Natalie Keeling, shown with her husband, has been cancer free since 2014.
As a breast cancer survivor, Natalie Keeling knows it’s not always easy for people to share their stories. An entire month, October, dedicated to breast cancer awareness can bring about conflicting emotions: happiness for having overcome the disease but sadness for being reminded of what they went through.
“Some don’t see any positive in it,” said Keeling, who has worked in human resources at Virginia Peninsula Community College since 2016. “I look at every day I wake up as positive. Every day that I was allowed to live is positive.”
Her cancer story began long before she was born, as hereditary factors play a significant role in the disease. She had a grandmother who passed away from breast cancer, her father died from prostate cancer, and her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 45 when Keeling was in her early 20s. The good news is none of her siblings has had cancer.
“I do have a daughter that I worry about,” she said.
Breast cancer, the second-most common cancer in U.S. women behind skin cancer, occurs mostly in women 55 and older. Women younger than 45 comprise a small percentage of those diagnosed with breast cancer.
Keeling was among that last group as she was 35 when diagnosed.
“I was going to the doctor for something completely different,” she said.
However, before her appointment, she noticed something in her breast and asked her doctor about it. Her doctor scheduled a mammogram. Then an ultrasound.
“I was a little alarmed,” she said about the added test.
A few days after the ultrasound, she got a call from her doctor, who was still unsure what it was, but referred her to a specialist.
“I wasn’t really scared at that point yet,” she said.
Keeling had a biopsy, and before the sample went to pathology, the doctor knew what it was. She was sitting in the doctor’s office with her then-husband and her mother, a two-time cancer survivor.
“My mom was like, ‘We’re going to be OK. We’ll work it out,’” Keeling said.
She was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer in May 2013, but a missed opportunity about seven months earlier haunts her.
In October 2012, at her annual wellness exam, she asked her gynecologist if she needed to have a mammogram. She mentioned her mother’s history of breast cancer. He told her to wait another year and assured her she should be fine.
“No tests or anything,” Keeling said. “In my mind, I always think if at that appointment in October we would have done tests it probably wouldn’t have been as aggressive.”
As it turned out, she had to undergo six rounds of chemotherapy, followed by radiation. Her first treatment was in June 2013. She did two rounds in Virginia before finishing at the Cancer Treatment Center of America in Georgia, where she also had a bilateral mastectomy in September.
“It was a little rough because my family wasn’t there when I had certain things done,” she said, adding they visited as often as they could manage. “But I was grateful because I had a great support system.”
After her mastectomy, her chemotherapy resumed in October. Her last round was before the end of the year.
She remembers her first chemotherapy treatment.
“I walked into this big room with all these recliners around the walls,” she said. “I thought, ‘Wow. It’s not just me going through this. There are a lot of people that are.’ I think that’s when reality set in.”
That was about a month, she said, “a long month,” after her diagnosis.
One of the hardest parts of the ordeal was telling her children. Her daughter was a senior in high school, and her son was 12. She has since added a stepdaughter to the family.
“Having to sit them down and kind of explain things to them was,” she pauses, “that was difficult.”
She said her daughter surprised her because she knew more than her mother thought. Keeling remembers seeing what her mom went through and what it did to her body.
“That was a huge concern,” Keeling said. “So, as I told my kids, I didn’t really know what to expect, or how things would pan out or what it will look like.”
They handled it well. Her son would sit on the floor in Keeling’s hospital room and play video games when he visited. When Keeling’s hair started falling out, her daughter helped her shave it off. She also accompanied her mom to doctor’s appointments.
“Without family, I don’t know where I would be,” Keeling said, mentioning her mother and brother, too.
Cancer hasn’t reappeared, but it has changed her. Tastes and smells are different. Every time she notices something different with her body, she gets nervous.
“Whenever you feel something, you call the doctor,” Natalie said. “I’m not really a worrywart, but I am cautious.”
She remembers the date of her last treatment: Jan. 6, 2014.
She admits to some bad days, times she wanted to stop treatment, times it affected her mood the entire day, times she was terrified, and times she wasn’t sure she could go on. She’s a different person, but that’s not necessarily negative, she said.
“You look at life differently. You look at every situation differently,” she said, adding she tries to eliminate stress, is learning how to unplug, and takes time for herself.
She preaches the importance of early testing, especially to her daughter, who is a mother. Make sure to tell your doctor how you are feeling.
“Doctors don’t know your body (like) you do,” she said. “They go by what we tell them. But if we don’t say anything, they don’t know anything.”
She wishes she had been more of an advocate for herself maybe she would have been diagnosed sooner.
For those going through this, she wants to let them know they are not alone.
“None of us are alone in this,” she said.
Her brother, who was by her side for much of Keeling’s ordeal, often asks her why she’s always talking about breast cancer.
“Because I lived it, and if me talking about it helps someone else to talk about it, then I’m all for it,” she said.
So for her, Breast Cancer Awareness Month is a time to celebrate. But that’s not the only time she celebrates. She appreciates her birthdays more, enjoys them more.
“Before, I didn’t. It was just another day,” she said. “But this is something different. It’s now knowing that I have another purpose. I look at October to celebrate.”