Aug. 4, 2022

Day 549: If This Is What Kills Me, At Least I Lived a Good Life

Day 549: If This Is What Kills Me, At Least I Lived a Good Life

Persistent foot pain caused by chemo forces Kristen to spend hours each day on physical therapy, taping, and stretching her feet at home.

Wowing her friends with her ingenuity, she reveals that flesh-colored socks with the toes cut out are the trick to wearing flip flops to a wedding.

A few weeks after her final reconstructive surgery in a moment of darkness she candidly asks, “if this is what kills me, have I lived a good life?” Answering this question leads her to reflect on just how much her perspective has changed through this experience

Persistent foot pain caused by chemo forces Kristen to spend hours each day on physical therapy, taping, and stretching her feet at home.

Wowing her friends with her ingenuity, she reveals that flesh-colored socks with the toes cut out are the trick to wearing flip flops to a wedding.

A few weeks before her final reconstructive surgery in a moment of darkness she candidly asks, “if this is what kills me, have I lived a good life?” Answering this question leads her to reflect on just how much her perspective has changed through this experience.

If someone you love has cancer, or any chronic illness that transforms their life, Kristen’s advice is an important reminder to give them grace and time, and don’t forget to treat them like a normal person while remaining sensitive to what has changed.

What’s next for Breast Cancer Stories?


While there are no more surgeries and no more treatment, our mission to help others going through the shock of diagnosis and treatment continues. Stay tuned for the launch of our 2nd season in August 2022 as Kristen becomes the host and a new story begins with Natasha Curry, a palliative care nurse practitioner at San Francisco General Hospital.

While in Malawi on a Doctors Without Borders mission in 2021, Natasha’s husband of 25 years announced in a text message that he was leaving. She returned home, fell into bed for a few weeks, and eventually with the help of her friends she pulled herself together and went back to work.

A few months later when she discovered an almond-sized lump in her armpit, she did everything she tells her patients not to do and dismissed it, or wrote it off as a “fat lump."

Months went by before Natasha finally got a mammogram, but radiology saw nothing in either breast. It was the armpit lump that caught their attention. One painful biopsy later, Natasha found out she had cancer; in one life-changing moment, the nurse became the patient.

Listen to the Season 2 trailer

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Meet Kristen’s doctors: surgical oncologist Dr. Louis Rivera, hematologist and oncologist Dr. Sonia Ali, plastic surgeon Dr. Salvatore Pacella, and radiation oncologists Dr. Anuradha Koka and Dr. Kenneth T. Shimizu.

About Breast Cancer Stories

Breast Cancer Stories follows Kristen Vengler, a 56 year old single empty nester in San Diego, from her diagnosis of hormone positive breast cancer through chemotherapy, mastectomy & breast reconstruction, radiation, and whatever happens after that.

In 2020, Kristen moved from Austin to San Diego to be near family and start her life over after a life-shattering workplace trauma. A few months later she had that terrifying moment in the shower we all hope we never have.

From her breast cancer diagnosis, through chemotherapy, breast reconstruction, and radiation, we experience each new milestone as it happens. This podcast is about what happens when you have breast cancer, told in real time.

Host and Executive Producer: Eva Sheie
Co-Host: Kristen Vengler
Editor and Audio Engineer: Daniel Croeser
Theme Music: Them Highs and Lows, Bird of Figment
Production Assistant: Mary Ellen Clarkson
Cover Art Designer: Shawn Hiatt

Breast Cancer Stories is a production of The Axis.



Eva (00:08): This is a story about what happens when you have breast cancer told in real time. If you're just joining us, uh, and haven't listened to our previous episodes, about a year and a half ago, we started chronicling Kristen's life as she lived with breast cancer. And today she's on the other end, but as we've learned, there is really no end end. So three years ago, I think I just saw your moving post on Facebook, Kristen, right?

