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Finding strength in survival

For most, Valentine’s Day is a day filled with thoughts of love and romance. But for Jonesborough resident Kaye Gonel, it has become a day of mixed emotions.
“I celebrate a special kind of love,” she said. “I celebrate God’s love for me and his mercy in seeing me through the journey of a lifetime.”
That journey for Gonel was her yearlong battle with breast cancer. Valentine’s Day 2013 marked the one-year eve of her “D-Day” the day she was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer.
“I’m so glad I’m alive, but I also remember how scary things were last year,” she said. “On Feb. 14, 2012, I was 34 years old and I was happy. I thought I was faithful and content, but when you get news like that, it puts everything into true perspective.”
The day Gonel discovered a lump in her breast started like many others. It was Feb. 7, 2012, and she had just gotten back from taking her 2-year-old daughter Chelsea on a playdate.
“I came home and I told my husband that I had a lot of pain in my left breast,” Gonel said.
Having had two aunts who had breast cancer in their early 40s and a stepmother who died from the disease in 2010, Gonel said she religiously conducted breast self-exams.
But even that didn’t prepare her for what she would find.
“I went straight into the bathroom and started to check,” she said. “I put my hand on a lump.”
It was 7:30 in the evening and though Gonel and her husband, Richard, wanted to go straight out and see someone, there was no one to see at that time of night. Gonel went to see her OB/GYN the next day.
“She felt the same thing I felt,” Gonel said. “And she told me my lymph nodes were also enlarged.”
Arrangements were made for Gonel to be seen at the Women’s Imaging Center before the end of the week, but area flooding postponed the exam.
“That was the longest weekend of my life,” she said.
Monday came and Gonel went in for her ultrasound.
“The technician was so nice and casual, talking and laughing,” Gonel remembers. “It made me think oh, this is just a fibroid or a cyst. The technician told me she would take the scan in and if it was just a cyst, she’d be back. If it was more than that, she would bring a doctor in.”
The technician returned — with a doctor. The ultrasound had revealed a tumor.
On Feb. 15, 2012, the biopsy results were back and Gonel learned she needed to see a nurse practitioner.
“That gave me hope,” she said. “I thought surely if it was cancer, a doctor would be the one to tell me.”
That was not the case.
As Gonel sat in a small white room with her husband by her side and her father on speakerphone, she heard the words every person fears – “It’s cancer.”
“I couldn’t believe what I was hearing and I asked, ‘What did you say?’ She repeated the diagnosis,” Gonel recalled. “When you hear something like that, when you hear those words, time sort of stops. You start thinking about so many things.”
After hearing a “laundry list” of options, Gonel chose to have a bilateral mastectomy. She has endured 16 rounds of chemotherapy and 33 radiation treatments since then.
Her journey through breast cancer surgery and treatments has been a long one, Gonel said. But through her experience, she has learned a lot.
“Once you’re diagnosed with cancer you find out who people really are. Some will rally around you. Others are fearful and distance themselves from you. Some even act like it’s contagious,” she said. “People are afraid. They don’t know what to say. Then you realize that people who aren’t afraid to talk don’t know what to say either.”
The physical transformation during cancer treatment is something many are unprepared for, Gonel said.
“Breast cancer gives you a lot of reasons to be ashamed,” she said. “They don’t tell you up front that there will be a lot of weight gain and that your cycles will stop. I had a bald head and my breasts were gone. A lot of your womanhood seems to be under attack.”
But Gonel said she was determined to be in control of something. She asked her husband to shave her head before her hair started falling out – something her 2-year-old daughter witnessed and thought was “super cool.”
“I didn’t want her to be afraid of me or think it was strange,” Gonel said. “But after that, we had to keep the scissors away from her. Since my husband is also bald, Chelsea wanted a bald head, too.”
Gonel decided not to wear a wig or a scarf.
“It was my journey. It was something I was going through and I wasn’t ashamed of it,” she said. “Besides, I looked pretty with a bald head, so I was able to work it. There was a boldness.”
That bravado helped Gonel be as involved as possible in her cure and gave her the drive to share her story.
“This whole thing has been an adventure and a half,” Gonel said. “Every day, every moment is precious.”
She emphasized the importance of breast self-exams and the BRCA test for women who have a history of breast cancer in their family.
The BRCA gene test is a blood test that uses DNA analysis to identify harmful changes (mutations) in either one of the two breast cancer susceptibility genes — BRCA1 and BRCA2.
Women who have inherited mutations in these genes face a much higher risk of developing breast cancer and ovarian cancer compared with the general population.
“It was available in 1995, but I didn’t know about it,” Gonel said. “In 1996, I had a breast reduction. If I had known then that I carried the gene mutation, it would have been nothing for them to have removed my breasts and replaced them with implants. It would have been a life-changer for me.”