Our Conversation with Kerri Besse: A Story of Hope, Inspiration and Community
There are some women I meet and think, WOW. Kerri is one such woman. Seven weeks after her mother passed away from ALS, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, during a global pandemic. Please take a moment, and let the gravity of that sink in.
Kerri and her mother, 2016
I was connected to Kerri through a dear mutual friend. In our first conversation, I felt her incredible power and energy through the phone. She exudes the fighter spirit and, having endured so much, is wise way beyond her almost-forty years. We are honored to be partnering with her not only for this interview, but in support of her talent making exquisite face masks.
In the words that follow, you will read about her battle with cancer, what keeps her sane and what keeps her fighting. She also shares advice on how to help someone in her situation, as well as advice for fellow cancer warriors.
Her story is a testament to the power of community and the innate ability we all have to help each other through immense pain and fear.
“Serena: Can you describe for us what you are going through?
Kerri: I have Stage 2A Invasive Ductal Carcinoma (IDC) Breast Cancer. I am Stage 2A due to spread to the sentinel lymph node (the closest node to my tumor). Other details for those wishing to know specifics:
- ER+ (Estrogen receptor 100% positive)
- PR+ (Progesterone receptor 100% positive)
- HER2- (a type of protein found in our cells)
- Nottingham grade 2
- 2.4mm in size determined after two surgeries. At first, I was told it was only .8mm before they took it all out
I have been told that ER/PR+ HER2- IDC is the most common type of breast cancer and that I am very lucky to have it be 100% hormone receptive because this type of tumor will respond to hormone blockers.
Serena: What was your initial reaction to your diagnosis? Has that evolved as you are undergoing treatment?
Kerri: Wow, has it ever! Being diagnosed with cancer is an emotional roller coaster. You experience thousands of different emotions daily. I was up, then I was down, then I was numb to it all! My strongest reaction on day one when I got the call on 3/11/20, was terror. What I heard the doctor say was that I was going to die on the spot. That was it. This was my death sentence and all of my future plans just disappeared into a cloud of things that were never going to happen. I was terrified, angry, and confused.
When I found the lump at the end of January, the WEEK after my mom had passed away from ALS, I thought to myself there is no way this is cancer. I’m young(ish), healthy, active, and I have never smoked or had any family history of breast cancer. So, when the call came, I was immediately very angry at the world. How could losing my mom, a pandemic, and cancer happen to me in the same year? My anger was what initially drove me to spring into action. I thought I am not going to die from this! I told my mom: “I am not ready to see you again just yet.” I still have a lot more life to live.
So, the first step was to have this lump taken out. After my two surgeries in April, my emotions shifted from anger to reflection. What had I accomplished in my 39 years on this planet that I was proud of, what regrets did I have, who had I hurt along the way, who had I helped?
What I found was that I have very few regrets and I felt as though (and still feel that) I have no one to apologize to. There was no one in my life who I had hurt so badly that I felt I needed to reach out to them. And that made me feel great! I lived the last four decades with as much peace and love as I had in me at any given time.
And now what do I want the next ten, twenty, thirty years to look like? Now as I write this on August 25th, 2020, five months after my diagnosis, I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t still a bit terrified and angry.
However, I have been able to put all of this into perspective. I will never know why this happened to me. The strongest thing that comes to mind for me was the grief and stress induced by watching my mom die and be sick for most of my 30s. She had a massive brain tumor in 2013 and then started showing signs of ALS in 2017.
I will never have the guarantee that despite whatever lifestyle changes I make, this cancer will not return. However, that is not going to stop me from trying. My feelings now center around wellness and stress reduction. That gives me some sense of control. I am making huge changes to my diet and cutting out alcohol for the foreseeable future.
What doctors don’t tell you (if you don’t ask!) is that the hormone blocking drugs you will be put on after treatment will process through your liver. Not all drugs do this; some do not need to go through your liver. Drinking while taking them is clearly a very bad idea! The last thing any cancer patient who is in remission needs is a liver transplant.
Serena: What and who has helped you the most during this difficult chapter?
Kerri: SO many people. I am so very lucky to have the biggest support system a girl could ask for. I am so grateful and proud of myself for putting the need for friends at the top of my list of priorities when I was in my early 20s and 30s. The time I spent during those years with all of the people who have helped me has given me the confidence, the drive, and the willpower to keep going. I have a lot of people routing and waiting for me to finish treatment so I can get back to spending time with them.