Kristen (00:40): mm-hmm

Eva (00:40): Three years ago, Kristen moved from Austin to San Diego. And that was to be with your family and start over. And it was just a few months later that this whole story started when she had that terrifying moment in the shower that we all hope we never have. So we talked on our most recent episode the night before your final surgery, and that was your third reconstructive surgery.

Kristen (01:07): Right.

Eva (01:08): And then, um, we actually talked the day after that surgery and I wanted to start by asking you why you decided you wanted to re_record your post op and not actually release that conversation if you don't mind.

Kristen (01:24): Yeah, absolutely. So I'm gonna back up for just a second on that three years. It's actually two and a half I got out here for good. And three years ago, I came out here to go to rehab. And I didn't say that directly in the post on Facebook, but yes, the three year anniversary of my sobriety and the beginning of my journey back to being healthy. And I didn't think I was gonna get emotional about it, but I, this is the first time I'm actually reflecting on where I was then. And I was, I was much closer to death back then than I think I ever was with cancer, which is saying a lot because I was in such a state of desperation and emotional and mental, spiritual pain. It's interesting that I've just gone through all of this and I am so much healthier than I was three years ago. Sorry.

Kristen (02:27): That was the best decision of my life. And it's not that I have any judgment for people who are not sober. I didn't realize that I had an alcohol issue. Like I knew I had mental health issues and I knew I had trauma issues. And what came up is that I was numbing all of those things with alcohol, cause I couldn't get the pain to go away any other way. And so I had no idea how healthy I could be in other ways than physically. And I'm so grateful. And if I didn't have those tools that I learned before I got cancer, there's no way you and I could have had these conversations.

Eva (03:10): That's right.

Kristen (03:12): So anyway, why did I decide to to re-record, very long way around it? Well, so I think it was like a day or two afterward and I was in a lot of pain and I just didn't feel like we were doing the podcast, but I was doing it... I don't wanna say rushed, but half-assed, not purposely, but just because I was in pain. And I also didn't feel like that gave a, a good end to my story, a full end to my story. Not that it has to be a big, robust TA da da, you know, or anything like that. But I just felt like we had a little bit more to say about it. It's not about Dr. Patella, but I also felt like that wasn't giving him the credit that he deserved for like finishing the job because I wasn't really able to comprehend all that had been done.

Eva (04:09): So today, how many days ago was your final surgery?

Kristen (04:16): Twenty two, mm-hmm yeah, it was three weeks yesterday.

Eva (04:19): Has anything been different about this recovery than the previous two?

Kristen (04:23): I am so much more impatient.

Eva (04:26): Impatient,

Kristen (04:27): Impatient. I am not giving my

Eva (04:30): Back to normal like,

Kristen (04:32): Well, yeah, yeah. I'm not giving myself the grace that I should. I still cannot pick up more than a milk jug until the six week mark.

Eva (04:43): Yeah, that's annoying.

Kristen (04:45): Totally annoying. and yeah, I think that the main thing is that I'm more impatient and also the binders that I'm wearing are much more confining. So it feels just, everything just feels tighter and isn't as comfortable. I have to think more about what I'm wearing. I've been going to a sports physical therapist, cuz I'm such an athlete right now. And he's been taping my feet with that athletic. Oh yeah. Tape stuff. You know, which, which is amazing. But it goes all the way up to the middle of my calf in the back.

Eva (05:24): But can you believe that a roll of tape is the thing that's still, how many decades have we been using

Kristen (05:31): I know.

Eva (05:32): athletic tape to solve these problems. It's just really fantastic.

