26-year-old Hillary Karels began dating her now-fiancé, Dahlton, in 2011 and found out she was expecting their first child just seven months later. So the couple put aside their “fun” college lives of partying and irresponsibility and became parents, knowing the difficult journey would be worth it. But they never would have guessed that it would be worth it in quite this way.
The Minnesotan couple moved to a smaller town and welcomed their first son, Jackson, in July of 2013. Just over two years later, their second son, Zeke, was born. The boys helped their father propose to their mother, and the wedding date was set. Karels and her fiancé decided to put a hold on growing their family until after they were married.
“We were going to wait until we get married – the date is set for September 2019 – but thank God we didn’t,” says Karels. “The doctors said our daughter is basically our miracle.”
A miracle, because she may have saved her mother’s life. Baby Colleen was born on December 28, 2017, and within two months, Karels had discovered a lump in her breast while she breastfed her daughter.
Originally, she thought it was mastitis, an infection that is not uncommon for women who are 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.”
But when things still weren’t feeling quite right at her six-week postpartum appointment, Karels decided to mention the lump to her doctor, who ordered a mammogram and an ultrasound. At that point, she was informed that it was either a calcification or breast cancer, so she was scheduled for a biopsy the following week.
After an anxiety-filled weekend of trying to stay positive, Karels had her biopsy, and the results came back a few days later, confirming her worst fears.
She was diagnosed with ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) and underwent a double mastectomy a month later, where doctors discovered that the cancer had spread to seven out of 10 lymph nodes. At that point, her diagnosis was changed to stage 3C ductal carcinoma HER2+. This more aggressive cancer diagnosis would require a stronger treatment plan, and Karels has about a 50 percent chance of her cancer recurring.
“It was devastating,” Karels says. “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.”
Since then, Karels has had a port implanted in her skin so that she can receive chemotherapy for six months, beginning in May.
After that, she will undergo radiation therapy.
“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.”
While the young mother has a long way to go before she’s completely in the clear, she still credits her baby daughter for helping her discover her cancer early enough on that she has a good chance of surviving. And she’s encouraging all women, whether they have a young baby or not, to check their breasts regularly and go see a doctor if they notice anything abnormal.
Next: Meet the brave 17-year-old who is fighting stage IV breast cancer.
Elizabeth Nelson is a wordsmith, an alumna of Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, a four-leaf-clover finder, and a grammar connoisseur. She has lived in west Michigan since age four but loves to travel to new (and old) places. In her free time, she. . . wait, what’s free time?