To those people who have called or texted me just to check in or have sent me beautiful gifts, you cannot begin to understand how much that means to me.
Specifically, the most helpful gifts:
- The Gratitude Journal from my sister-in-law Terre. I now write in this daily.
- The year long Skillshare subscription from my friend Maureen
- The Le Wren gift box from Sophia
- The huge box of wellness products from Anne and the rest of my husband’s co-workers
- A wig from Amie
- The “Keep F-ing Going” bracelets I received from Theresa/Joyce/Deepak/Rafael in silver and in gold from Flora
- Gabe’s Chemo Duck from my friend Lauren. The duck has been a great way for me to communicate with my two nephews and other family members what it is like to have to go through chemotherapy
- Beautiful flowers from Naomi, Rebecca, Erika and my husband
- My brothers’ photos of my nephews all summer
Special shout out to my husband Ryan for sticking with me throughout this entire process and the difficult years that preceded it with my mother’s illness and my endometriosis surgery. To say that we are due for some good years together is a massive understatement! I could not have made it through these difficult years as well as I have without your love and support.
Kerri and her husband, Ryan
Serena: Tell us a little more about that Le Wren gift you received from Sophia. Can you share how that gift made you feel?
Kerri: It brought me to tears! Spending so much time at home during the pandemic has made getting the mail and packages one of the highlights of my day. Both my husband and I jump to answer the door when packages arrive.
My first impression was how beautiful and clean the packaging looked. I loved the way it closed with a magnet and the logo detail. Once opened, I immediately rubbed the essential oil roller on my wrists and sank back into our couch. I called my husband to come look at it and texted a huge thank you to the friend who sent it to me.
Everything in the box gave me a warm and fuzzy feeling. Sophia was thinking of me and wanted me to be well. She wanted just a little part of my day to be blissful, which as a cancer patient in treatment, is the best gift one could ever receive!
Kerri's Le Wren Gift Box
Serena: What helps keep you going? What inspires you? What gives you peace?
Kerri: Again, first what keeps me going are the people in my life who I mentioned earlier. I get out of bed each day knowing that I have them in my life.
In terms of inspiration, I have had to do a lot of soul searching since this diagnosis. I am a very creative person and have been involved in creative work for twenty years. I have realized I am very hard on myself. Nothing I had accomplished in my career to date was ever good enough. My work could always BE better. I was just another artist trying to make it in the world; nothing made me or my work special. I was so close to giving up on my career as a textile designer. Not just because I felt defeated by not being “successful” enough, but also because I was sick of the abusive bosses I was constantly dealing with as well as the endless, often unrealistic deadlines. Needless to say, my career as of this past January did not inspire me any longer.
After several panic attacks, I decided to let go of the idea of having a steady paycheck. I told myself, I will work for myself throughout my entire treatment and six months afterwards—for an entire year. I was thankfully on my husband’s insurance AND had access to Aflac’s critical illness insurance plan. [PSA: If you don’t know this already, Aflac has a critical illness insurance plan you can enroll into for about $6 a paycheck that covers a cancer diagnosis. This plan has given me enough money to live on for this entire year. If you don’t have this plan, get on it today!]
What inspires me now is finding newfound confidence in my work through a lot of inner reflection. The time I have spent designing rugs/pillows/throws/fabrics/holiday decor has led to tens of thousands of Americans having my work in their homes. That is pretty cool! I make other people’s homes more beautiful and cozy places to live. I’m really proud of that. I no longer want to spend my days feeling like I am not good enough. I have found peace with my work now and I am ready to create more.
Each day is a chance to create something new!
Examples of Kerri's work on her Etsy Shop
What also is pushing me is my dream of living someplace warm for the winters and on the East Coast with my family and NYC friends for the summers. What better way to do this than to work for myself? I want to expand the freelance design work I’m currently doing. I want to keep painting and making my line of stationary, currently featured on my Etsy shop, OliveAnneStudio.
And I am also working on a book! I am not ready to fully disclose the details here just yet. It is going to be my way of giving back to the cancer community through art and my skills as a master organizer!
Serena: Why did you start making your own masks?
Kerri: My first instinct for coping and mental stability was to look to my crafting abilities. Asking myself things like: How else was I going to pass the time in the house in a positive and productive manner? What can I get lost in so deeply that I forget about my diagnosis for a few hours a day? And what a bizarre time to be going through cancer treatment, right? The whole world has had to put some portion of their lives on hold this year. With this pandemic came a strong need for something that I could make rather quickly using fabric that I already had here at home— face masks!
