Summerville woman experiences firsthand how breast cancer treatment options have changed

October 06, 2023
image of woman siting on sofa surrounded by her drawings and paintings
Drawing and sketching, particularly with a focus on Disney characters, gave Kathryn Diamond hope as she underwent breast cancer treatment. Photo by Clif Rhodes

Kathryn Diamond was in her 40s as she sat at her sister Judie's hospital bedside. The breast cancer had returned, spreading throughout her body. A few days later, Judie died. Her sister’s death came not long after Kathryn had sat by another bedside, holding her mother’s hand as she died of cancer.

From Kathryn’s experience, cancer was inescapable – a death sentence. And so, when she felt a lump in her breast two years after she’d received a letter telling her to follow up on a mammogram – which she didn’t do because the letter arrived just before the start of the pandemic, and then she forgot about it – she felt that the inescapable had arrived for her.

All she could do, she thought, was spend more time with her four adult daughters, make sure her affairs were in order and wait for the inevitable.

“I just figured – I've been pretty fortunate. I'm in my 60s; my kids are all grown, so why create a big bill for my family before I leave this Earth?” she said.

But daughter Samantha Diamond wasn’t going to let that happen.

“Around Christmas of 2021, I started having dreams about my mom and cancer and a gut feeling that there was something going on. And then when she started talking about, ‘My will is here’ and ‘This is the password to this’ and ‘This what I want to happen with this,’ – I was like, ‘Something's not right,’ Samantha said.

Kathryn had determined not to tell anyone about her as-yet undiagnosed cancer, but she finally relented when Samantha confronted her.

“One day while in Samantha's apartment, we just got back from shopping, and Samantha asked, ‘Are you ever going to tell me that there's something wrong? I think there's something really wrong,’” Kathryn recalled. Kathryn couldn’t bring herself to say what she suspected. Instead, she guided Samantha’s hand to feel the lump.

image of two women on sofa 
Samantha and Kathryn Diamond. Samantha was at her mom's side throughout her breast cancer journey. Photo by Clif Rhodes

Samantha immediately started searching online for answers.

“I didn't know much other than the fact that our family had seen stuff like this in the past, and it didn't end well,” she said. “Aunt Judie died in 2006 – and that is a really long time ago. This is one of the most well-researched types of cancers. There's got to be breakthroughs.”

“And actually,” she said, turning to her mother, “if you remember, one of the things that I had said was, ‘You don't have to follow through with treatment if you absolutely do not want to. And I will reluctantly support that. However, I want to know how much time I have before I have to plan your funeral. I want a timeline.’”

Together, the women then began to contact doctors to get a proper diagnosis and find out Kathryn’s treatment options.

Ultimately, attracted by the team approach, they decided to come to MUSC Hollings Cancer Center. At Hollings, they met Melanie Wilson, R.N., an oncology-certified nurse who works as a nurse navigator, helping patients to navigate their various appointments and treatments – Ms. Navi, they nicknamed her.

"I liked the fact they had a team who will work together to build a treatment plan specific to my type of cancer,” Kathryn said.

The big book of everything

Preferring not to use the word “cancer,” Kathryn nicknamed her tumor “Fred.” And Fred, it turned out, was an aggressive triple negative breast cancer.

That meant doctors at Hollings had to, as she put it, “open up the great big book of everything” to determine her treatment plan. First – chemotherapy with Gilbert Bader, M.D., from Nov. 1, 2022, to April 24, 2023. Then, surgery with Andrea Abbott, M.D. After that, radiation therapy with Jennifer Harper, M.D. And to top it all off – immunotherapy.

Through it all, Samantha was by her side. She would drive from her home in West Ashley, more than 20 miles to Summerville, to pick up Kathryn and drive her to her appointments.

“It is a lot of driving, but I think my mom was very anxious about this whole process. She needed a buddy to get to the appointments,” Samantha explained.

Samantha was a second set of ears to take in what the doctors were saying – something that is important for all medical problems, but particularly for cancer, as the amount of information can be overwhelming.

close up image of painted birds and butterflies and cartoon characters on rocks 
In addition to her favorite Disney and Warner Brothers characters, Kathryn Diamond especially enjoys butterflies. She gave each of her daughters a butterfly piece of jewelry. Photo by Clif Rhodes

Kathryn’s treatment course wasn’t completely smooth, either. At one point, despite taking the chemotherapy drug carboplatin uneventfully for some time, she developed a sudden, severe allergic reaction – so serious that the nurses at the infusion center sent her to the hospital. Later, she ended up in the hospital again when her daughter Nicole arrived at her mom's home to find her unresponsive. And after radiation therapy, she developed a severe burn on her back as well as her chest.

And yet – the treatments worked. The chemotherapy in particular worked even better than they hoped for.

“From the beginning of seeing Fred to the time I went to have the surgery done, Fred was gone already. The chemo was rough, but it worked. The chemo worked so well that it crumbled Fred down to almost nothing,” Kathryn said. Because of this, she was able to have a lumpectomy instead of a mastectomy.

Happily ever after

Kathryn has sketched and painted for years as a form of therapy. She originally turned to her art when her first husband died, back when she and the kids lived on Long Island.

“Fairy tales are a reminder that our lives will get better if we just hold onto hope. Samantha gave me a positive attitude during my chemo and got me believing in the possibility of a happy ending. The two most powerful tools to have when facing a difficult time are positive thinking and hope.”

Kathryn Diamond

During breast cancer treatment, Kathryn brought her sketchbooks with her to chemotherapy and to the hospital before surgery, filling them with images of birds and butterflies, some Warner Brothers cartoon characters from her youth but most of all with the heroes and villains of Disney animated films.

“Fairy tales are a reminder that our lives will get better if we just hold onto hope,” she said. “Samantha gave me a positive attitude during my chemo and got me believing in the possibility of a happy ending. The two most powerful tools to have when facing a difficult time are positive thinking and hope.”

Her thoughts and feelings also ended up on the pages of her sketchbook. “Depending on how you were feeling or what was coming up for you that day, sometimes you'd end up drawing a character that related to that,” Samantha reminded her. “At one point, we were waiting on Dr. Abbott. You were trying to think of all the questions that you wanted to ask, and you couldn't think of them. And so you wrote, ‘Think, think, think.’ And then you drew Winnie the Pooh doing his little 'Think, think, think’ pose.”

Other days, when it felt like the bad guys were coming for her, Disney villains made it onto the page. Drawing helped, as did the card games that she and Samantha would also play during chemo sessions.

“I was going through some really tough stuff, but we were laughing and having fun,” Kathryn said. “It gave me hope, and that's why I draw.”

image of a woman smiling and talking at kitchen table 
Kathryn Diamond filled sketchbooks with art throughout her treatment. She's used art as a form of therapy for years. Photo by Leslie Cantu

She gave some of her drawings to the nurses who cared for her, but she’s kept many as memories. Now, as her treatment finally nears an end, she feels tired but OK.

“I feel blessed,” Kathryn said. “At the start, I didn't think I was going to make it – so much so that I wasn't doing anything about Fred. Samantha told me, ‘You’re going to do something about Fred.’ Once I started my treatment, my thoughts changed. I was surprised: I'm free of Fred. I'm getting my happy ending.”