None of us like to think about cancer. Much like other banned household words, we tend to believe that if we just ignore it long enough, if we don’t talk about it and if we pretend that it isn’t there, it will somehow leave us well enough alone. Of course, we all know that it doesn’t work that way, but sometimes avoiding the truth just seems easier than looking in the mirror.
After surviving breast cancer, Blowing Rock resident Kimberley Burns, was diagnosed a few years later with terminal brain, thoracic, spine and abdominal cancer. On February 26, 2016, she was told that she only had three to six months left to live. The word cancer, which she had bravely defeated only a few years before, was back with a vengeance and it would not be ignored. Anger and depression loomed heavily over the Burns household until one day she woke up, parted ways with her self-pity and looked in the mirror.
“After I’m gone,” said the spry 48-year-old, “I want people to remember from my story that there is always a reason to hope, and that if you have faith, everything gets taken care of with time.”
New Kid on the Block
Kimberley’s first memory was of a police officer instructing her to say goodbye to her newborn sister. As a three-year-old, Kimberley kissed her sister’s forehead and watched in terror as the man-in-the-uniform took her lifeless body out of their family home in Miami, Florida. This was the second sister she had lost to cystic fibrosis.
“I wish my first memory were of Christmas morning instead,” she quipped. “For years, my brothers and I worried that the police might show up again one day to take us away.”
To help with the grieving process, her mother Sharon, a mid-wife; and her father Wayne, a civil engineer contracted with the Army Corps of Engineers; worked very hard to keep the family together. Due to the nature of her father’s job, the family moved every six to 18 months causing Kimberley and her brothers Jonathan and Micheal to attended 14 different schools. During that time, she found it difficult to always be the new kid, fresh meat for the bullies.
“In his wisdom, my dad took me to witness a regiment of Vietnam veterans returning home in 1975,” she said. “I’ll never forget those weary faced men and the angry mob that spat and cursed their return. I remember looking up and asking my dad why they hated these men so much. He put his arm around me and said; because they did a job that these people disagree with. I always had a great respect for the armed services after that experience. Just like my dad, they had orders, they had a thankless job to do and they did it to protect and to serve.”
After that, Kimberley decided to embrace both politics and being the new kid. She reasoned that if no one knew who she was, she had as good a shot as anyone else to run for the student government association (SGA).
“I always ran for President or Vice President,” she said. “My mom, in hopes of improving my chances, suggested that I run for Secretary or Treasurer instead. But I said no, I wanted a position at the top and you know what? I won it twice.”
Kimberley was 12-years-old when the family moved to Morganton, North Carolina. Her father took a job as an engineer for the Linn Cove Viaduct, a section of the Blue Ridge Parkway that runs along the side of Grandfather Mountain.
“I would walk to dad’s office after school, crawl under his desk and chew Dentyne,” she said with a laugh. “I was always amazed at how he could look at a bunch of calculations and draw a roadway from it. Occasionally, he would take me in his baby blue Cadillac convertible up the mountain to observe the work first hand. I loved that time with dad.”
After settling into their new home, Kimberley’s parents called a family meeting to discuss whether they should become specialized foster parents for people with development disabilities.
“I think my mom felt that this was something that she could do to remember and honor her lost daughters, my sisters,” she said. “We all had to go through crisis management training in order to be able to safely respond to tantrums and the various behavioral issues that were to come. Two kids lived with us for six years, others came and left, but we loved them all like family. I never held it against my friends who did not understand it, or want to come over to play. Our house was different and I knew it, but I was proud of my parents and I was grateful for the compassion they instilled in me.”
After graduating high school Kimberley went on to study criminal justice in college. Her dream was to become a lawyer, but everything changed after she got pregnant and became a single mother at 18.
“It was a very sad and confusing time for me and my new baby girl, Kandice,” she said. “Everyone in town looked down on me; it was a whole new kind of shame and bullying. To get away from it all, my family decided to move back to Florida, where I married and had my son, Patrick.”
Unfortunately, the marriage was abusive in nature and after attempting to make it work for many years; she found the strength to say enough is enough. Divorced and with two small children at home, she worked around the clock as a bank sanitation worker, a real estate agent, a police officer, a paralegal, and as a special education teacher to provide for her family. Years later, she landed her dream job back in North Carolina as a general education development (GED) program instructor.
“Looking back, I am grateful for my early childhood bouts with change, bullying and uncomfortable situations. While instructing the GED program, I met and worked with hundreds of kids and misplaced adults who all had tough starts in life and I did my best to encourage them. I like to live my life by a simple saying that I came up with a few years ago, ‘Be as forgiving as you intend on being gracious,’” she said. “I want to live a gracious life.”
For Better, For Worse
In 2008, while volunteering at a Habitat for Humanity event, Kimberley met Scott. The couple dated for a year before deciding to get married. “Scott and I were both okay with going to the court house, I mean I was 42 at the time, but my now adult son and daughter both insisted that we celebrate the occasion the right way.”
The nontraditional wedding was a huge success. Kandice served as her mother’s maid of honor and Patrick, Scott’s best man. Afterward, the wedding guests enjoyed an elegant dinner and dance reception at the Old American Legion Building in Blowing Rock.
“We had menus, real china and a six-piece band,” she said. “It was a wonderful day shared with my husband, my kids, my parents, my brothers and one hundred of our closest friends.”
Unfortunately, their marital bliss would be interrupted two short months later by a disturbing dream in which Kimberley recalls fighting a bear. “I woke up gripping my left breast so hard that it hurt and for some reason I felt I needed to do a self-breast exam,” she said. “I discovered a lump on my breast and shared the news with my family. Everyone agreed that I needed a mammogram and a surgical consult, but we, like so many families, did not have insurance to pay for it. I almost panicked, but we were able to find financial assistance through the Appalachian Health Department and the Susan G. Komen Foundation.”
