Kimberly Farmer found a lump in her breast in a very unusual way.
“I woke up at 3 a.m. one night for no reason, and my left hand was on my left breast and I felt a lump,” Farmer said. “I definitely believe it was a sign that I was meant to find it.”
Farmer said she vividly remembers feeling jolted awake and having a sense that something was wrong. The next morning, she called her obstetrician-gynecologist, who sent her for a diagnostic mammogram. The lump showed up as a shadow on the mammogram, so she had an ultrasound for further evaluation.
She then had a breast biopsy and was diagnosed with stage II breast cancer that was HER2-positive, progesterone negative and estrogen positive.
The diagnosis, which came in September 2018, caught her by surprise since she had always kept up with her mammograms and exams.
Before beginning her treatment at Tanner Cancer Care
, she and her husband traveled to Texas to seek a second opinion at the world-renowned MD Anderson Cancer Center. The diagnosis and treatment plan they gave her were exactly the same as what her doctors at Tanner had recommended.
“I was so glad to be able to get the best treatment without having to leave Carrollton,” she said.
Her breast specialist was Raul Zunzunegui, MD
, a Susan G. Komen Fellowship-trained breast specialist who is board-certified in surgery. Randall Pierce, MD
, who is board-certified in medical oncology with Northwest Georgia Oncology Centers, served as her medical oncologist.
“Dr. Pierce and Dr. Z have been fabulous,” she said. “They are a wonderful team and I know I’m in great hands with them.”
Farmer, 53, is no stranger to difficult health situations. She has a tethered spinal cord and endured a spinal fusion at age 12, which caused her to spend six months in a body cast and required her to learn how to walk again. The tethered spinal cord has also caused some kidney problems and numbness in her foot.
She has never let her health challenges define her life, though, and has always done things that seemed against the odds medically — from downhill skiing and weight-lifting to having a healthy pregnancy and giving birth to her daughter at age 40.
“It’s your life, so it’s what you know, and you just do it,” she said. “You have to play the cards you have been dealt, but it’s up to you how you see it and what kind of attitude you have.”
Road to Recovery
Farmer started chemotherapy in November 2018, and it lasted through February 2019. Chemotherapy was challenging, as she had a lot of nausea and fatigue. Because of her existing kidney problems, Farmer also had frequent urinary tract infections and fevers.
“There are some really tough days during chemo where it’s just you and God,” she said. “You have to tell yourself, ‘I’m just going to be here and get through this,’ and that’s all you can do.”
When Farmer started chemotherapy, her oncologist suggested staying home as much as possible to avoid getting sick since the treatment can weaken a person’s immune system.
Farmer, formerly a teacher and media specialist for 19 years, is a stay-at-home mom who has done a lot of volunteer work. A Carrollton resident, she had many friends who called, checked on her and brought her food. One friend introduced her to another local woman who is a cancer survivor. Farmer met her for lunch and got lots of good advice.
“She told me no matter how bad you feel, you should get up and take a shower every day — even if you put on a pair of pajamas and have to go back to bed,” Farmer said.
Following chemotherapy, she had two lumpectomy surgeries.
Finally, she had radiation. She received fractionated radiation therapy, where the radiation treatments were split into 16 sessions. This type of radiation delivers a small fraction of the total radiation dose at a time, which allows normal cells to repair themselves between treatments.
“The modern approach to treating breast cancer is very personalized,” said Dr. Zunzunegui. “No two patients are the same, and no two cancers are the same. There’s no one right way that works for everyone — each patient needs a unique treatment plan, and it’s our role as physicians to work with them to find out which plan is going to work best for them.”
Farmer said the radiation treatments went well.
Her Support System
Throughout the whole experience — from diagnosis to treatment — her husband, Shae, was a great source of strength, she said.
“I have the best husband who didn’t miss anything and has been with me every step of the way,” she said. “He has been absolutely amazing.”
In addition, her parents as well as her mother-in-law played an important role in Farmer’s support system, as well as her 13-year-old daughter Josie, who helped Farmer keep a very positive attitude.
“She was very brave and handled it splendidly,” Farmer said. “I was diagnosed at the beginning of the school year, so that was tough, but she really stayed the course and still wound up with straight A’s.”
Farmer said the team at Tanner has helped make her challenging journey more positive in every aspect.
“I have been so amazed at the care, the quality of treatment and the love from everyone we have met on this journey — from the receptionists and the nurses to my nurse navigator, the physician assistants and my physicians,” Farmer said.
She said her nurse navigator, Nicolle Rooks, RN, made a huge difference by helping her navigate her treatment and recovery while helping her understand what was happening each step of the way.
Throughout the process, Farmer’s church gave her emotional support and kept her lifted up in prayer. “My church family at Tabernacle Baptist
was vital to my journey. Although I was going through a really tough time, God put these people in my life to encourage and lift me.”
A cancer support group at her church has been one of the highlights of her journey. The group, which meets once a month and features guest speakers, offers support for patients and their families.
“It has been so good to sit in a room and talk with people who really know what it’s like, and the support has just been incredible,” she said. “It also has been very uplifting to see people who are seven or eight years down the road in their recovery.”
Planning for a Healthy Future
behind her, she is now in the final stage of her treatment. For almost a year, she will be taking a medicine called KADCYLA, which can be used for some patients with HER2-positive, early breast cancer.
KADCYLA fights cancer by finding HER2-positive breast cancer cells and attaching to the cells’ receptors. It tells the cells to stop growing and tells the body’s immune system to destroy them. It also goes inside the cell and releases chemotherapy to kill the cancerous cell.
“This therapy is like a Trojan horse,” said Dr. Pierce. “It uses an antibody to deliver chemotherapy directly to the inside of cancerous cells.”
The side effects are very minimal compared to her previous chemotherapy treatments, and Farmer is happy to report that her hair is growing back.
Life is starting to get back to normal. She and her daughter recently went to volunteer for a week at a camp for special needs children. It was their second year volunteering and more than just a way of giving back, Farmer said.
“The kids give you so much,” she said. “I was so thrilled that we were able to go, and I can’t wait to go back again.”
One of her legs is weaker now — possibly from muscle weakness and nerve damage that can be a side effect of chemotherapy — but she doesn’t let it stop her. She simply uses a cane when she goes out. “You do the best with what you have to work with.”
“I’m just thankful for the people that are placed in our lives to help us when we can’t help ourselves,” Farmer said of her journey back to health. “One thing I learned is that it’s vital to look around everyday for that person we are meant to uplift because now it’s my turn to give back.”