Kristen (05:35): It is . So I'm pretty taped up. Like it goes from the ball of my foot all the way up to the middle of my calf and then it's wrapped not around, but up around my ankles and like other places. And so , I was with some friends on Sunday and I had a, a dress on that was like a little on my knee and I don't want the tape to come off the bottom. So, you know, it suggested that I wear socks. Right. Because if you wear flip flops, it's gonna it's gonna come off. Okay. So I found a pair of my Pilate socks that have the toes cut out that are like flesh colored. So I had those on, I had a white dress and I had those on and I had my flip flops with my new arches in them that my friend. She looks at me and she's always the one. Like I hadn't seen her in a while. She goes, she goes, let me look down your shirt. I wanna see those boobs and um, And she goes, "What's up with your feet? What are you doing there, Kristen?" I'm like, I just have to say because the whole thing is just,

Eva (06:51): It could always be worse. I'm thinking of my friend who had endometrial cancer. And so she had lymph nodes removed in her groin and has lymphedema in her leg, one leg. Oh. And so that leg is like twice the size of the other leg. And it has been for 10 years.

Kristen (07:11): Oh my gosh.

Eva (07:12): And so she told me recently she can never wear a dress again. She wears long flowy pants all the time. She wears a compression stocking every day. It's like, it's the same kind of indignity that you go through with your feet. Yeah. And I think that none of us really realize, unless we're aware of it, how much of a burden it is on your life to do something like spend 45 minutes a day, putting a compression stocking on and off. Right. And that the stocking costs $500 for one of them.

Kristen (07:50): Oh my gosh.

Eva (07:52): And she will have to do this for the rest of her life. And it, to me, seems completely unacceptable. And if you ask her, she says it might have been better to not, not even do it. It might have been better to take my chances and die.

Kristen (08:10): I mean, yeah. I'm gonna say something here that I don't think I was ever gonna say out loud. I've told two people this in the moments of desperation, in order for me to not do something. There was a time probably about a month ago that I was in so much pain, and I... I had to go to the place in getting my head straight and my heart straight of actually visualizing what would happen if I didn't make it. Right. And I think I've lived a good life. Like what would you do differently if you were gone, do you feel like you lived a good life and did you leave most people better than you found them? And I had to go, yeah, I have. There's some things I still wanna do. I wanna see how it, you know how my son turns out . And I want to love the people who love me. And I don't want them to be sad, but I've lived a good life. And I had to, to change my view on death. Right? And so about a month ago with all of the pain and the uncertainty, I had a conversation with my sponsor mentor and I just said, you know what? I've lived a really good life. What's the point? I'm like really okay if I'm not here anymore. And if this is what my life is always gonna look like, I'm out.

Eva (09:57): I think you're talking about the foot pain. Talking about recovery from surgery pain.

Kristen (10:03): Oh no, no. I hadn't had surgery yet.

Eva (10:05): Right. You're talking about the residual pain caused by the chemo and the radiation and the,

Kristen (10:13): The hormone blockers

Eva (10:14): And the hormone blockers, the pain from the treatment .

Kristen (10:17): And the pain from the treatment. Also the swelling from the treatment, all the things that I do every day to move through my day and I've changed my eating. I'm much healthier. That's great. It's that I have to think about every damn thing I do. Everything I put in my in my mouth, every step I take, everything. Like I don't get to just like get up and go, woo-hoo, I'm just gonna go play pickleball today. I'm gonna go, I'm gonna go run. You know, I have to think, okay, are the right arches in the right shoes that I wanna wear? Have I done what I need to do to be able to keep moving in an hour? And it sounds dramatic. And if you see me, you'd be like, "you look alright". But I spent the day with a friend of mine who I hadn't seen in a year.

Kristen (11:07): And I saw him right after my mastectomy, before radiation. And he said, I'm glad you warned me about your feet because I was shocked at how much more slowly you're moving. Yeah. And how much more deliberately you're moving. And I mean, I'm alive. Yeah. You know, and I have so many things to be grateful for. Like, I don't think we've had a lot of episodes about my gratitude. I think it's been about my complaining um, recently, no recently, cuz I went back and I listened to a couple of episodes in the beginning to see the difference. Like this is right around when I had my chemo anniversary and mastectomy anniversary. Just, just to kind of see how my perspective changed. And I was just like, "I'm so grateful. You know that I see a road I'm gonna be fine". And you know, I'll

Eva (12:01): Cute little before Kristen.

