What's Tougher Than Battling Breast Cancer? Doing It During a Pandemic.
By Kannie Yu LaPack
The summer of 2019 was one of the best times of my life. I was turning 40 and ready to celebrate the big milestone. I enjoyed an amazing trip with girlfriends to Cabo San Lucas where we ziplined, lounged out at the pools and savored kid-free days and carefree nights. Back home, I threw a big party on my actual birthday, where I was overwhelmed to see so many people I loved, all in one place. I felt so incredibly lucky.
True to my nature as an efficient planner, I had my first-ever mammogram scheduled in August, since that's what you’re supposed to do when you turn 40. I didn't think too much about it, went in for the uncomfortable scan and went about my day. A few days later, my OB/GYN's office called, saying because the scans had shown density in my breasts, I should come back for more imaging. They assured me this happens a lot, and it's probably nothing to worry about. After some scheduling delays, I went in on September 15 and was re-imaged. But instead of being told to get dressed, the tech told me to wait—they wanted to do an ultrasound for a better look at something they saw in my right breast.
"Cows make milk, I apparently make lumps."
As scary as that sounded, I still wasn't worried. I had found lumps in my breast a few times before, starting in college. They were always benign Fibroadenomas, which I would have removed. I continued going to my annual OB-GYN appointments, where I would have breast exams. We were never concerned additional lumps were anything other than annoying benign tumors. I just resigned myself into thinking, "Cows make milk, I apparently make lumps."
Following the ultrasound, the doctor came in and told me he wanted to do a biopsy of the mass. The next day, I went back to the imaging center to have the biopsy. It felt like a drill going through my breast. The following day, I got a call from my doctor, who asked me to come into her office.
At that moment, I knew something was wrong.
Once I got to my OB/GYN's office, her staff was exceptionally nice to me, and whisked me into her office. "Kannie, you have breast cancer," she said.
Even though I knew it, it was a shock to hear it. Tears started running down my face as she told me, "This was caught early, this is the best type of breast cancer to get, and you will be fine." She gave me a name of an oncology surgeon to call and off I left with the weight of this news.
I wrote one text: "I. F*cking. Have. Breast. Cancer."
And sent that to my husband, my friends who were supporting me through the day, my sisters and my boss at Lifetime.
The irony of this was that I head up public affairs at Lifetime in addition to the PR team. We had been working on a campaign for the 25th anniversary of Stop Breast Cancer for Life, and had shot a PSA with Robin Roberts and actresses from the movie Patsy & Loretta to support the Breast Cancer Research Foundation. I was working on the press release at that time. I never imagined my life and work would intersect so intimately at that moment.
Once I got through the initial shock and talked to all those people who got my text, I knew I needed a plan—and thought of my friend Naz, who used to work for the Dr. Susan Love Research Foundation for breast cancer and whose own mother battled breast cancer. Her husband was also a doctor at Cedars Sinai Medical Center. I knew he had connections! I told her I needed her help to find me the best doctor.
The next day, I brought donuts to my office and told my team to each grab one–I told them I wanted them to have something sweet as I revealed to them that I had been diagnosed with breast cancer. They were shocked and sad. I told them, "There are eight of us here who are women. One in eight women gets diagnosed with breast cancer. I'm taking one for the team; you guys know I would do the best out of all you all. Business as usual, until it can't be."
They all agreed I would be the best one to take on this battle, with my no-nonsense, can-do attitude.
Naz arranged with Dr. Susan Love to go through the pathology report with me. She assured me, if I was to have breast cancer, this was the best type, as it was an invasive ductal carcinoma that was hormone receptive and highly treatable. She advised that I probably could do a lumpectomy and radiation. That sounded great to me, as the thought of chemotherapy scared me, as I couldn't shield my children from my sickness then. Lumpectomy and radiation, I could do this!
Naz also helped me to get an appointment to see a top-notch, in-demand oncologist. But getting to see her would be at least another week.
My OB/GYN called to check in on me, and reminded me to call the oncology surgeon to have a discussion with her while I wait to see the oncologist. So many doctors—my head was spinning. After having an MRI to see whether there was any spread (thankfully, there was not), I was able to go with my husband Landon to meet with the surgeon. She had gone through my pathology report, and an amendment on the report noted that my mass was Her2 positive.
