Both women were diagnosed with breast cancer, four years apart. But, they’ve both come through the other side of their diagnoses and next month will walk in their 10th Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure.
The Ardmore couple walks as part of the UPS Brown Supports Pink team, which McCrea captains.
McCrea is a human-resources supervisor at UPS, where she’s worked for 31 years, and Kollmann is an oncology nurse at Fox Chase Cancer Center.
The pair met nearly two decades ago in an AOL chat room for lesbians with children.
“And the rest is history,” McCrea said.
But, in 2005, the couple faced a challenge they hadn’t anticipated: Kollmann was diagnosed with lobular in situ breast cancer.
“I’m an oncology nurse so I see this every day,” Kollmann said. “But it was me this time.”
Kollmann was given the option of going on Tamoxifen, a hormone therapy, or having the breast removed.
“My son was 13 at the time and he said, ‘Mom, you’re always having problems with your boobs, can’t you just get rid of those things and you’ll never have to deal with it again?’” Kollmann said. “And I decided that was the best idea. I ended up having both removed and, as luck would have it, I had it in both sides, which I didn’t find out until after.”
Kollmann had reconstructive surgery and had to undergo physical therapy.
She said McCrea was a constant support throughout the experience, helping both physically and emotionally.
However, McCrea said it was tough watching her partner endure the diagnosis and its aftermath.
“Other than the little things I could do, I couldn’t take away the pain or the fear for her,” McCrea said. “Seeing her go through it, it was just killing me to watch her suffer. She kept telling me, ‘Believe me, this is easier for me than it is for you to watch.’ But I kept wishing it was me instead of her.”
Unfortunately, in 2009, McCrea had to experience cancer from the opposing side.
She was diagnosed with invasive ductal breast cancer. She had two lumpectomies, including a full axillary dissection to remove all of her lymph nodes. She then had to undergo chemotherapy and radiation and has been taking a chemo pill for five years; she finishes that regimen this year.
McCrea’s father was dying of cancer at the time and she elected not to tell him about her own diagnosis. He died two days after her final procedure.
Kollmann said that seeing the disease as the caretaker, instead of the patient, was, as McCrea had said, even more harrowing.
“I can’t even explain how much worse it was for me watching her go through it,” she said. “In retrospect, it was like a walk in the park when I had it; it was nothing compared to the emotional aspect of Kelly being diagnosed. I considered leaving Fox Chase because it freaked me out walking through the halls and knowing she was going through the same thing these people were.”
Like many cancer survivors, the couple sought community among other women and men who’ve experienced breast cancer. In 2005, they began walking the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure on the UPS team.
“I told Janet, ‘Look, I want to do this,’ and Janet wanted to and our son, Zack, said, ‘Let’s make this a Mother’s Day tradition,’” McCrea said. “I was at the bottom of the survivors’ steps, and I was crying, trying to spot her up there amongst the pink. I remember thinking, This is awful. This is never a place I wanted her to be.”
And four years later, two weeks after her first surgery, McCrea joined Kollmann on the steps.
“I could not believe she was up there with me,” Kollmann said. “It was like a cruel joke, the craziest thing. I always want to be near her, but that’s one place I never wanted her to be beside me. But there we were.”
The couple said participating in the walk, and getting to meet other survivors — such as a 90-year-old woman who is a 50-year survivor — is a bittersweet experience. “Hearing other people’s stories as you’re standing there on the steps, you really feel part of a community. But, at the same time, it’s a community you don’t want to be a part of,” McCrea said. “It’s such a mix of emotions — sadness, camaraderie — so many different emotions, so strong, all at once.”
Both women said they often grapple with fear of the cancer returning.
But, seeing the strength of the women who participate in the Race for the Cure allows them to keep that fear from overshadowing their victory.
“One year I was speaking to a woman who had stage-four cancer — it had gone to her liver, her bones. But she was like, ‘I’m here and I’m walking. It may hurt but I’m going to go as far as I can.’ It’s a battle, but we’re all in a battle and we’re not alone in it. Seeing all these people supporting each other for the same reason is tremendous,” Kollmann said. “Everybody up on those steps is so strong and you feel the strength these women have. We know personally what strength it takes to get through it. But all these women have felt that power and that’s the bottom line: It’s power that gets you through it.”
The women said they’re trying to pay that lesson forward.
Kollmann tries to show her patients that life can return to normalcy, after a diagnosis and a mastectomy and McCrea wants to inspire others that healthy living post-cancer is attainable.
“Janet’s teaching them, ‘Look at me, I was there and I got through it. I’m stronger and I’m better.’ And the same with me,” McCrea said. “People at the walk have said to me, ‘Oh, you have to come row in our dragon-boat race, you look so healthy! That’s what I hope people see. I was bald and sick as a dog, but look at me now. I got through it, and you will too.”
The couple also strives to give back to Susan G. Komen for the work it has done on behalf of the cancer community.
McCrea and Kollmann have been among the top-100 fundraisers for the walk in the past two years.
The organization will also figure into their upcoming wedding celebration; they got married in Maine in the fall and are planning a reception with friends and family at a boathouse on Boathouse Row in September.
“The whole theme is going to be breast cancer, with lots of pink, because it’s a big part of our life; it’s not our entire life, but it’s something we share now,” McCrea said, noting that, in lieu of gifts, the couple plans to ask for donations to Susan G. Komen. “We don’t need gifts; we want a cure. We want a cure.”
To donate to McCrea and Kollmann’s Race for the Cure team, visit http://rfcphl.convio.net/site/TR/Race/TeamRaiser?team_id=57486&pg=team&fr_id=1120.