You've seen this beauty as the beaming sprite in our launch campaign, but this week, we're happy to introduce you to the equally stunning heart and spirit of Kaitlyn Hanna. Diagnosed with stage 4 metastatic breast cancer at the age of 24, she is not only one of the greatest warriors we know, but also a commendable representation of what it is to maintain positivity and hope amidst an extraordinary journey. Her unwavering strength, admirable honesty and one-of-a-kind beauty radiates deep from within. Meet Kaitlyn.
Name: Kaitlyn Hanna
Location: Sonoma, CA
Current Health Status: Metastatic Breast Cancer/Leptomeningeal Disease
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I enjoy the outdoors and staying active. I am currently unemployed and love spending time with my pup, Charlie girl. As of now, my number one priority is making memories with family and friends and enjoying every minute spent with my nephew. I also want to help spread awareness – cancer doesn’t discriminate and can happen at any age.
When were you diagnosed with breast cancer?
In December 2014, I found a lump on my left breast while showering. When I brought it to the attention of my OBGYN, he told me I was too young, that it was most likely a fibroadenoma and not to worry. I took his word. A month later, I noticed it had dramatically changed in size and demanded an ultrasound. When I went in for the ultrasound, he told me to cut out caffeine and chocolate, because they can cause breast tissue enhancement. After a few weeks, I decided I needed a biopsy to rule out the worst-case scenario. The biopsy was performed on April 22, 2015, and a day later, at the age of 24, I heard those dreaded words: “You have cancer.” Less than two weeks later, I was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer that had spread to my liver and spine.
What were your first thoughts when you were diagnosed?
Knowing Stage 4 is the worst stage of cancer, I was terrified. I remember it as if it was yesterday – being in tears and saying to my doctor, “I don’t wanna die.” I was only 24, and life was just beginning, or so I thought… Instead, it felt like my world was being ripped away from me.
How did your friends and family take the news?
Everyone was in shock and denial. I had a few friends and family members tell me, “Everything is going to be okay” and “Women are diagnosed with breast cancer and cured all the time," so without question, they assumed I would have the same outcome. But that actually isn't true for someone with metastatic cancer.
Describe your treatment and how you arrived at that course of action.
I started chemotherapy every 3 weeks, for 6 rounds, and immunotherapy every 3 weeks, indefinitely. In September 2015, I was declared NED (no evidence of disease), and it was the happiest day of my life. I was finally able to get back to living my “new normal.” Even though the fear of reoccurrence remained, I was hopeful I would beat the odds.
On December 18, 2017, I had my first migraine, but thankfully it went away with Advil. Then on December 31, 2017, it came back as I was getting ready for a New Year’s Eve party. I got sick, took a nap, and thanks to Advil again, was able to go out with friends. For the next week, my headache lingered – a kind of pain I had never experienced before. My doctor ordered a brain MRI (stat!), and on January 8, 2018, while leaving the imaging office, I received the news I never in a million years thought I would hear – I had a 3cm mass on my cerebellum. I was devastated. I didn’t have much time to process the news, as just 4 days later, I went in for brain surgery. After a 7-hour procedure, my surgeon was able to remove 95% of the tumor and cauterize the remaining 5%. After 2 weeks, I was released.
By February, I was slowly on the road to recovery. I had a PET scan and results came back normal, which was another extremely happy day for me and my family. I was able to celebrate my 27th birthday and the birth of my beautiful nephew, Levi. He was the best birthday gift ever!! Life was slowly turning around for the better.
In March, Dr. Arora recommended more testing – a brain and full spine MRI. The following day, Dr. Arora called to tell me that I wasn’t in the clear, and I am now fighting Leptomeningeal Disease, a late complication of cancer, in which the breast cancer spreads into the cerebral spinal fluid.
The amount of sadness and happiness I experienced in less than 3 months was a roller coaster. Even though I knew metastatic breast cancer was terminal, I still remained positive and told myself I would beat the odds. But with my new Leptomeningeal disease diagnoses, I was beyond devastated. How was I going to be able to wake up each morning and start each day without constantly thinking about my mortality?
I had a second surgery to place a port in my brain. This Ommaya Reservoir would allow doctors to administer immunotherapy directly into my spinal fluid. Surprisingly, the recovery from this surgery wasn’t bad, and I was out the next day. I received Herceptin intrathecally twice per week, for eight weeks, and routine MRI’s, resulting in stable scans. It was great news. Not the regression I was hoping for, but still positive news. As a result, my oncologist, who I love and trust wholeheartedly, cut my treatment back to once per week.
Light was at the end of the tunnel. I was able to be a model In Reno for To Celebrate Life, and I was blessed to meet Keira Kotler and model for Everviolet – beautiful and undeniably the most comfortable lingerie for breast cancer survivors (and non-survivors). I felt so empowered being around other women who were so full of light and motivation, and transpiring such positive energy.