I soon learned that Her2 was a protein my body overproduced, therefore making my cancer more aggressive. The surgeon said she believed I would have to do chemo after all.
I finally had a good cry, right there in her office. I felt terrible my husband and I would have to tell our children what was happening.
"We actually made a Lifetime TV movie, Living Proof, about the doctor who developed Herceptin. Now this medicine was going to be part of the regimen to save my life."
A few days later, we met with the oncologist. I liked her immediately. Her calmness coupled with her knowledge put my mind at ease. She went through my pathology with me again and mapped out a treatment plan. I finally had an actual checklist, which as a taskmaster, I was down with.
I would have "chemo cocktail of TCHP" (Taxotere and Carboplatin) with Herceptin (targeted treatment for Her2 Positive tumors) and Perjeta—six cycles, each three weeks apart. After that, I would have surgery to remove the tumor, and continue with Herceptin for a year. Another tidbit of irony here: We actually made a Lifetime TV movie, Living Proof, about the doctor who developed Herceptin. Now this medicine was going to be part of the regimen to save my life.
By this time, it was the end of September, and I knew I would have to adjust my life to accommodate cancer. I asked if I could start chemo in mid-October, so I could make one last business trip as we were promoting the country music film Patsy & Loretta in New York and Nashville. I know that seems rather silly, but I was not ready to change my entire life just yet and give in to cancer.
With my oncologist's OK, I went on my last trip before treatment began and got to see my East Coast co-workers. I openly shared what was ahead of me, and was met with so much incredible support, including from the Acting Chairman for A+E Networks, Abbe Raven, who shared that she too had quietly battled breast cancer. I felt so lucky to have her as cheerleader and role model and to know cancer wouldn't define me—I could and would be a warrior.
I enjoyed my time in New York and Nashville as we rolled out the promotion for the movie, and got down to business once back in L.A. I drove myself to Cedars on October 16 to have a port put into my left arm, where I would get the chemo infusions. That evening, coming home with a bandaged arm, Landon and I sat our kids—Logan, 8, and Kaiya almost 5, and told them mommy had cancer.
Logan teared up and asked if I was going to die. How do you answer that? I told him no, explained the port in my arm was going to give me the medicine that would help me get rid of the cancer. Meanwhile, Kaiya refused to hug or kiss me, because she was scared that she would catch the cancer.
The next day, my friend and coworker Kristine drove me to my first chemo treatment. She stayed with me while Naz and another friend, Cyanne, came to visit. I made it a party; I had a private corner of the infusion center where I chatted and caught up with everyone.
My nurse Jake and I got along from the get-go; he's still my friend today. After six long hours, Kristine drove me home. I felt okay. I had a little bit of a headache, but nothing I couldn't handle. The next day, I stayed home and took it easy that weekend. But when I was in bed, I felt worse. When I was up and moving, I felt a lot better.
On Monday morning, everyone in the office was pretty shocked to see me there. But I honestly felt better when I could focus on work, and not on cancer. Again, business as usual. I kept my life the same as much I could, including work, working out, kid activities and all.
By Halloween I still had my hair. I was stoked. I think I convinced myself I wouldn't lose it.
But one Saturday evening, as we were planning to go out to dinner, clumps of hair began to fall out after I got out of the shower. Everywhere I went, pieces of hair were flying off. I couldn't run a comb through my hair because so much of it had fallen off and became knotted. I brought a pair of scissors to my husband and told him he had to cut it off. I didn't want my DNA floating around all of Los Angeles anymore.
I was able to order a wig through insurance, but when it came, it just didn't look right. It didn't feel like me. My hairdresser offered to shave my head for me, and style the wig. So, one night after work, I had my head shaved and a wig put on. I had also ordered many turbans to wear as part of my new look.
I wasn't sad when my hair was shaved off. I had cried in the bathroom when I first started losing it, so now it was just something I had to do. Check it off the list. I wore the wig to work and one of my colleagues commented to me, "Your hair looks great today. I like your new haircut." I broke it to him that I was wearing a wig, and I was going through chemo.
