On the morning of June 9, 2018, Kimber Graham stood in her hotel room in downtown St. Louis, looking out the window as rain poured heavily between the buildings. Already in her wedding dress, she couldn’t help but cry as her dream of an outdoor summer wedding was washed away with the rain.
Her bridesmaids assured her that the rain would stop and that she would still be able to have the wedding outside of the Union Station hotel. But as she looked at the ceremony space, covered in puddles, she knew her long-awaited plans were going to have to change.
As Kimber and her new husband Kyle said their heartfelt vows in a gorgeous interior room of the 125-year-old train-station-turned-hotel, their longtime pastor shared these perfect words that have echoed in her ears since the wedding day.
“Life is absolutely filled with plans that do not go the way we expect them to. But I also want you to know that that is where joy is born. Joy is always born in difficulty. It’s always born in struggle. Pressure creates cracks… and it also creates diamonds.”
Just a little over one year later, Kimber’s plans would have to change… again.
A 25-year-old. A newlywed. A new homeowner. A dog mom. A teacher. Kimber identified as a lot of things before her cancer diagnosis. But now, she adds a new description to her identity: Fighter.
In this blog, I interviewed my dear friend Kimber about facing cancer in her 20s. She has been an absolute inspiration and I hope that every 20-something can glean something from her journey.
Can you start out by talking about the type of cancer you have and how you found out you had it?
In June of 2019, I was diagnosed with small cell carcinoma of the ovary hypercalcemic type: AKA a rare form of ovarian cancer. I had been having some abdominal pain for a while and had bounced around from doctor to doctor trying to find the cause. At first, they thought I just had a bunch of UTIs. They would prescribe me medicine that would help for a while, but the pain always returned.
Finally, they did an ultrasound and found a tumor that was 9.5 cm. (The average size of an ovary is just 3.5 cm) I remember the size because the doctors told me it had to be 10 cm for them to operate. At the time, no one thought it was cancerous.
Several weeks later, the pain was so bad that I went to the ER. They did another ultrasound and the tumor had grown from 9.5 cm to 13 cm. It had grown so quickly in a short amount of time. They did surgery to remove it but were still unsure of whether it was cancerous. I was told that if they didn’t think it was cancerous, it would be about an hour-long surgery with a small incision.
I ended up being in surgery for 4 and a half hours. When they went in to take out the tumor, they ended up having to do exploratory surgery once they did a biopsy of the tumor and confirmed that it was cancerous. The little scar I had hoped for turned into a six-inch vertical scar from my belly button down.
What were your initial thoughts when you found out you had cancer?
When I heard the news, I was surrounded by my family and they were holding my hand, but when the doctor said those words: “You have cancer,” I swear they didn’t even flinch. It took me a moment to react and I had to clarify again that I did indeed have cancer and I wasn’t just hallucinating from the anesthesia.
I asked the doctor probably two more times: “So you’re saying I have cancer?” “You’re sure that this is cancer?” Both times he answered yes.
I wanted to scream at them: “Didn’t you hear what the doctor just said? I have cancer! Cancer! You could at least act surprised!” But I didn’t. I just sat there and pretended to listen as the doctor laid out what was going to happen over the next week.
At one point during the conversation, it hit me. My family already knew this before the doctor had walked in the door that morning. They had done their crying. They had done their processing. They were trying to stay strong for me.
Honestly, I don’t remember the rest of that day. The news took a while to process. It still doesn’t seem real sometimes. There are days, like today, where I don’t feel like I have cancer and then there are days where I literally can’t stop thinking about it.
What were some of the unexpected changes that your body went through?
The worst was recovering from the surgery. I had never had surgery before (I had never even been to the hospital before) and this one was pretty extreme. Not to mention, I had a lot of complications for someone who was a regular, “healthy” 25-year-old. I spent the first 2 weeks after my diagnosis in and out of the hospital due to bowel blockages and neutropenia after my first round of chemo. I couldn’t seem to catch a break.
Because I lost one of my ovaries due to cancer, the doctors were worried about the other one. They wanted me and Kyle to see a fertility specialist so they could harvest some eggs. Honestly, this is the last place I thought I would be at 25. Kyle and I had already started talking about when we would want to have kids, but now we had to consider the reality that it may not be possible for us.
I started fertility shots that day. I had to start sticking myself with 4 shots a night. I had bruises EVERYWHERE. Unfortunately, the doctors were unable to harvest any of my eggs and the fertility shots didn’t work like they were supposed to. There’s a chance that I may not ever be able to have biological children.
I have always wanted to be a mom. I literally work with children every day and LOVE what I do. Before getting cancer, I was already planning out the next year or so and looking forward to Kyle and I starting our own family, but it felt like that had been ripped away from us because of my diagnosis.
Losing My Hair
It happened so quickly after I started chemo. One day I was putting my hair up in a ponytail and there was a little strand that was left out of it and I went to go grab it and put it back in the ponytail and instead of going in where it was supposed to, it just came right out of my head. I was shocked. Then after that, it wouldn’t stop falling out.
I started transitioning to my new “look” by cutting my hair short. I sat in the salon chair where I’ve been getting my hair cut for years and just cried. As I looked at my pixie cut, it felt like I had a big tattoo on my forehead that said: “I have cancer.” When I go someplace and I have my headwrap on, people will come up to me or stare at me. It’s a reminder that I am sick every time I look in the mirror.
This change has also been really hard on Kyle. The first day my hair started falling out was hard for both of us. We ended the day in tears holding each other. He said to me that he wished that he had stroked my hair more in the past. This was something I hadn’t even considered. I didn’t even think about the fact that he might miss something about my hair, too.
