Kristina Carpenter holding her Wonder Woman cape.

Kristi’s Story: Surviving Breast Cancer

A Survivor’s Testament to her Resilience, Strength and Grit

One in eight women are diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime. Kristi Carpenter is one of those women. Kristi, our Chief Compliance Officer, shares her story about being diagnosed with Stage II breast cancer in 2016 and then Stage IV in 2018 when it metastasized to her lungs. Today, she is “NED” (no evidence of disease), and we celebrate Kristi and thank her for sharing her story and her words of inspiration, wisdom and hope.

“I am a fairly private person, and I haven’t shared my journey with very many people, but if by sharing this story, I can encourage just one woman to take actions that will keep her from traveling this road, then it’s worth it,” says Kristi, while advising others who experience breast cancer to ‘face it head on and keep moving forward.’

Read Kristi’s story in her own words.

Kristi Carpenter, Survivor
“Cancer has taken so much from me, but I absolutely refuse to let it take my identity or be any more prominent in my life than what it absolutely must be. I refuse to let breast cancer define who I am today.”

I was diagnosed on May 2, 2016 at age 41. We were initially diagnosed with Stage II breast cancer. I say “we were diagnosed” because while the medical diagnosis was naturally for me, and me alone, a diagnosis like this never just affects the patient. It affects the family unit. My husband, Jim, and I were in this battle together.

When I received the news, it shook my world. On the other hand, I was glad to know exactly what we were dealing with so we could start fighting.

I was sitting in my office at work when a nurse called to schedule my next appointment. This one, however, was with a surgeon. That’s how I learned I had breast cancer. She was horrified, of course, and thought the doctor had already called me and given me the diagnosis. They had not yet called. I thanked her for the call and made the appointment.

I walked down the hall to our CEO’s office and said, ‘I got the call; it’s not what we were hoping for, and I need to go home and talk with my husband.’ I shared the diagnosis with Jim, and we had a real good cry and prayed together. Then we exercised some ‘windshield therapy.’ We put the top down on our ragtop and just drove – aimlessly driving and talking and getting our minds wrapped around it. That’s how we initially tackled the diagnosis.

Kristina Carpenter during cancer treatment.
Kristina Carpenter during cancer treatment.
The treatment

Because I had an aggressive nature of the cancer, things progressed very quickly. Three weeks after my diagnosis, I had surgery. I had a bilateral mastectomy, and a few months later I had additional surgeries to reduce my risk of recurrence based on genetic testing. I also began taking a chemo pill that I will take for at least 10 years, and possibly the rest of my life.

About two years later, the cancer metastasized to my lungs. The treatment continued, and through much prayer and I believe, only through God’s grace and mercy, the tumors in my lungs are still there, but there are no active cancer cells at all!

When I first started taking the chemo pill, the side effects were debilitating. I couldn’t think. My mind was muddled with what is commonly known as ‘chemo brain fog.’ Plus, it was taking a tremendous toll on my body physically. I could hardly move with the horrible bone and joint pain. Fortunately, I was prescribed a different pill and I have tolerated it better so far.

‘Purse holders’ – a network of love and support

First, my faith in God provided support unlike any other. I knew He had a plan, and while I certainly didn’t understand it or even like it at the time, I trusted Him to see us through this journey, and He has done that beyond anything I could have imagined when we started down this path.

Kristina Carpenter with her husband, Jim.
Kristina Carpenter with her husband, Jim.

Second was my husband. He was my rock and biggest supporter and continues to be today. I don’t even have words to express how blessed I was to have his unconditional support. He was my ‘purse holder.’ Being a ‘purse holder’ is a well-known reference in the cancer community to those supportive spouses who hold our hand during appointments and hold our purses in the waiting room when they can’t go back with us for treatments.

Third was family – blood relation, our church family, my Car-Mart family and friends. Every act of support was such a source of encouragement. There is no big or small support – each one means so much. I remember my Uncle Mitchell mowing our yard, neighbors and friends bringing meals, cards, phone calls and texts of support, praying with us and for us. Each one mattered and gave us so much encouragement.

Finally, my doctors and oncology team were wonderful. They listened and cared. They fought right along beside to ensure the treatment plan was the right one for me, and when we had issues or concerns, they adjusted accordingly.

