Kendra Kilpatrick’s life changed the afternoon of April 8.
Five minutes before Kilpatrick was scheduled to talk to her fellow Stillwater High math teachers, she received a phone call no one ever expects, let alone a healthy 33-year-old.
Minutes later, emotions poured out and she was in tears clinging to her husband, Ross.
Kilpatrick, who recently finished her fourth year as the SHS girls’ basketball coach, had just received devastating results.
It was cancer.
Stage 3 papillary breast cancer to be exact. It’s a rare form of breast cancer that accounts for about 3 percent of all breast cancers.
Kilpatrick was 38 weeks pregnant with her second child. She was just told a lump in her left armpit was cancerous. The battle for not only her life, but also that of her unborn son was about to begin.
That’s when her 2-year-old daughter Riley entered the room. Nap time was over and she was ready to play with mommy.
The toddler’s energy and smile instantly changed Kilpatrick’s mood. It changed her outlook on the situation ahead.
“She comes walking in and says quiet time is over now,” Kilpatrick said. “It was just like OK, that was my breakdown. I had about three minutes to lose it and she comes walking in and I see her face. It was then I knew it’s done and I can’t linger on this. I would have liked to have lingered for a little longer than three minutes. But it hit me that I have stuff I have to take care of and this is not going to stop me from playing with my child. … This is what I’m fighting for.”
Finding a lump
About three months ago, Kilpatrick discovered a lump in her armpit that felt strange, but also a bit familiar. She wasn’t sure what it was, but it formed in the same location she developed mastitis when she nursed Riley.
Her milk had hardened into a lump then, but this seemed different because she hadn’t started producing milk with Kendall’s due date months away. Kilpatrick followed up with her OBGYN, who told her it was nothing to worry about, because he said it was hormones and is common in pregnant women.
A month later, at her next checkup, the lump was still there, beginning to cause pain and possibly growing larger. Yet, she received the same advice, with the addition of icing the area.
“Whenever I iced it, it felt better,” Kilpatrick said. “When I stopped icing it, it went back to hurting.”
Two weeks later, the ice wasn’t helping either. Due to the pregnancy, her doctor wanted to avoid most medicine, but Kilpatrick was given an antibiotic and told to try using heat on her armpit.
Fast forward two more weeks, and nothing was improving. In fact, the lump had grown larger and her breasts had begun hardening. She said it didn’t feel natural and the pain was intensifying.
It was then her doctor suggested she have it looked at, because what seemed like a normal thing was becoming an anomaly. However, this was in mid-March and the COVID-19 pandemic was just beginning in the U.S. Kilpatrick’s OBGYN tried to find a specialist to see her, but it was difficult since doctors were only seeing patients deemed as emergencies.
“An eight-month pregnant woman with a large mass isn’t an emergency?” Kilpatrick said. “(My OBGYN) agreed. Obviously, he was searching out trying to get help.”
Kilpatrick called the Breast Health Network in Edmond, where she received some good news. Upon explaining her situation, she had an appointment set for two days later.
“As soon as I told them what was going on, they were concerned with it,” Kilpatrick said. “They felt like it was an emergency.”
The ultrasound revealed something the radiologist hadn’t seen before. She thought it might be a galactocele, which is also called a milk cyst, but wanted to do a biopsy, too.
A hardened mass was confirmed. However, a galactocele usually has a maximum of 5cm in diameter – according to her doctor, but Kilpatrick’s mass was already 7cm in diameter.
The results of the biopsy took several days to receive. The dreaded phone call came at 1:25 p.m. April 8 – five minutes before her scheduled department teleconference.
“When she called, I kind of felt like I knew something was wrong already,” Kilpatrick said. “I’ve been following this mass for a while, and I kept telling my assistant coach multiple times that something wasn’t right. It felt like something was going on with it. I think I knew in my heart it wasn’t what they thought. But you always hope for the best.”
Everyone handles adversity differently, but most react to hearing the word cancer in a similar fashion. It was no different in the Kilpatrick household.
“Whenever I heard it, she started talking about what we need to do and everything, I was able to stay composed and listen to the words that were coming out of her mouth,” Kilpatrick said. “I was trying to stay focused on what she was telling me we need to do, but as soon as I hung up that phone, I just lost it. It was immediate tears streaming down my face.”
Ross walked into the room to check on his wife. Words were hard to put together for someone who had been so healthy, especially with a newborn due within days – a couple of weeks at most.
“All I could say was, ‘It’s cancer,’” Kilpatrick said. “That’s all I could get out of my mouth. I just buried my head in his chest and bawled.”
For Ross, the news of cancer didn’t come any easier as her husband.
“It’s scary,” Ross said. “When you hear the word cancer, it’s scary. We’re at the point in medicine and technology where it’s better than it’s ever been before, so you have a feeling like it’s going to be OK because of the treatment and everything that’s available. The odds that it’s going to be OK are really good, but it’s still really scary. It’s a scary word.”