Kristen (12:03): Jesus, isn't she annoying? I had to do that to get through every day. So I'm talking about the pain and I'm talking about what you're talking about with your friend, like what you have to do to be able to move through your life. And it was a state of mind for a couple of days because I was just like, everything's a fucking uphill climb right now. And then I'm like really, because it was an uphill climb in January of 2021, when you had everything still to go to treat this tumor. So, really is this an uphill climb? Or is this just like suck it up and get used to it? And the sports therapist, it's so interesting because he says he's like, it's hard for me to figure out if this is something structural I can help you fix, or if it's a co-occurring and I'm like, it's definitely co-occurring. But what we're doing is giving me a lot of relief. It's not as painful all the time.

Eva (13:10): You're seeing progress then mm-hmm

Kristen (13:12): , mm-hmm ,

Eva (13:13): It's taking a lot of time. Isn't it?

Kristen (13:15): It is. I see him two hours a week.

Eva (13:18): And then what do you do every day?

Kristen (13:19): Oh, every day I do a series of stretches four times a day. I do a series of stretches before I get out of bed. So when I get my feet on the ground, it's it's okay. I have a foot massager thing that I'm on three times a day for probably 30 minutes. There's some icing that I do.

Eva (13:41): Sounds like a full-time job.

Kristen (13:43): I'm wondering how I'm gonna go back to work next week.

Eva (13:46): Job starts before you get out of bed.

Kristen (13:48): Yeah. Mm-hmm and I went to a place it's called The Good Feet Store and hit a small fortune for a series of arches. And they're they're arches that you put in, they're different ones based on what you're gonna do. Like if you're just walking or if you're hiking or if you're running or I mean like doing extended running,

Eva (14:07): How's your running going?

Kristen (14:08): It's oh my gosh. I have a 42 minute mile Top that bitches! But I have, what's really cool is that I have some arches that are to help wake your feet up and to help ramp up and calm down. I put those on first thing, and then last thing. I don't have to do my hair right now because it's, I just kind of put my hand through it cuz there's not a lot to it. And so I just kind of justify it as the time that I would be spending on my hair and getting ready. just do your feet. I just do my feet and legs Well, and the thing is it's it's all the way up to my knees, like the, the work that we're doing, because everything's so tight. And I have , it's a joke that I have with my friends, but it's really kind of true.

Kristen (14:58): I'm like we, I was going somewhere with a friend and I'm like, dude, the bar is low. If I get up, take a shower, do my skincare routine, put my hands through my hair, get dressed, put a lot of deodorant on and get all of the things I need to do for my feet ready, I'm done. Like you might get some lipstick or some lip gloss one day. I haven't gotten ready for things. And I think that part of it is that it's just like, I am who I am. you guys I've been through hell, just accept it. Okay? Look at me. But I'm looking forward to the day. I've actually asked my sister who does hair and makeup and stuff. I've just said, can I come over? I said, I feel really frumpy, and I don't feel like I have any direction on how to make myself look better anymore.

Eva (15:48): I think you need some blonde highlights, to be honest,

Kristen (15:51): Do I? Okay.

Eva (15:52): I do.

Kristen (15:52): Maybe I'll do that.

Eva (15:53): When I look at pictures of you with blonde hair, I think that's what you really look like. And right now I think this is not what you really look like. it's so dark.

Kristen (16:02): It's so dark. So dark. Yeah. I don't remember it. It wasn't this dark when I was getting highlights. Oh, I actually shook my head the other day and my hair moved and I was like, oh, that's kinda cool. because it hasn't done that in a long time. I totally went off from where I don't remember what your question was.

Eva (16:23): Well, my next question is considering how many people there are in the world with chronic illness. What advice would you give to somebody who cares about someone with chronic illness? Especially if that person is single and lives alone.