After that, wigs and turbans dominated my wardrobe. I acquired wigs of all shades and lengths and had a new look every day. My kids had fun with it too—it made the whole experience less scary for them as they tried on new wigs with me. I wanted people to know it wasn't my real hair and that I was okay with that. It was like a badge of honor to wear my wigs and turbans and tell the world, I may have cancer, but I am doing great. I was incredibly lucky to not have too many side effects from my treatment and to have so much support from people at work, friends and family.
On my final chemo session in early February, I was ecstatic! I hadn't really shared on social media that I had breast cancer. Those around me knew, and it was never a secret, but something about telling the whole world made it different. So, I posted a picture of me during my last infusion—with a wig my coworkers gifted me for Christmas, along with a turban—and shared what I’d been going through for the last four months. It was liberating, and incredible to see the responses from my digital friends and family.
After the grueling slog of chemo, we decided we needed to go on a trip before the next big hurdle—a double mastectomy with reconstruction—scheduled for March 26. Even though the kids had school, we pulled them out for a week and enjoyed a much-needed family vacation in the beginning of March on The Big Island of Hawaii. We had a peaceful time there, but news started filtering in about the coronavirus.
We constantly reminded the kids to wash their hands, use hand sanitizer and be extra careful not to get germs. Little did we know, a pandemic was coming. While we were in Hawaii, I saw news reports that one of the early cases of the virus was in Tarzana, and the person was being treated at the same hospital where I was to have my surgery.
I reached out to my surgeon, who assured me I would have my surgery as planned and there would be extra safety protocols in place.
Once we got home, the virus was really taking shape. The NBA cancelled their season, Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson announced they had contracted COVID-19. It was all too real to ignore.
The kids went to school the next day as planned, and we went to work. We soon got word that starting the following Monday, we would be working from home. That Friday, my team and I all went to one last lunch, thinking we would see each other in about two weeks. Boy, were we wrong. Once the work-from-home orders went into place, so did the one for school closings. We were in a full-on pandemic, trying our hardest to find toilet paper and stock up on essentials. And I had surgery just a few weeks away.
The day of my mastectomy, I had a 5 a.m. arrival time, so Landon stayed with the kids while Kristine (clearly she is the angel in my life) drove me to the hospital. COVID protocols were strict —no one to come in with you, temperature checks, and per the surgeon, I should just go home after surgery. Though I didn't intend to have a drive-through mastectomy, the risk of catching COVID was top of mind and I went home the same day, even though I felt horrible. I felt unconscious and nauseous beyond belief. Landon came to pick me up curbside with the kids, and they saw how terrible I looked and started to cry. But I went straight to bed and by the next morning, I felt much better.
My husband was the best nurse; he helped me do everything I couldn't on my own. By day three, I even decided to jump on some work calls, much to the surprise of my colleagues.
Following the double mastectomy, I continued on with Herceptin every three weeks, but so much has changed. Visitors are no longer allowed in the infusion center. Temperature checks as you drive in and enter the facility. Masks at all times. Many people have to go solo for chemo, unlike before, when I was so lucky to always have supportive friends with me. My heart breaks for those who are just starting their chemo journey alone.
Around May, I also stopped wearing my wigs and turbans. One: It's too damn hot for them. Two: My hair is slowly growing back! And three: I'm moving on from that part of my cancer story and ready to conquer the rest.
As I entered the next phase of my treatment, I started Lupron shots to help stop the production of estrogen in my body and put me into early menopause, and did a bone scan to check my density levels. Literally, I'm becoming an old lady, even before my 41st birthday! So. Much. Fun.
Nearly a year from when I first learned I had breast cancer, I had my second breast surgery, on August 26. This one was a lot easier in terms of recovery, and I luckily didn't feel sick this time from the anesthesia.
I feel like I'm starting to get my life back. This has been an incredibly tough year with cancer, a pandemic, working from home, homeschooling and just not being able to do the things we used to love to do. But at the same time, it's really made me refocus on the truly important things in our lives. I know how lucky I am to have caught my cancer in the early stages, and even luckier that I was able to continue on with my treatment despite the coronavirus. Cancer doesn't stop for COVID, but I feel so grateful that I have been able to thrive despite all the challenges—and had the most amazing support system.
I hope that by sharing my story, I can help inspire others. There is nothing you can't get through. Positivity will get you through the darkest of times. Please go get a mammogram, even when you think it could be nothing.
For breast cancer resources, facts, stories, videos and more, visit our Stop Breast Cancer for Life page.