The tattoo tells the tale.
On the backside of her left shoulder, Kim Duffey has a new tattoo with the Ford Warrior in Pink logo and the word "Survivor" emblazed in red and pink. "It is a battle and because of the massive number of people affected by breast cancer, it is very much like a tribe of people battling a common enemy," Duffey said. "The first walk we did after my surgery I saw the symbol and commented that once I beat this I am going to get that as a tattoo."
Duffey, 45, who lives in Crystal Lake and works as and eighth-grade teacher at Dundee Middle School, has truly had one wild, emotional, life-changing two-year journey.
In July 2010, she had a routine mammogram and doctors noticed an irregularity in the screening, so they ordered an additional mammogram. Doctors ultimately found two affected areas, and Duffey was scheduled for a biopsy.
She then had to wait a week for the results.
On July 27, 2010, Duffey was at the Terrapin 5K Run with her wife, Demie, waiting to start. The call came.
"I wasn't really surprised; my mom had breast cancer, and as serious and quickly as people were moving [after the mammograms,] I knew they were concerned. Still, hearing that you have cancer is scary as hell and definitely life-changing," said Duffey, who played for the Chicago Force (offensive and defensive line) from 2002-2006 and was a co-owner from 2005-2011.
She had a single mastectomy and reconstruction using a TRAM (transverse rectus abdominus myocutaneous) flap. Duffey said she was "extremely lucky" that no lymph nodes were involved and she did not have to have radiation or chemotherapy. But she did have five reconstruction surgeries.
"It has been a very long 18 months," said Duffey, who had her number retired after the 2011 season.
"I was off work for eight weeks," she said. "I had anticipated being back in five, but due to the massive amounts of surgery I had, my body did not heal at the normal rate. I have had to miss about two [more] weeks from the follow-up surgeries. During the entire 18 months, I never felt like I was in this fight alone. My wife, family and friends were always there for me in a million ways. It started with them throwing a 'Bye Bye Boobie' party for me and several other gatherings during my reconstruction and recovery.
"Since my reconstruction started the same day as my mastectomy, I never had the 'flat chest scar.' I really didn't think I would be bothered by losing a breast; it was never something I considered a central feature of mine. As I got through the initial treatment, drains, bandages, suture removal, I thought I had come to accept my 'new look.' I looked pretty normal in a bra and shirt. It wasn't until my last surgery, when Dr. Stefan Szczerba did a skin graft and created a nipple and areola that I realized how much having the surgery had affected me mentally. Once all the bandages came off, I was so excited; I was normal again. When I got out of the shower, I now saw myself with two breasts, not one breast and a reconstruction."
Duffey said the hardest part of her journey was the number of setbacks. Her abdominal incision, for instance, split open after three weeks, requiring a wound VAC (vacuum-assisted closure) attached to her for two weeks. "Just as I would start to gain some strength back and feel better, it was time for another surgery," Duffey said. "At one point, I realized that I had not been suture, packing or drain-free for one year."
Duffey attended Sycamore High School locally and then Augustana College (undergraduate) and Northern Illinois University for her master's.
"After each surgery, there was a new set of wound care procedures; she did them all and never winced, and many were pretty gross," Duffey said. "My family was wonderful. My parents came into town for the surgery and anytime I was in the hospital. My sister checked on me everyday and made sure I had lots of texts and messages from my niece and nephews. My friends were great for moral; they never let me get down or bored. They were also there to support Demie and give her some time as well."
Duffey's drive and determination paid off Feb. 24, when she met with her plastic surgeon for a check-up connected to what she hoped would be her last surgery. The healing was good, with no crazy scarring or additional wound issues, the doctor reported.
She then was moved from medical patient to a follow-up patient. She went from meeting with her oncologist every month to once every three months, and now, every six months.
"I beat it," Duffey said with pride.
Duffey, Demie and Kim's sister will participate in the annual Susan G. Komen 3 Day, a 60-mile walk to support breast cancer.
"I have to be on a cancer-inhibitor drug for five years and have to have regular mammograms every year now," Duffey said. "Other than that, [it's] just healing and getting my strength back. Life-wise I have had a change of priorities. It made me evaluate what and who is important in my life, how I want to spend my time. Demie and I have some trips planned; I am trying to go and visit my family more, and eliminating things that don't bring positives to my life.
"It's been crazy. You don't really realize it when you are in the middle of it. You just try and keep moving forward and then, when you get to the end of the chapter, you look back and say 'How the hell did I get through that?'"
With support of friends, family and even some relative strangers. It's been a team battle for Duffeyjust like her playing days for the Force.