Kristen (16:41): I don't feel like I'm an expert yet. but I feel like just understand and give them grace and give them time. And also treat them like a normal person while being sensitive. Yesterday, I went to a restaurant where there was, there were stairs and there was an elevator and my friend was like, can you do the stairs? And I was like, I can try. He's like, "oh, elevator elevator. Well, what kind of idiot am I?" And the thing was for me to say, I'll try, I kind of always wanna know if, if it's better than the last time I tried. Don't pity them, treat them like a normal person, but with compassion and grace and that's like so intangible, but know that they didn't want this and that they're internally fighting with themselves every day. Also something as small as when someone gets in the car, offering this seatbelt to them so that I don't have to reach around and grab it because of my range of motion.

Kristen (17:56): And so it's just little kindnesses and I know it's not possible for somebody to really have empathy, cuz hopefully not, most people haven't been through it, but to just have sympathy from what they're going through. And if they wanna talk about it, let 'em talk. But the other thing too, is that one reason I didn't talk to a lot of people for a while during all my treatments and stuff was because when people would ask me how I'm feeling, I wanna say I'm feeling better, but the truth was I wasn't. And that just makes everybody uncomfortable. It's a fine line between saying "how are you feeling?" or "are you feeling better?" to being supportive and saying like, "well you're moving through that better than I thought you would" or you know, something like, I don't know. I mean,

Eva (18:50): It kind of brings me back to the things, not to say conversation that we were having a while ago. Like, you know what not to say to your friend who's got breast cancer or whatever they have mm-hmm I think it's better to do something than to say something. So whatever that looks like, if you can figure out how to help the person by doing something that might be challenging, even just an everyday ordinary thing,

Kristen (19:17): Mm-hmm

Eva (19:17): Just lightening that load every chance you can get

Kristen (19:21): That's it?.

Eva (19:22): Yeah.

Kristen (19:24): A friend of mine came over and was like, "can I just put some laundry in for you?" I was like, sure,

Eva (19:30): I'd take that.

Kristen (19:34): Right. And that saves me from walking out there. And,

Eva (19:37): But you can't lift right now.

Kristen (19:39): No.

Eva (19:40): So a laundry basket full of laundry is heavy.

Kristen (19:42): Oh no. I, I take, I,

Eva (19:44): You have a wheelie.

Kristen (19:45):

Eva (19:46): Gonna wagon for your laundry,

Kristen (19:47): I just take it. I just put like I put some in my, in my hands and I'm like

Eva (19:52): One piece of clothing down at a time.

Kristen (19:55): No, I'm like, does this weigh like a milk jug? Okay. I can do three pairs of pants, two bras. a few and a few shirts. But I think also just checking in and letting them know and just doing small things that take a little bit of the burden off, offering rides.

Eva (20:14): I have to ask, speaking of rides. Yeah. How goes the handicapped placard? Is your life completely different now that you have it ?

Kristen (20:24): Kinda. So, so yesterday I know my friend insisted on paying for lunch and we parked in the handicap. Right. And it was a paid parking area and I said, well, okay. I paid for parking.

Eva (20:40): Just play that card.

Kristen (20:42): Yeah. It is helping quite a bit. I'll be honest.

Eva (20:46): Good. Yeah. I'm glad to hear it.

Kristen (20:48): Thank you. I'm going back to work next week.

Eva (20:51): Yeah.

Kristen (20:52): This is gonna be different from the previous surgery in that I was off for the full six weeks and I will have been off for almost four post-surgery. Right?

Eva (21:05): So there will still be a couple weeks where you can't lift much. Mm-hmm I don't expect that you'll be able to much after... It's not like a, an alarm goes off and all of a sudden, you

Kristen (21:15): Know, well, I'm working my way up to it. Like I think I'm doing a little more than a milk jug, you know, here and there. But I mean it's things like lifting Sammy up into his car seat,

Eva (21:27): Right?