I made the first fifty or so masks for free. I had joined a Facebook group for people living with Hormone Positive Breast Cancer and posted that the first fifteen people to respond to my post, I would send them a free pink mask. I made others for family and friends in the healthcare industry. It was rewarding and satisfying to know that my sewing skills were being used to help others.
However, once I quit working full time, I knew I had to have some income coming in. I opened my Etsy shop in July and to date have sold three hundred masks – mostly through Instagram and Facebook posts!
Serena: We are so honored to be offering your gorgeous masks to our clients. What do you hope to achieve by creating them and sharing them with the world?
Kerri: One thing that came to my mind after my diagnosis is the idea of legacy. How will I be remembered? I do not have any children and will not be able to have any now as chemotherapy throws you into menopause. I had my years of mourning not being a mother starting with my endometriosis years ago.
I wish to continue to cultivate my abilities to help others (especially those in the ALS and cancer communities), to be kind, and to be there when other people need me. Making these masks is something that many people have gotten joy from. It is not every day that you find something pretty and functional in your mailbox! And they are keeping others safe as they venture out to grocery stores, gas stations, and other essential trips out of the house.
All of my sales for the most part have been through word of mouth and it makes me so happy that I am becoming a go-to for both masks and to make other things that help people. I am currently working on a head wrap pattern to coordinate with a mask for cancer patients who have lost their hair [which will be available on Le Wren when ready]!
Serena: What advice would you give to our community on how to best support a loved one who is going through something similar?
Kerri: Simply, be there. When they call, pick up the phone. Even if you can’t talk, answer and tell them you will call them back. Don’t rush them or pressure them into feeling something that they are not yet ready to feel OR have not realized they are going to feel yet. Let them go through the emotional roller coaster that comes with this diagnosis. That is where their growth and strength will come from.
And make them laugh! Whether it is a funny memory you two have together or just something funny that happened to you that day. Nothing has felt better to me than to laugh and listen to a good story that made me forget I have cancer for just a little while.
Serena: Do you have any advice for women themselves facing similar hardships?
Kerri: DO not give up. DO not let cancer win. And listen to your gut. There may come a time when you have to fight to not give up, especially during chemotherapy infusions. Think of the people in your life who need you and all of the things you want to accomplish before it is your time. We still have many healthy years left if you don’t let the cancer take them.
One way I am working to ensure this is to reduce my sugar intake significantly. As sugar breaks down in our bodies, cancer cells feed off this sugar. Stop feeding your cancer. Dairy does essentially the same thing. So out with dairy as well! It is easy when your life depends on it.
Also, listen to your gut. If you don’t like something a doctor has said to you or you don’t like their bedside manner – get a new doctor. You have to become your own best advocate. As sad as it is to say, you are just a folder with medical charts/results in it to these doctors. They live and breathe cancer all day.
My first hospital shut down completely due to Covid-19 and told me that I was for sure stage 1 and that my surgery could wait for three months! I let that sit for the following weekend and by Monday I had decided that simply was not okay.
I scrambled and found a new team of doctors within two days and was under the knife three weeks later. I then found out that I was actually stage 2 with cancer cells having spread to one lymph node. I am so happy that I did not wait three months to have the tumor cut out of me and listened to my intuition that something was off with the first medical team. I am so glad I trusted my gut.
I also felt pressure from the first hospital to go with a double mastectomy. The second team I found really made me feel like it was my choice and gave me all of the facts about both the mastectomy and the lumpectomy options. I was lucky that a lumpectomy and breast conservation was available to me as my tumor was small enough. Being informed and given options is key.”
As Kerri explains, the best way you can be there for your loved one is to literally be with them, in person, in spirit, over the phone. Listen to them, make sure they feel your presence and love somehow. Do not let them sit with their fear, grief or vulnerability alone. Community is an enormously important part of the healing process; when you feel helpless to help your loved one, don’t forget how much power you really have to support and care for them through simple acts.
We hope the above gives you some ideas on how to help your loved one going through a dark time. And if you are going through something challenging yourself -- whatever it may be -- let Kerri’s words sink in: “Do not give up”.
Thank you for reading.
Kerri, mid-treatment, August 2020