At the end of August, I began having excruciating headaches. Of course, my first thought was that my cancer had returned. But after contacting my doctor, she said that my port was most likely infected. If so, we would have to remove it (third surgery of the year) and administer antibiotics through my cerebrospinal fluid (CSF). And that was the case – the culture indicated a bacterial infection that caused meningitis. I underwent surgery the next day to remove the port and was released 8 days later. I began having excruciating back pain that no amount of Advil or pain meds could control. I was told by my doctor to admit myself to the hospital and would be scheduled for surgery the next day to have a port placed on the other side of my head. After a complete spine/brain MRI and brain CT, I learned that my LM had progressed. Hearing those words made my body go numb.
There are only so many times one can go through chemotherapy, so knowing I was going to have to use one of the remaining times was a huge eye-opener. I was scheduled for my fourth surgery of the year, and in all honesty, I was terrified and fell into a deep depression. I wasn't sure how to pick myself up from what felt like the end of my life, right around the corner.
I’m happy to say, though, that at this moment, I’m doing well. With an upcoming MRI, I am praying for regression or at least some stable news!
Were you able to work through treatment?
I have not worked throughout my treatment. Instead, I have focused on my health by keeping my body strong through exercise and maintaining a positive attitude. When I am feeling well enough, I help out and watch my nephew.
Where and how have you found the best care?
I have been treated at both Marin General and UCSF. I’m convinced that my neurosurgeon at UCSF, Dr. Arora, saved my life. Also, I’m beyond grateful for my oncologist and nurses.
Have you received any additional support or alternative therapies?
I started seeing a therapist a couple months before my January diagnoses, and that helped a lot. I have also been taking CBD pills every night since my initial diagnosis.
What or who have been your biggest supports? Who makes up your cancer tribe?
My mom is a saint and has never left my side. She spends every hour making sure I am not alone during treatment and hospital stays. She makes sure I'm eating and getting my meds at the correct time (as much as it annoys me, I appreciate it). My father continues to work long hours to support our family. And my brother, Dean, and sister-in-law, Katelynn, always stay positive and allow me to spend as much time as I want with my nephew. He really has given me so much joy and purpose to keep fighting. I couldn’t do this life without all of them.
What has been one of the most challenging aspects of these experiences for you?
Cancer treatment has been the hardest experience mentally, emotionally and physically. Before my diagnosis, I was so ready to be independent and on my own, but during treatment, I knew I had to be patient, which was incredibly tough. There were times I couldn’t even bathe myself because I weighed under 100 pounds and was so weak. I looked sick, deathly sick, and seeing myself in the mirror was the worst. It showed me what I was up against: terminal cancer.
But the most challenging aspect of my cancer experience is knowing I won’t live to see my nephew grow up, graduate high school and college, or get married. Or be there to take care of my parents when they’re older. I have always wanted children, but because of this disease I will never have my own family and knowing that breaks my heart. Everywhere I look, someone new is getting engaged or pregnant, while I’m just praying for a clear scan and more time on this Earth. I remind myself that this is the life I was given and try to accept that it may not go as I had hoped for or planned.
What is one thing you wish you knew before you were diagnosed?
Young people can and will get breast cancer. I wish I knew to check myself because you can get breast cancer at an earlier stage and have a better chance of survival. For me, it’s too late, but by sharing my story, I hope women and men, young and old, will take my advice, check themselves regularly and advocate for themselves.
Is there a particular mantra or inspiration that helps you?
One foot in front of the other, and one day at a time. My dad always tells me, “Chin up, chest out.”
I’ve lost three people to breast cancer already – two dear friends, Patty Lou Means and Samantha Kaplan, and another friend from middle school, Jessica Nicholls, who was diagnosed after me with an earlier stage cancer. All three battled so bravely and never gave up. They have and will forever live on in my heart, and knowing they are up above gives me peace. I know when my time comes, they’ll be there with open arms.
If you could offer a woman, who has been newly diagnosed, some words of wisdom for her journey, what would you tell her?
Don’t give up hope. There’s always a light at the end of the tunnel.
What are you most proud of in your cancer journey?
I’m proud of my ability to stay positive and live life to the fullest, even with my prognosis in the back of my mind. I’m also proud to be here sharing my story, because I know when I met Samantha and Patty-Lou, hearing their stories gave me so much hope, inspiration and determination. Because of those two, I am reminded why I'm here – which is to keep fighting and kicking cancers ass for them and everyone else who has passed away from this terrible disease!!!
I also just completed my 2nd Tour De Pink 200-mile bike ride with close friends and my Uncle. Tour De Pink raises funds for the Young Survival Coalition, a non-profit that provides funds and guidance for newly diagnosed breast cancer men and women under the age of 40. I was able to ride 175 out of 200 miles, which isn't bad for no training and just having had two brain surgeries in the weeks prior.
How has breast cancer affected your outlook on life? On illness?
It has taught me to enjoy every minute of life. Life is precious, and we only have one chance to live it. For now, my goal is to keep on fighting and valuing every minute with my family, friends and pups.
How have you changed?
Life is so beautiful and can so easily be taken for granted. I know I have changed for the better – I’m a much happier person and love so much harder. Because of cancer, I look at life with entirely new meaning and have become much more accepting of the inevitable. We don't have forever. Don’t worry about what everyone else thinks, says or does. Do whatever makes your heart happy and sets your soul on fire!