Saturday, February 6, 2010


Editor's note: I am thrilled to share this next essay with you. Breast cancer doesn't seem to care what it interrupts. Kathleen Ryan was in the midst of a law enforcement career in Suffolk County, Long Island. This is her story. Suzanne

When I read that Suzanne completed her radiation treatments, I thought about my last treatment, in December 2004. My time slot was early in the morning, usually around 7:30 a.m., so that I could go to work directly after. I
worked alternating shifts as a police officer, so it worked out well during
the weeks I worked 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., but it was tougher to arrive so early
during the weeks I worked 4 p.m. to midnight.

To accommodate my schedule, my radiation treatments were fit in with the prostate cancer patients. When I was called for my turn, I proudly announced, "This is my last treatment!" A gentlemen replied, "Someone once said that you give up a year of your life in exchange for the rest of your life," and I realized he was right; it had been more than a year since my breast cancer journey began. I had focused on what I needed to do in order to survive; everything else had to come second for the time being.

When I experienced surgeries, lymphedema, chemotherapy, hair loss, fatigue, hot flashes, taste perversion, weight loss, breast reconstruction, and radiation, I decided to have tunnel vision. This was the path I had to take to save my life, to see my kids grow up. I couldn't get sidetracked by all the side effects. How could I complain when this was what modern science and medicine had to offer to extend my life? I looked straight ahead, with blinders on.

Once a year, an officer has to qualify at the shooting range. If for some reason you don't qualify within the year, they take your guns away until you're able to qualify. It happens, for example, if an officer is injured in the line of duty and is out for an extended time; if an officer is pregnant, takes a leave and more than a year passes, or, as in cases such as mine, an extended illness.

I usually qualified in the spring, but I had my mastectomy in February 2004, and it took weeks to heal before I could start chemo, which I finally did ~ on April Fool's Day. I did not have the strength to go to the range, so I put it off. Three weeks after finishing chemo, I had the tissue expander exchange/implant surgery, and a few weeks after that, radiation began.

I had to postpone a day of radiation because my nine-year-old daughter's heart needed to be repaired. She was diagnosed with an atrial septal defect when she was two; it was monitored every year, and that year the cardiologist told us that half of her heart was enlarged and she needed this non-surgical procedure (which turned out extremely successful). Radiation was delayed a couple more times because my skin was literally melting off.

I finished radiation near the end of December. Four days later, I was at the range, qualifying with my 9 mm weapon and a shotgun, too. I didn't want my guns taken away. I'll never forget the sight I must have been to the guys at the range; I wore a bandanna to hide the tiny stubble that had recently started to grow back; I had no eyelashes, no eyebrows ~ but I was determined to qualify.

I stuck to my guns and was able to keep them.

Kathleen A. Ryan is a retired 21-year veteran of the Suffolk County Police Department who is working on a true crime memoir and blogs at Her essay, “The Watcher” will appear in the 2010 Winter/Spring edition of The Southampton Review; it won a Creative Nonfiction award from the Public Safety Writers Association in 2009. Kathleen is a breast cancer survivor who lives on Long Island with her husband and two children. She volunteers with the American Cancer Society and Crime Stoppers of Suffolk County, Inc.


  1. You're an inspiration. Thank you for sharing your journey.
    P.S. I'm betting every one of those guys at the shooting range were filled with admiration.

  2. Thanks, Doc Gurley!

    Some were laughing in disbelief -- in a good way --especially when I was firing the shotgun -- which is such a powerful weapon -- in a cold outdoor range, just before New Year's Eve. I would have felt defeated in some way if I had to give up my guns, so I was determined to go for it. I can't help but chuckle now, that I was at the range four days after receiving my last radiation treatment! I probably felt like I was "shooting" cancer once and for all, after such a long battle!

  3. What a wonderful story! Yes, put the blinders on and plow through to the other side. You are such an inspiration. As a "newbie" in the survivor pool, I love hearing stories from women that are still going strong. Thanks!

  4. Kathleen, thank you so much for the wonderful mention on the women of mystery blog!
    I learned the hard way you can't fix a typo in a comment!!!
    Have a great night!!

  5. Hi Laurie,
    Thanks for your kind comments. I've been involved in a support group since late 2004, and I couldn't imagine my life without these outstanding women. It is encouraging for the "newbies" to see how we've gotten through it, and know that they can, too.

    It was my pleasure to promote Join Our Loop on Women of Mystery. Sorry you experienced difficulty with leaving a comment/typos!
    I am having a fabulous night ~ many thanks! And hello to Deb ~ It's nice to "meet" you!
    Thanks again for this marvelous opportunity to connect with the breast cancer community.

  6. What an inspiring story! Thanks so much for writing and sharing this, Kathy. I didn't realize you had to cope with your daughter's heart problem while you were undergoing radiation, too. It's overwhelming just to think about, yet you write about it all with such grace.

  7. Hi Hilary,
    Thanks for stopping by! I appreciate all of your kind words. It was a frightening time when our daughter's heart needed repair; fortunately, the pediatric cardiologist at St. Francis Hospital was able to repair it using a catheter through the groin. Years ago she would have undergone open heart surgery and would have spent 2 weeks in the hospital; this was a one-day procedure!
    Also during radiation, I was getting therapy for the lymphedema in my left arm, five days a week for four weeks. I can't believe I fit it all in!

  8. Kathleen,

    Outstanding posting!! You really show such strength and determination. As you know, cancer isn't for sissies, and you are so tough.

    I'm very glad your daughter is doing well, too.

  9. Hi Beth,
    Thanks for taking the time to read my post and write such a lovely comment! I appreciate it so very much.
    My daughter came through it beautifully. The cardiologist told me the instant they repaired the hole, the enlarged half snapped right back to its normal shape. She grew so quickly afterward!