In Her Words: Kathleen O’Malley

Kathleen O'Malley, a 47-year-old working mom from Chicago, shares her inspiring journey with breast cancer while navigating motherhood and marriage. Diagnosed at 38, just two days after giving birth to twins, she faced fear and anger and also, overwhelming support from loved ones.  She underwent a mastectomy followed by chemotherapy and Herceptin infusions and conquered the disease with the help of Northwestern Hospital's comprehensive care. Amid challenges like chemotherapy side effects and early menopause, she found solace in acupuncture and her mantra, "This too shall pass." Reflecting on her experience, she emphasizes the importance of allowing oneself to feel vulnerable while finding strength in the fight. Now an eight-year survivor, Kathleen is proud to share her story, inspire others and cherish life's precious moments with newfound spontaneity and appreciation for love and connection. 

Name: Kathleen O’Malley 


Location: Chicago, IL

Current Health Status: No Evidence of Disease for 8 years!


Tell us a little but about yourself. 

My name is Kathleen O’Malley, and I am a full-time working mom of 8 year old twins (boy and girl). I am married to my husband, Matt, of 12 years, and I am dog mama to our Boxer, Reilly. I grew up in the Western Suburbs of Chicago and have a BA from Illinois State University. I have been working in Talent Acquisition for the last 20+ years. I love live music, entertaining, traveling, shopping, antiquing, and I am CEO of Forever Chasing Fireflies. Through my words, I hope to inspire and encourage others who are going through loss, IVF, cancer and survivorship.

When were you diagnosed with breast cancer?

was 38-years-old, two days after the delivery of our twins. I felt a lump in my right breast and thought it was a clogged milk duct. Thankfully, my doctor rushed me to get a mammogram, ultrasound and biopsy, after which they quickly confirmed it was Stage2B IDC. I was also HER2 positive.

How did you feel when you were diagnosed?

I was in disbelief and thought I was going to die. My mother died of breast cancer in 1989, and I had always worried it would get me one day. I was terrified, and I was very angry. This was supposed to be the happiest time of my life, and it was being taken from me.

How did your friends and family take the news?

Utterly devastated. We had been through so much trying to conceive, and then finally we were able to get pregnant via IVF. The joy was literally swept from us. No one could believe it was happening. I had been diligent in getting mammograms since I was 30, due to my mother’s passing at an early age. My family and friends immediately went into action and created a plan to support us in every way imaginable. We were so lucky to have the support that we did. 

 What kind of treatment did you seek?

There was no question from day one that I was going to have a mastectomy. I did not want to constantly worry about the other breast or remaining tissue. The doctors ended up recommending a full mastectomy, preceded by six rounds of chemotherapy. Based on the outcome, they would determine if I needed radiation. My tumor was fast growing and aggressive, and they wanted to start chemotherapy right away to be sure it responded. Thankfully, it worked. Post-mastectomy, my doctor confirmed that the cancer was gone and there was no evidence of disease in my lymph nodes. I did not have to go through radiation! Since I was HER2+ and my doctor would not allow me to carry more children, I also had my fallopian tubes and ovaries removed, and Herceptin infusions once a month for a year. 

Have you been able to work while you're going through treatment?

I was already on maternity leave at the time of my diagnosis. Then, once I started chemotherapy, I became very ill. I was extremely nauseous, had trouble staying hydrated and was in and out of the hospital quite a few times for severe dehydration. The chemotherapy was really rough on me, and I was too sick to work. I went back to work about one year from when I was diagnosed. 

How have you found the best care?

I am forever grateful for the care I received at Northwestern Hospital in Chicago. We researched three different hospitals initially and found them to be the best fit for me. It was a truly comprehensive team approach, and they looked at every angle of my case to ensure they were giving me the best chance for survival. They were honest and direct, and also incredibly compassionate. I felt supported the whole journey. 

Have you received additional support or sought alternative therapies?

I did acupuncture to help with the nausea and anxiety throughout my treatment. 

Who have been your biggest supporters and make up your cancer tribe?

My family and close friends. We had so many people supporting us, especially with newborns. They provided food, notes, babysitting, rides to treatment, a night nurse, a fundraiser, video messages, homemade blankets, homemade smoothies, energy bites, prayers and most importantly, got me out of bed when I literally could not. We were surrounded by love and so much support, and I am forever grateful. 

What have been some of the most challenging aspects of the experience for you?

So many things were challenging, and they have changed as the years have passed. In the beginning, it was missing out on being a normal newborn mom. Losing my hair was awful, and I dealt with strong bouts of depression. Being put into menopause at age 38 was definitely not fun either, and that has been a real strain on my marriage. I am lucky to have the support and patience of my husband, even though it is something we have to constantly work at. 

What is one thing you wish you knew before you were diagnosed?

I wish I would have been tested for the BRCA gene. My older sister was tested. She was negative and subsequently told that her siblings did not need to test. That is false. I am BRCA2 Positive. That said, had I known I was positive, there is no way I would have been approved for IVF, and I would not have my twins. The other thing I wish I knew was that cancer is NOT a death sentence. It is terrifying to hear the words “you have cancer,” but we have come so far, and chances of survival are so much better than they were years ago.

Is there a particular mantra or inspiration that helps you?

"This too shall pass.” My mother used to say it, and it truly can be used in any instance. I would think of it when the nausea was intense, when the pain was unbearable post-surgery, as well as when I had to anticipate what was next in my treatment. Life passes so quickly, and nothing is permanent. These words helped me get through many tough days and weeks – even a year!

If you could offer a woman, who has been newly diagnosed, some words of wisdom for her journey, what would you tell her?

You are going to have really bad days ahead, but you also are going to find a lot of joy in places you haven't seen it before. Let yourself have those bad days. Cry. Stay in your jammies all day. Eat a gallon of ice cream (or whatever tastes ok!)! But the key is to pick yourself up the next day. If you cannot do it, find someone to hold you accountable and help. We don't have to be a “cancer warrior” at all times, and it is ok to feel vulnerable. Also, don’t underestimate yourself. We are stronger than we realize, and looking cancer square in the eye and fighting for your life is pretty badass. 

What are you most proud of in your cancer journey?

I believe that I am meant to share my story. I am an open book, raw and honest. I am proud that I have inspired many women to get a mammogram, get a BRCA test or just to keep fighting when they needed an extra push. I am proud to be a 8 year survivor, and I will never stop fighting and sharing my story. I love the quote from Mother Teresa; “I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.”  

How has breast cancer affected your outlook on life and illness?

Cancer reminded me how precious life is and that we are here for such a short time. I have a tendency to be a LITTLE more spontaneous now that I used to be. I don’t want to miss out on a thing! I want to take all the trips, get the shoes, etc… My husband needs to reel me in sometimes, and we balance each other out. Life is full of so much joy, and seeing it through my children’s eyes has only heightened this experience. 

Throughout this journey, how have you changed?

I think I am still the same person at my core, but I also looked death in the eye at a young age and said, “no thank you.” I have definitely become more cognizant of what I eat, what products we use in our house and how I can best protect my family from getting cancer. I also realize what really, truly matters. I joke about buying the shoes, but none of that means anything. In the end, it is who you loved, how you loved and how you made everyone feel. Good shoes are just the icing on top. 😊