I will say, though, it makes you rethink your body image and how you perceive yourself. I used to think that my blonde hair was my best quality, but now I notice how blue my eyes are. I definitely had to change my mindset.
What are some ways that have helped you cope through your treatment?
I think the most important thing for me has been taking it a day at a time. Each day, I gotta think: is it a good day or a bad day? I don’t want to ever take the good days for granted.
Plus, there’s a reason I named my blog Actually, I Can. Whenever I go down the negative path of thinking that I can’t do this because it’s not fair or not right, I stop and think: “Actually, I CAN do this.”
Also, Kyle has been amazing. I’m sure some people thought we were crazy for getting married at 24, but I knew in the back of my mind that it was the right choice. Having my husband by my side today is one of the best parts of all of this. Kyle is so supportive, kind, and has slept right by my side in the hospital every night. No 25-year-old guy wants to spend the majority of their summer in the hospital, but Kyle does so without complaining.
The last thing is that being at home really helps. I spent so much time in the hospital at the beginning of my diagnosis so there was no sense of normalcy in my life. Being able to do things now like go to the grocery store, see my friends and even drive myself places makes me feel so much better.
How have your relationships been affected since your diagnosis?
I think ultimately, it’s brought everyone closer together. Especially my family and Kyle’s family. Our family has been with me every day since my diagnosis. Their support means the world to me. Without their constant encouragement, I would not be as positive as I have been through this journey.
My grandma even jumped on a plane to spend two weeks by my side. Since she has battled cancer 3 times, her constant bravery and strength have given me nothing but positive vibes as I go into my own treatment.
My friends have also been supportive throughout this process even if it’s hard for them sometimes. I think it can be difficult to understand what I’m going through at times, especially because they are all young and healthy like I was. There are times that I can’t do what normal people do and that’s hard for them to see. Sometimes, I feel like I’m missing out as I watch their lives unfold on social media but I know we’ll be able to make up for lost time one day.
Newlyweds should be talking about their futures, arguing over finances or cooking meals together, but here we are making sure I take the right drugs and making sure when I pass out I don’t hit my head on the wood floor.
Besides the obvious things that are difficult for me and Kyle now, one of the hardest things has been finding things for us to talk about besides cancer. It just surrounds us at this point.
Plus, I feel like if I get mad at him, he can’t get mad at me because of the situation. Sometimes, I have to remember not to use him as a punching bag when I’m feeling upset about having cancer because I know it’s not his fault.
Feeling Like a Child Again
Something that’s also weird being so young and having cancer is it makes me feel like I’m being taken care of like a child again. It’s crazy to think that you are technically an adult at 25 and can be married and own a house, but feel so lost and like you have to call your parents for everything when faced with a situation like this.
I was just starting to feel like an adult before this but now my parents have been constantly taking care of me again, which I appreciate, but it’s just a weird dynamic since I’ve been on my own since college.
How has your career been affected by your diagnosis?
Well, my career is kind of nonexistent right now. I had to go on disability because I’m a teacher and being around small children when you have cancer is bad with all the germs.
Plus, my job is not a job where I can just sit on the computer all day. I’m on my feet and I have to be active and present with my kids. Not to mention it’s hard on them, too. They are too young to understand what’s really going on. When I went up to the school to visit them or when I see them at church, they ask me if I’m all better yet and I have to keep telling them no.
I know a lot of 20-somethings complain about their jobs, but I love my job. I love teaching and it brings me so much joy. Now that I’m unable to work, I realize how much I appreciate what I do. I really miss being around my kiddos and I would give anything to get up and go to work every day like a normal person.
How has getting cancer in your 20s changed your outlook on your life? Your future? The world?
Everything seems less dramatic. Especially the little things. Like, half of the things we complain about on a daily basis literally don’t matter.
I’ve realized that life is about spending time with the people you care about and making the most of what you’ve been given because you really don’t know how long you have on this earth.
I hope to overcome cancer, but my life will never be the same after this. I’m always going to have to get scans to make sure I’m still in remission and there’s always a chance that it could come back. The scariest part is that you’re never really “cured.”
In regards to my future, I can’t plan a month ahead. I can’t even plan for the weekend. It all depends on how I feel, how my scans go and how the rest of my treatment plays out. We’ve had to rethink jobs, vacations, long-term dreams and even having kids. Having cancer changes EVERYTHING.
Even through all of this, I really am grateful. I’ve been given a lot of good things in this life. And bad things can happen to anyone. I can die of cancer, but I could also die in a car crash tomorrow. It’s made me aware that some things we really just can’t control, no matter how hard we try.
In light of your diagnosis, if you could give one piece of advice to someone in their 20s, what would it be?
I guess my biggest advice would be to enjoy every moment. This summer, I didn’t get to do anything that someone in their 20s would normally do. We didn’t get to go swimming or go on vacation or go to the lake. In your 20s, it’s easy to take those things for granted. We spend so much of our time planning for the future and looking ahead, but it’s so important to live in the “here and now” because it’s all we are really guaranteed.
As you can see, life rarely goes how we’ve planned, but it’s how we react to the changing circumstances that defines our true character.
In our 20s, our lives are constantly changing. For Kimber, she graduated from college, got married, got a teaching job, bought a house, got a dog… and got cancer. All within 3 years. For others, it could be a move to a different state, it could be paying off student loans, it could be getting into grad school, it could be losing a family member or ending a relationship.
Sometimes, the future we see for ourselves isn’t what was intended for us, or, we simply have to take another route to get there. We must find joy in the journey.
I hope that this blog made you think, reflect, and appreciate the life you’ve been given, no matter how messy it can be at times.
If you would like to follow Kimber’s journey, please read and subscribe to her blog. And remember…
ACTUALLY, YOU CAN.