Car-Mart family

My Car-Mart family was incredible. I really cannot say enough about how folks rallied around me and my husband during this time. Jeff and Rob (Car-Mart’s CEO and CIO, respectively) came to the hospital and sat with my husband while I was in surgery. A member of our Board of Directors brought flowers to the hospital and visited with us. Team members visited the hospital and at home bringing so much encouragement to us.

I have a Wonder Woman cape hanging in my office today that a team member brought to the hospital to remind me that I am a fighter. Co-workers brought lunch and shared it with me sitting on our back deck at home while I was recovering. I found a beautiful bracelet on my desk when I returned to work. We received so much love and support through the many cards, emails, calls and texts. We were added to so many people’s prayer list.

Kristina Carpenter with her team, holding her Wonder Woman cape.
Kristina Carpenter with her team, holding her Wonder Woman cape.

Each act of support gave so much encouragement. I was and am blessed with such an amazing team at our office. Each member stepped up and worked tirelessly to make sure things at the office didn’t miss a beat, and that gave me the ability to focus on my healing knowing they were taking care of business.

Life changing – a ‘new normal’

I expected after the surgeries were completed, that I would turn the calendar to 2017 and life would resume back to normal. The ‘normal’ I had before was an unreasonable expectation. So now, I embrace my ‘new normal’.

I really try to focus on what matters. We all have so many distractions in life, but I love the 10×10 Rule. If, whatever is bugging me right now won’t matter in ten years, then I try not to spend more than ten minutes worrying about it now.

I’m admittedly stubborn. Cancer has taken so much from me, but I absolutely refuse to let it take my identity or be any more prominent in my life than what it absolutely must be. I want to be known as the gal who cares about people, who is approachable and will talk to anyone, who likes fast cars, who developed a compliance program for Car-Mart, who treats her fur babies as children, who wants a dolphin and elephant as a pet, anything but, “oh, she’s the one who had breast cancer.” I refuse to let breast cancer define who I am today.

Wisdom for others

First, this is an overwhelming diagnosis. There’s no way around that. My best practical advice is to take a friend with you to those first few appointments. I was so blessed with a dear friend who had traveled this same road a few years before I was diagnosed. She went to the first few appointments with my husband and me. She wrote down everything the doctor was telling us, the questions we asked, and the answers the doctor gave us. During these kinds of appointments, you walk out of there remembering a little of this and a little of that. It was nice to not have to try to remember everything, but rather be free to ask questions and then refer to her notes a few days, weeks, or even months later.

When going through this ordeal, don’t expect some days to make sense. They just won’t. Don’t expect someone else’s journey to be your journey. It won’t. There may be similarities, but we are all different and react differently to the many available treatments.

Know that this is as much a mental battle as it is a physical battle. So, you’ve got to fight, fight, fight. You’re going to have some ‘down days,’ but pick yourself up, dust yourself off and get back to fighting. Don’t string too many ‘down days’ together. Your outlook and determination are everything in this battle.

Life as you know it is over. But that is NOT necessarily a bad thing! You’ll find you appreciate things you may have hardly noticed before such as a beautiful sunrise peaking over Ozark mountains, a friend’s “just to say hello” text, a harvest moon against a velvet sky, fur baby snuggles. Find your new normal. It is different for everyone. But find it and embrace it.

Face it head-on and know it is truly a journey. It will not be over in a month or a year or even years. A very distinctive memory for me was standing in front of the mirror and looking at the scars. I remember having a good cry, then thinking “it is what it is” and I’m thankful I’m here to cry over these scars. We all have scars – both literal and figurative, and “Scars” by I Am They is a special song to me with its message of redemption and rescue as we surrender our battles to Jesus.

Keep moving forward. Keep. Moving. Forward. Don’t give breast cancer any more of you than it has already taken. Don’t give it your hope, or your happiness, or your identity.

Stronger on the other side

Above all, stop to focus on what’s important.

Having gone through this ordeal and survived, I find I’m more likely to say exactly what is on my mind. I don’t want to waste time if I don’t have to do so. I want to spend as much time as possible with those I love because I know all too well there are no guarantees for any of us. Each and every day is a blessing, and it’s so important we focus on what truly matters for ourselves and those around us.

Oddly enough perhaps, this battle has decreased a lot of my fears. I don’t worry as much about the ‘what if’s’ anymore. If we can beat cancer, we can do anything! It reminds me how strong we are as women and as survivors.

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