The year 2012 was one that changed Kimberly Reed‘s life. In April of that year, she felt a lump in her underarm near her left breast and assumed it was just a bump or boil left behind from waxing. At the same time, her mother was battling leukemia, so her full attention was on her.
“It was my dad and I’s priority to ensure that her health and her healing, and subsequently her transition, be as joyous, supportive and encouraging as possible because that’s who she was,” Reed tells ESSENCE. “I just wasn’t focused on me in that moment.”
Her mother would succumb to the cancer in July. Reed, left in a tremendous state of grief, turned her attention from her mom to being there for her dad, who’d just lost “the love of his life for 48 years.” She put everyone and everything before herself, including that grief, which was exacerbated by the loss of her maternal grandmother shortly after her mom’s passing. To the back of her mind went that bump.
But eventually, she pushed herself to see her ob/gyn and get her annual mammogram. Then 40, knew that’s what she needed to do and also knew it was something her mother would want her to take seriously. So she did. A 3D mammogram was ordered to be done in October. It found that she had Stage 2 breast cancer. HER-2 positive.
“I was numb,” she said, still dealing with the loss of her mom at the time. Nevertheless, she had no time to delay things any further. She was eventually sent to two specialists: a fertility doctor because she was 40 and wanted kids (she had her eggs frozen), and an oncologist, Dr. David M. Mintzer, MD.
“As for many women with breast cancer, her treatment involved a variety of therapies, including ultimately for her, surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, hormonal therapies, and targeted therapies–the monoclonal antibodies trastuzumab and pertuzumab, which are directed against the HER-2 protein,” Dr. Mintzer says. “Each of these modalities has a role in eliminating breast cancer cells and each works differently. By using all these treatments in combination, you get the best chance of eradicating every last cell.”
The treatments were not going to be and certainly weren’t easy. She was told she would lose her hair. She knew the possibilities. Despite all of that, Reed chose to take a page from her mother’s book and tried to be optimistic.
“She did that on her darkest days,” she says. “She said, ‘honey, I’m trusting God.'”
It wasn’t a simple thing to do. She was still holding on to the pain of her mother’s loss and didn’t understand why things ended for her the way they did, or why she was battling cancer, herself. To her surprise, she gained clarity.
“God loved me so much that all of that was for me,” she said. “I needed all of the optimism. I needed the resilience. I needed that mindset that enables us to view the world, our circumstances, in the most positive light possible.”
She took that optimism into her treatment experience. It was what allowed her to fight. As long as she knew that Dr. Mintzer believed she could beat the cancer, which he believed she could, she was willing to try her best to stay positive. It ended up working — so much so that Dr. Mintzer was shocked by how well Reed was taking everything.
“Kim is pretty unique with her optimism,” he says. “She has a no-holds-barred approach. I think the cancer was probably more scared of her than she was of it.”
She retained that positivity, even when the cancer was found in her liver through a PET scan, advancing it from Stage 2 to 4. She remained confident that she would “live and win.” She had to.
“I had a dad that needed me and he was not going to be on this earth by himself,” she says. “That was my drive.”
She worked with another specialist who would perform liver resection surgery on her. It was successful. These days, Reed has been free of cancer for nine years.
“They believe it is my attitude,” she says of her doctors. “They believe it is my outlook on life. They believe it was my zest to live. I was just mimicking what I saw from my mother. I had gratitude because I said every time I walked into the doctor’s office, ‘I thank you Lord for insurance. I thank you Lord for great doctors.’ A lot of times it’s easier said than done to remain grateful when you’re going through something like that. But no doubt, a mental state that fosters an optimistic outlook can get you through some big things.”
And physicians like Dr. Mintzer believe there is some truth to that. He’s seen some who have gone in with hope cope better with treatment. He believes more research should be done on the connection between a positive outlook and cancer treatment results as it could greatly benefit patients.
“Promoting optimism can improve the patient’s overall sense of well-being, allow them to tolerate symptoms from the disease and its treatment better, and may be associated with better compliance with therapeutic recommendations — all leading to more a rapid recovery and return to ‘wellness,'” he says. “Having patients feel engaged and empowered in their treatment and recovery–whether through diet, exercise, yoga, counseling, support groups, etc–is always to be encouraged.”
The message of positivity is one Reed now preaches as an author. Earlier this year she released her first book, Optimists Always Win! Moving from Defeat to Life’s C-Suite. A portion of the sales of her book are going to the American Cancer Society, with another portion going to Penn Medicine’s Abramson Cancer Center.
“It’s good for our mental health to see the positive in situations and not acknowledge the negative that can hinder you in the long run,” she says. Such a mindset is especially useful as we continue to wade through a global pandemic.
“Just because some people say, ‘I’ve been a pessimistic most of my life, I’ve had this, I’ve had that, I lost my job,’ that doesn’t mean you’re destined to be a pessimist,” she says. “You can adopt a mindset. I got a lot of bad news in six months. I had to shift the perspective. It’s all about perspective.”
Research has shown that optimists better deal with the stress of life, being proactive by facing their obstacles head on. For Reed, she had her optimism, but she also armed herself with knowledge. She asked questions, did her research and chose not to be blindly positive (where you ignore the reality of your situation). She fought and simultaneously tried to remain grateful.
“Gratitude is the rocket fuel to our resilience,” she says. “You don’t expect to become an optimist overnight. It takes practice and intention. Eventually your self-talk will contain less self-criticism, less negativity and more self-acceptance. You may also become less critical of the world around you. When our state of mind is generally optimistic, you are better able to handle life in a more constructive way.”
Nine years later, at 49, she remains hopeful and proactive about all things. From her yearly CAT scans (which have all turned up negative) to taking steps to have a child one day, she makes the effort to see things through to a favorable end and be positive. She can be that way because she knows when you are an optimist, anything is possible.
“I know what my life expectancy was — about five years. I’m at nine,” Reed says. “I attribute that to how I live my life. I’m not perfect. Perfection is an illusion, but I’m deliberate and intentional about my joy.”