As a busy working mom of three kids, Barbara Kramer didn’t have time to worry about herself. So, when she noticed a grape-sized lump in her breast, she didn’t get it checked out right away.
“I was enjoying the dream, my job, my children. There was no family history of breast cancer, so it’s like, ‘I’m too busy to deal with this now,'” Kramer says. “‘I’ll get to it, but just not right now.'”
It wasn’t until a year later when she went in for a well-woman exam at Orlando Health St. Cloud Hospital, that led to the terrible news that she had breast cancer.
“I was absolutely terrified,” Kramer says. “My youngest of the three was eight years old, and I wasn’t scared of the cancer as much as I was of leaving three children behind.”
After a single mastectomy followed by six months of treatment, Kramer thought she was finished with cancer. And she was – for nearly 30 years.
‘Floored and Devastated’
“I lived to see my kids grow up, get married and so many milestones,” Kramer says.
But then, after having symptoms of a urinary tract infection, Kramer went for a CT scan. Instead of finding kidney stones, the scan found stage 4b ovarian cancer, leaving her “absolutely floored and devastated.”
“When I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, it wasn’t a hard decision. Because of the care I received the first time for the breast cancer, I knew that the best care I would get would be through Orlando Health,” she says.
Unfortunately, it’s difficult for imaging to catch ovarian cancer early, and Kramer had to act quickly.
“Unlike breast cancer, where women can do self-breast exams – and we have mammograms and MRIs pick up disease a lot more readily, and usually at very early stages – 80 percent of women diagnosed with ovarian or fallopian tube cancer are diagnosed in late stages, like stage 3 and 4,” says Dr. Veronica Schimp, gynecologic oncologist at Orlando Health Cancer Institute.
Kramer’s ovarian cancer treatment wouldn’t be a repeat of her earlier battle with cancer. She would have a more intense form of chemotherapy, which brought an “extremely devastating” challenge: losing her hair.
As a woman used to presenting a certain image to her family, friends and even to herself, Kramer struggled as her hair fell out and her scalp began to hurt. It got to the point that trying to keep her hair was too painful, emotionally and physically.
“My husband pulled out my son’s razor, and he started to shave my head,” Kramer says. “And immediately, I just felt myself passing out. I pulled the towel up to my face, and next thing I know, I face-planted on the floor.”
That’s when Kramer sought out programs that offered help with the emotional toll of cancer and discovered just what she needed at Orlando Health.
“They have a makeup artist that shows you how to put on makeup to compensate for your pale complexion and loss of eyebrows, and how to do scarfs and deal with a wig,” she says. “And I have to tell you, every day I have gotten up, I shower, put on makeup, and if I had no hair, I had a wig on. Because it was always important to me that when I looked good, I felt good.”
‘I’m Going To Beat This’
“Barbara came to me with a previous cancer diagnosis and said, ‘I beat that. I’m going to beat this one, too.’ She’s very assertive,” Dr. Schimp says. “She seeks out things to be able to live. So, she sought out our cancer support community.”
The Orlando Health Cancer Support Community helps improve patients’ physical, emotional and social health. Giving them access to nutritionists, counselors, pain specialists, yoga, arts and more relieves stress and allows patients to maintain a high quality of life. Kramer took advantage of the program.
“When I was [at Orlando Health Cancer Institute] for an appointment, I picked up one of the schedules for Arts in Medicine,” she says. “And from there, I would meet Valerie Kelley, the director of the Arts in Medicine. I have never done any kind of art in my entire life. And let me tell you, Valerie just squelched that thought right there. This is my place to find myself and be creative.”
“I have done things I have never dreamed of doing in my entire life,” she adds. “I love painting. I love creative writing. Yoga is not only helpful for neuropathy, it’s also fellowship with other ladies and with the instructor. It’s very important to your healing to have something to take your mind off. When I do the art and paint, it’s soothing because it takes your mind off what you experience, including any pains or side effects of cancer.”
Some of Kramer’s artwork was recently featured alongside other cancer patients at the Orlando Health Cancer Institute’s 10th annual Arts Meets Medicine show at CityArts Gallery in downtown Orlando. Her work was among 100 pieces developed by cancer patients and their caregivers.
Exposure to new activities and experiences aren’t the only ways Kramer’s journey with cancer has changed her. “Between the breast cancer diagnosis and ovarian cancer, it has made me very grateful,” she says. “I am grateful for every person who has touched my life and taken care of me or offered care.”
“My youngest got married two years ago, and I was able to not only see him get married, I was able to dance with him at his wedding,” Kramer says. “I’m grateful for life, in general, and I look forward to more adventures.”