it slipping back, he would signal me so I would know to fix it. There were a few funny times but luckily it never actually came off.
“Now my hair has grown back curly and I sometimes look in the mirror and don’t recognise myself, but I don’t think I’ll grow it again. I have a new crown and I’m embracing that.”
Along with her strong faith, it was the support of her family – including the joy of a new-born grand-daughter – friends and the Treehouse staff “heroes” that helped Kathryn get through the tough six months of treatment.
“Cancer is a psychological journey as much as a physical one and at times I did feel like I was at the edge of the cliff, but it was my family and my faith that pulled me back. I don’t think you can travel a journey like that without resources around you, because you’re made buoyant by the people who love you.”
Little things made a big difference. Friends would pop into the cancer clinic and sit with her on chemo days, or drop by with a meal or baking. Just having her husband and family near her when she was too ill to get out of bed was reassuring, she says. “Sometimes you don’t need words, just companionship, and the peace that comes with that is quite amazing.”
Ultimately though, it was her own resolve and decision to focus on the positives that kept her going.
“I look for the celebrations in life and treasure relationships because then you’re able to keep a positive perspective when you go through trauma and heartache. On completion of treatment my son graduated from university and I cried all day because it was such a wonderful celebration.
“Everybody has a story and it’s what you make of it and how you chose to live your life. If this is my journey then I’ll travel it as best as I can, with tenacity and celebration.”
And that means taking more responsibility for her own wellbeing. She now has more work/play balance and works fewer hours in her business, goes to Pilates and gets a regular oncology massage. She’s also made some dietary changes. “I’m more energised and I’ve got a supportive team around me. There are some tough times, but what’s not to be thankful for?”