Teacher battling cancer had her radiation treatments for invasive lobular carcinoma early in the morning before school and headed to her classroom afterward.
In 2017, Kimberley Marek received a call after her mammogram, letting her know that something had come back abnormal. It wasn’t the first time this had happened. Since she has dense breast tissue, she had experienced this call before, but the follow-up had always produced a normal result.
Not this time. This time it was indeed a tumor, and she was diagnosed with stage 1 invasive lobular carcinoma — breast cancer — at age 54.
According to Kimberley, who had no family history of breast cancer, her first thought of “what ifs?” turned into a brief moment of “why me?”. Then, “why not me?”
“My chances of developing breast cancer were always the same as any other woman,” Kimberley said. “These three little words became my mantra and gave me the necessary strength and determination to stay positive and resilient.”
Kimberley, who teaches fourth grade at Kentucky Country Day School, will be honored at the Derby Divas event on Sept. 30. Derby Divas supports breast health at Norton Cancer Institute as well as the Norton Healthcare Mobile Prevention Center, which brings mammography and other wellness exams to underserved areas in our community.
Radiation in the morning, then off to teach school
Kimberley’s daughter, Natalie, said she will never forget the day she found out her mom had breast cancer.
“When it was confirmed, my whole entire world stopped,” she said.
On her dad’s side of the family, Natalie and her cousins are the only female family members still alive because they’ve lost so many to breast cancer.
Under the care of her primary care physician and her team at Norton Cancer Institute, which included Jeffrey B. Hargis, M.D., oncologist; Tiffany S. Berry, M.D., breast surgeon; and Mark S. Cornett, M.D., radiation oncologist; Kimberley underwent a lumpectomy and 16 rounds of radiation. She now takes a daily dose of letrozole, a medication used to treat certain types of breast cancer.
Kimberley had her radiation treatments early in the morning before school, and headed into her classroom to teach afterward. After her last radiation treatment, Kimberley got to ring a gold bell at the radiation center to signify that her treatment was over, which she did enthusiastically.
“When I arrived at work, my Kentucky Country Day family greeted me with an abundance of hugs and congratulations,” Kimberley said. “Life could get back to normal. At least my new normal.”
Remembering what life is all about
Kimberley’s husband, Barry Marek, said he always knew Kimberley was a strong woman, but the way she handled the news and the treatment process still surprised him.
“She treated things in a professional manner — ‘this is the situation, this is what needs to get done, now let’s do it,’” he said.
Kimberley now undergoes regular 3D mammograms and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans to make sure she stays healthy, and she tries not to take anything for granted.
“I just try to remember what I’ve been given and what life is truly all about, but it definitely changes you,” she said.
Invasive lobular carcinoma begins in the milk-producing glands. It’s labeled invasive because it has left the glands and could spread from there. The condition accounts for only a small portion of all breast cancers. It can be difficult to diagnose using standard, 2D mammography.
“Identifying this type of cancer with standard mammography can be very difficult, and in women with dense breast tissue, it can be like trying to see a polar bear in a snow storm,” said Joseph M. Flynn, D.O., MPH, FACP, physician-in-chief, Norton Cancer Institute, and chief administrative officer, Norton Medical Group.
Prior to Kimberley’s diagnosis, she had a 3D mammogram (tomosynthesis mammography, or tomo for short), which is more sensitive and more clearly shows abnormalities such as invasive lobular carcinoma.
Norton Healthcare, with help from the Norton Healthcare Foundation and groups like Derby Divas, has invested more than $7 million since 2017 in advanced diagnostic equipment, including 3D mammography. Norton Healthcare now has 20 of the 3D mammography machines available at 11 different diagnostic locations across the region, according to Dr. Flynn. Through this year’s event, Derby Divas is helping to fund mammograms on a new Norton Healthcare Mobile Prevention Center that also has 3D mammography, making the diagnostic technology more accessible to underserved areas of Louisville and Southern Indiana.
Kimberley recognizes that everyone who faces breast cancer has a different journey, but one thing remains the same for all.
“You can’t control what happens to you,” she said. “You can’t control if you’re going to be one of the 1 in 8 eight women who will get breast cancer. Just get a good doctor, get your exams, eat well, exercise and try not to worry about it because life’s not about worrying.”