After her mammogram at the Wilma Redmond Breast Center in Boone came back suspicious, Kimberley was referred to Dr. Paul Dagher at Watauga Surgical Group for biopsies on her left and right breast. Then the Tumor Board, which meets weekly at Watauga Medical Center to review cancer cases, recommended that she have a skin sparing mastectomy on her left breast and a prophylactic nipple sparing mastectomy on her right breast, followed by chemotherapy and radiation treatment.
“Dr. Dagher was fantastic,” she said. “He clearly explained everything and he prayed with me before I went in for the procedure. During that time, a lot of people suggested that I go to a larger hospital off the mountain, but I felt strongly about being close to home, close to my doctors, and close to the excellent healthcare services right here in Boone.”
The bilateral mastectomy was completed by Dr. Dagher at Watauga Medical Center on September 19, 2012. She was cleared to return home three days later. “I have been in and out of hospitals many times in my life and I can honestly say my experience at Watauga Medical Center was one of the better ones. From the OR staff to the nurse that gave me a sponge bath, everyone was very caring and respectful.”
From there Kimberley was referred to the Seby B. Jones Regional Cancer Center in Boone, for her chemotherapy and radiation treatment. As a first time visitor to the Cancer Center, she was greeted by Paul Young, Nurse Navigator; Angie Del Nero, Social Worker; Melanie Childers, Pastoral Care; her Medical Oncologist, Dr. Anna Sobol; and her Radiation Oncologist, Dr. Yvonne Mack.
“Everyone knew me by name,” she said. “Rather than feeling alone, I felt like I had an entire team of advocates working on my behalf to provide me with the best clinical, emotional and spiritual care possible.”
To Love and to Cherish
“I had a really hard time looking in the mirror,” she said. “As a newlywed, even after my reconstruction surgery, the change was so dramatic that I decided to secretly hold off on submitting our marriage license. I worried because I was no longer the same bride that Scott married. I was now bald and had lost my breasts. When he finally found out, he simply smiled, told me that he loves me for me and that none of that matters.”
The battle tested couple went on to enjoy three more years of marriage before the cancer returned. Kimberley remembers getting ready to go teach a belly dancing class when she developed a painful migraine and started vomiting. Before long it was revealed that her breast cancer had metastasized and spread throughout her body.
On February 26, 2016, after 15 more courses of radiation followed by chemotherapy, Dr. Sobol broke the news to the Burns family that Kimberley’s cancer was progressing. Depending on her ability to tolerate the side effects of treatment and her response to chemotherapy, she could have as few as three to six months left to live. The intrusive disease spread quietly, first to her spine and then on to her brain and abdomen.
Despite her prognosis, Kimberley decided to fight back by participating in what proved to be an unsuccessful and life-threatening clinical trial; followed by what Dr. Sobol described as life prolonging chemotherapy.
“The chemo has worked better than any of us expected,” she said. “To celebrate, we had a six month and one day life party. Then we had a one year party and a two year party and now I’m starting to plan my three year party. I’m still considered a terminal cancer patient, who will have to have weekly chemotherapy treatments for the rest of my life, but I’m still here and I’m so grateful for each and every day.”
Till Death do us Part
“I’m not angry anymore,” she shared thoughtfully. “For about three weeks, I let myself grieve, but then I woke up one morning, sat straight up in bed and heard an inner voice like thunder tell me to ‘Stop with the self-pity.’”
From that day forward Kimberley shared that she began to see life more clearly. “My faith is what puts my feet on the floor in the morning. I can’t think of anything I’m not grateful for and yes, that includes the cancer. It’s weird sometimes how we receive blessings.”
Kimberley embraced her role as a regular at the Cancer Center. She would often arrive a few minutes before her treatment to hand out flowers to the nurses and the other patients. She has also participated in several survivorship programs including fly fishing trips, the radiance program, and the expressive arts open studio.
As a participant in the expressive arts open studio she recently painted an inspiring floral canvas print and donated it to the Cancer Center. “I decided to paint bright yellow daffodils with a lavender background; lavender represents all cancers. I had to hold the paint brush with both hands, due to the neuropathy that has developed as a side effect from my chemotherapy. They decided to hang the painting up in the infusion room so people receiving their chemotherapy treatments will see it. For my friends that have passed away from cancer, and for the ones that are still living and fighting, I wanted to provide something that would be cheerful and would give them hope.”
At home Kimberley and her family spent as much time together as possible. “I talk to my mom on the phone all the time and my dad, who is now hard of hearing, sends me a sweet text message every day. I’ve started going on road trips with my brother Jonathan, who is now a big truck driver, and my brother Micheal visits the house all the time. My kids are so considerate and I love them with all of my heart. And Scott, well, I can’t say enough about him, he never leaves my side.”
Despite her prognosis, Kimberley lived longer than the doctors expected.
Kimberley shared that she would be ready to leave this life in peace and go on to the next one. As for her body, she had already made arrangements for it to be donated to the University of North Carolina for medical research. “Since I have an incurable cancer, maybe some brilliant student can figure out how to make my cancer curable to help others.”
Kimberley Griffin Burns will always be remembered as a loving daughter, sister, wife, mother, grandmother and friend. To those who knew her, she is the personification of hope, made evident through her joyful spirit and unwavering faith. For the rest of us, her story provides a prayer soaked, grace-filled blueprint for how to live, love and die well.