Before either spouse had long to think about what cancer might do to their family, Riley entered the room. The nearly 3-year-old became a source of relief.
Kilpatrick turned her attention to their daughter. They began playing, same as they had always done, because it was time to move forward from the diagnosis.
“After coming to terms with it, I really just think it’s God using me,” Kilpatrick said. “He has a purpose and he has a plan. He’s going to use me to show his strength through me. I know there is a reason for it. I don’t know what it is. Eventually, he’ll reveal that plan to me. I know there is a plan behind it.”
Aside from the diagnosis, the infamous phone call also brought good news to the Kilpatrick family. Appointments were already set up for her just five days later. She was set to meet with a surgeon, an oncologist and have a second biopsy done for her lymph nodes.
That biopsy revealed the lymph nodes were also cancerous. This means Kilpatrick will also need a double mastectomy, in addition to chemotherapy, and possibly radiation.
Doctors had already decided to let her pregnancy run its course before beginning cancer treatment. However, her baby didn’t want to wait the full 40 weeks.
“I just kept praying and praying, because I was having contractions every night,” Kilpatrick said. “I just kept praying, Lord please let me get to these meetings and please let me meet with these doctors. I knew if we didn’t, it would have to get pushed back, which would just push everything else back.”
Kilpatrick attended all of her meetings before her water broke hours later. The next morning, Kendall Reed Kilpatrick was born at Stillwater Medical Center.
He was 7 pounds, 11 ounces and 21 inches long on April 14. Their baby boy was healthy.
“That was so relieving,” Ross said. “The biggest thing I felt there was relief, because the baby is born with no complications. He’s healthy, Kendra is healthy.”
Aside from Kendall not sleeping his first couple of nights at home, the Kilpatricks were happy to be back together as a family – of four.
“Riley is loving being a big sister,” Kilpatrick said. “We’re blessed to have two healthy children, so we’re very happy.”
With their baby boy at home and doing well, the Kilpatricks have turned their attention to the cancer treatments.
On Monday, Kilpatrick underwent a CT scan in Stillwater – with Ross actually performing the scan.
“My husband got to be the first person to start this whole thing off,” Kilpatrick said. “That was pretty cool.”
Tuesday was her day off. Wednesday was a busy day with a one-week check-up for Kendall and pre-admission testing for herself, which also meant she’d have to undergo a COVID-19 test.
Kilpatrick will have more tests, including an echocardiogram, and meet with her oncologist Thursday. She will also find out her chemotherapy schedule Thursday before having her chemo port installed Friday.
“It will be a busy week,” Kilpatrick said. “I’m kind of torn on my feelings, because I really want to get this going to get this crap out of my body. I want to get my body back healthy. But, the other side of it is getting going means this is real. Once you start this ball rolling, it’s not going to stop. Eventually it will, but not for a while. It will be kind of hard but I’m ready to get going. I just know there’s going to be a lot of time away from my kids. Kendall is a week old, so it’s going to be hard to be away. You feel like you should be enjoying this time, but I have to go to the city to do all of this time.”
Ever since the April 8 diagnosis, Kilpatrick and her family have received hundreds of messages of support, thoughts and prayers. People have made them meals, donated restaurant gift cards and helped in many ways.
In fact, they’ve had more help than necessary right now. Kilpatrick said she unfortunately had to turn away folks from donating food, because their freezer is full and they’re out of room for more at the present time.
She said it’s been a good problem to have during this difficult time.
“We knew we had lots of friends, but something like this has just shown how many people do love and care about us,” Kilpatrick said. “I told Ross I couldn’t keep up with the text messages and the Facebook messages, because as soon as I’m replying to somebody’s text, I see another one coming in.
“It was awesome that I couldn’t keep up with people telling us we love you, we’re praying for you and asking how they can help. It was a good problem to have.”
They even received help from a couple in Texas. Due to the upcoming chemo, Kilpatrick won’t be able to nurse Kendall like she did for Riley. It’s a hard pill to swallow.
She reached out for help and received it from a group called Third Strand out of Amarillo, Texas, that provides breast milk to babies who have lost a mother or whose mother is unable to breastfeed due to a serious or life-threatening illness.
“There was a couple who heard of our need and said they’d love to transport it,” Kilpatrick said. “So, this couple from Amarillo drove the milk up, stayed for about five minutes and drove back to Amarillo.”
Neil and Lynn Lovorn drove 1,300 ounces of breast milk from Amarillo to Stillwater. During their quick stop in Payne County, the Lovorns mentioned their son was also a math teacher and girls’ basketball coach.
It’s those small connections and overwhelming support that has Kilpatrick adopting the motto of “Faith over Fear” during this trying time. It’s even sparked a Facebook page and T-shirts to raise money for their family.
“My faith has to be bigger than my fear for any of this,” Kilpatrick said. “I know it’s out of my hands. I know the doctors have a part in it, but essentially they’re in God’s hands, as well. So, we know it’s all in his hands and we’re trying stay really faithful and let us be witnesses for him through this whole process.”