Hillary Karels, 26, and her fiance, Dahlton, have a seemingly picture-perfect life.
They started dating in 2011 on New Year’s Eve and within seven months, learned they were expecting their first child.
Jackson was born on July 2, 2013, and although the couple didn’t anticipate becoming parents so quickly, they were elated.
“Life was crazy though,” Hillary says. “It was tough. We went from being college students, where we went to class and partied, with no responsibilities, to having a child. It completely changed everything.”
They moved to a smaller town in their home state of Minnesota and settled into their “new normal,” navigating the challenges as best as possible.
The following year, Hillary was going to return to work, but life threw another curve ball their way, when she became pregnant again.
The couple welcomed their second son, Zeke, on July 9, 2015.
Once a second child was thrown into the mix, Hillary says life was pretty good.
“It was easier,” she says. “It wasn’t as scary, it wasn’t new anymore. It was nice. We actually decided we wanted another one. We were going to wait until we get married – the date is set for September 2019 – but thank God we didn’t. I might not have discovered my cancer at such a young age. The doctors said our daughter is basically our miracle.”
26 and cancer
Baby Colleen was born on Dec. 28, 2017.
“Life was great,” Hillary says. “We got our little princess, and it was so much fun having a girl. It was wonderful.”
About two months later, however, she discovered a lump in her breast while feeding her daughter.
Initially, Hillary thought it was mastitis, an infection of the tissue commonly caused by breastfeeding.
“I was so nervous because I heard horror stories about it,” she recalls. “I was told to sit in baths, pump, and do other things … I tried for weeks to cure it.”
Hillary decided to tell the doctor at her six-week postpartum appointment.
“I mentioned it, and she had me schedule an ultrasound, where I was also given a mammogram,” Hillary explains. “That’s when the doctor said it was either a calcification issue or breast cancer. This was on a Friday, and I couldn’t get the needle biopsy done until Tuesday. I had a wedding over the weekend, and I was trying to stay positive. I put this wall up when things get scary, and I try not to let myself think past things.”
Considering she is just 26, being diagnosed with breast cancer seemed almost unthinkable.
But days after the biopsy, Hillary’s worst fears were confirmed.
On Feb. 23, doctors told her that she had ductal carcinmona in situ (DCIS), a form of cancer that starts in the milk ducts. Initially, tests showed no signs of spreading, and the next step was to determine a treatment plan.
Feeling blessed in the face of tragedy
“Going over everything,” Hillary says, “the doctor was leaning more toward a mastectomy because the odds are better of the cancer not coming back. So we chose to do that right away.”
On April 4, she underwent a double bilateral mastectomy, during which both breasts were removed. While in surgery, doctors discovered that some lymph nodes were affected, so they were taken out as well.
“They didn’t think it would have spread,” Hillary explains, “but they saw that it spread to 7 out of 10 lymph nodes. Based on what they found, the oncologist thinks I could have had cancer about six months. But I had no symptoms or signs other than the tumor in my breast.”
Because the cancer was not contained to the mass in her breast, Hillary’s diagnosis was changed to stage 3C ductal carcinoma HER2+ (meaning that she tested positive for this breast cancer gene).
The medical intervention has been a whirlwind, and just now, this young mother is coming to terms with both the severity of the situation – and, also, how blessed she feels that her “miracle baby” saved her life.
“It was devastating,” Hillary says of the diagnosis. “It was just so … I don’t know, I felt so dark. I knew that I have to be here for my kids – that’s my job. I have all these dreams, and high expectations for myself as the caregiver. I worry about them having a life without me, but my fiancé has been so supportive. He has been so positive, keeping me on my toes.”
As for the treatment plans, Hillary gets her port inserted later this week and begins chemotherapy on May 1, which she will continue for six months before starting radiation.
It’s undoubtedly one of the most scary situations of her life – but, through that, there’s a larger message she hopes this story will convey.
Listen to your body ... don't wait
“Early detection saves lives,” Hillary stresses. “With my friends being around me, I let them feel the tumor to educate themselves. It does happen to us, and you shouldn’t wait until 40 to get a mammogram. If you feel like something is wrong, go get it looked at. Because it happens. I have heard from a few doctors that they have been seeing this more and more in younger women. With how aggressive my cancer is, if I had found this six months later, I can’t imagine how much it would have spread by then.”
Hillary will never be able to repay her baby girl for causing her to notice the lump. Without her, she fears the cancer would have gone undetected until more drastic intervention was needed.
“I hope it teaches all my kids not to take anything for granted,” she says. “I want this to teach my daughter to be more cautious of herself. It’s important for me to show her how to live a healthy lifestyle – watch what she puts in her body. I can’t imagine how incredibly strong she will be.”
Although doctors say there is a 50 percent chance of the cancer returning, Hillary is choosing to remain optimistic, living in the moment and focusing on her blessings.
“That’s scary,” she says. “But I am trying to stay positive and push through, and only worry about right now.”
A meal train has been set up to help the family through this difficult time. Find more information here.