Kristen (21:28): I mean he's two and a half. He's really good at understanding. Like last time when I would visit, I would come over and visit before I came back to work and he'd wanna, he'd want me to hold him. And I'd say, Kristen has a boo boo. And I would pat my chest and I'd say, I can't lift Sammy right now. And so he would, his way of asking if I was able to lift him, is that "Kristen's boo boo's better?" . And that, that meant that I could lift him. So I miss him. It's gonna be a month between the time that I've seen him. And I FaceTimed him once, sent him videos and stuff, but

Eva (22:04): Have like a thousand more words by the time he gets.

Kristen (22:07): I know, I know .

Eva (22:09): He's gonna be so grown up.

Kristen (22:11): I know, my little guy. So Crystal's great. I mean, Crystal and Eric will totally manage everything for me. I went back three weeks after my mastectomy, as far as like helping care for him, but they lifted him in and out of his crib and all that kind of stuff. And he's, he, he has, the, his crib is open now. So he crawls in there on his own and, and all of that, but who doesn't wanna pick up a two year old? And so I have to say something that has been really positive and a lot of things have been really positive, but my cognition has gotten so much better Eva.

Eva (22:48): Oh good.

Kristen (22:49): Yeah. And I mean, I think it's time, you know, I've given it time from the chemo brain, but I've also been for two months in my coffee in the morning, it's called mud water. This isn't an ad for mud water. They're not sponsoring us, but it has it has lion's mane mushroom in it. And the reason it appealed to me, it was the lion's mane and the turmeric, the turmeric is supposed to be really good for your joints. And I, I can say my joints are better.

Eva (23:19): Their website is like directed at Navy seals and athletes.

Kristen (23:25): Yeah. Well, hi. I just talked about it... 42 minute mile.

Eva (23:32): Next thing I know you'll be over in Coronado, hanging out on the beach with the Seals.

Kristen (23:36): I know, right. I put that in my coffee and then I have one of those like powder, like hand whiskers, and then I mix it up and then I put like this much steamed milk in it and a little bit of sugar. I don't know if that had anything to do with my cognition, but I have felt, even with the pain, I have felt a little bit more on my game.

Eva (24:00): So this might be the end of season one, but really it's never the end of Kristen's story. And so you can expect us to be back with more updates and uh, more resources in the future. We wanna thank you for listening. A lot of you have told us that you've been with us since the beginning. I know I speak for both of us. When I say we appreciate every single message that we've received and all the stories that have been shared with us. And that those have really kept us going through this podcast, which is a lot of work. And I, I don't bring it up very much, but we try to hold a really high standard for our production. You listen to other podcasts, you can very quickly hear that they don't have the talented and amazing editor that we do. So we, we wanna say thank you to Daniel for his exceptional talent and our story editor, Mary Ellen, who makes sure that we're telling everything in the right order and that we're not beating dead horses with certain things. And so it's a team and for us to keep telling this story and tell others' story in the future, we do need help. And, uh, we're really at a crossroads with the show. All podcasts require many more resources than you can see on the surface. And we have such a great team and, um, there's costs of course, and it takes a lot of time, so.

Kristen (25:28): Yeah, I hope that we can keep doing it because I know it is helping a lot of people and I keep getting notes.

Eva (25:35): If you are part of an organization or a business that would be a good fit for our audience as a sponsor, just please reach out to us on our website and send us a message. And you can find that at breast cancer stories, Thanks for listening to Breast Cancer Stories. For us to continue telling this story and helping others, we need your help. All podcasts require resources. We have a team of people who produce it, there are costs involved and it takes time.

Kristen (26:05): So if you believe in what we're doing and you have the means to support the show, you can make a one time donation, or you can set up a recurring donation in any amount through the PayPal link on our website at

Eva (26:20): And if you're part of an organization or a business that would be a good fit for our audience, as a sponsor, reach out to us on our website at and send us a message. We'd love to hear from you.