I think, on some level, we are all aware of the fact that there are some truly amazing people roaming around in our midst. These people usually appear to be just like us. They travel through their lives, going to work, getting groceries, raising their kids, and basically just attending to the daily grind like the rest of us. If we’re lucky, we get a glimpse of just how brave, strong and unflinchingly fierce certain people actually are. Recently I had the opportunity to get to know one of these people a little bit better. She goes about her daily responsibilities like most of us. The exception to this woman is that few of her fellow citizens realize how amazing and inspiring she truly is. There is much more to her than a brilliant smile, quick laughter and great sense of humor.
Kristen Kinstle agreed to meet me during her lunch hour. I was immediately taken in by her wide smile and sparkly demeanor. She made it clear that she didn’t think her story was anything special, humbly telling me that she’d already turned down two requests for interviews.
Kinstle goes about her day as a dental hygienist in a cute little dentist office in downtown Jacksonville. She used to be in charge of a team of hygienists for a large office in Springfield. While she enjoyed that position, she gave it up to work in Jacksonville. Kinstle admitted she was a bit nervous about the move, but it just felt necessary. A few weeks later, Kinstle was diagnosed with a very aggressive form of breast cancer. She was concerned about telling her new boss that she needed an unknown amount of time off so early into her career with him. After telling him what was happening, he replied with, “I don’t care if you need five days or five years, you will still have a job here.” That’s when she knew she’d made the right choice.
So, Kinstle took a deep breath and began her battle. She and her husband, sweethearts since high school, initially decided to have a single mastectomy on the breast with the tumor, leaving the other one intact. They told her doctor of their decision. He informed them that this form of cancer was extremely aggressive and the odds were not good, the other breast would likely eventually be affected as well. It was then that they decided to remove both breasts. Kinstle praised her surgical team. They were able to do the bilateral mastectomy and do the reconstructive surgery at the same time, effectively reducing the pain, scar tissue and recovery period. Laughing, Kinstle said she tried to come back to work three days later, but they wouldn’t let her. I asked if she thought her drive to get back to work was a coping mechanism. She agreed, nodding, “Yes, I think it was.”
Stubborn isn’t always a bad trait to have. Her doctor told her that virtually none of their patients work out during cancer treatment. True to form, Kinstle replied, “But CAN I?” She reduced her workouts from six days a week to three
In addition to all of this, Kinstle had suffered with ulcerative colitis (UC) since high school. After receiving chemotherapy, radiation and having a child the “traditional” way, her abdominal organs had basically turned to mush. All of these physical abuses had taken a heavy toll. Her UC had turned into full-blown Crohn’s disease. Following a couple of surgeries, Kinstle now has a colostomy bag. Even in the face of this, she smiles and jokes, “The upside is that now I can eat absolutely anything I want and not think twice about it!”
Anyone familiar with Crohn’s understands. Many foods can cause serious problems. Sufferers must constantly be aware of every morsel of food and every drop they drink. One wrong item can send them on an urgent search for the nearest bathroom. Kinstle recounted how she would skip eating all together just so she didn’t have to worry about finding a bathroom in time. This made her self deprecating sense of humor all the more endearing.
As I mentioned earlier, Kinstle had reduced her workouts from six to three days per week. A healthy lifestyle and feeling strong are of major importance to her. She gets up every morning at 5 a.m. and makes her way down to her basement gym. This is her therapy. This is her mental health space. She goes even when she’s tired … or bored … or just doesn’t feel like it. Working out is something so important to Kinstle that she decided to make a Facebook page. She calls it Kristen’s Fitness 4 Everyone. It began with training tips and motivational stuff. When she was diagnosed with cancer, she posted about that, too. She was puzzled about why so many people kept asking about what she was going through. Her mother told her that perhaps she had to go through these trials in order to help others. That was good enough for her. While her page still contains fitness and motivations, it has become, for now, a place of healing, for others as well as for herself. Kinstle began posting very candid updates on everything she was experiencing. She answers people’s questions about cancer, Crohn’s, surgeries, fears and everything in between.
While Kinstle obviously has exceptional family support, she also has a close relationship with God. She was brought up in the church and attended a Christian school as a child. She wanted to be baptized back then, but her parents wanted her to wait. They wanted to make sure she understood the importance and full meaning of the baptism. So, she waited. After her cancer diagnosis, Kinstle found herself talking to God more often. In the still, small hours of the night, while her family slept, God was listening. So, she talked. And talked some more. Finally, in January of this year, Kinstle went before her church and got baptized and states that she feels even closer to Him now.
Aside from her wonderful family, her self-admitted stubborn streak and a deep relationship with God, there is still more to this awesome lady. I asked what gets her through? What’s her mantra, her escape on hard days? She looked at the ceiling and thought for a moment. “Music,” she said. “Sometimes I’ll go downstairs to work out and discover I’ve been sitting there for 10 minutes with my headphones on, just NOT thinking.”
“And baking!” she adds, laughing.
Baking? Apparently, the kitchen is another of her mental health spaces. After high school, Kinstle was accepted to the Cordon Bleu cooking school in Wisconsin. She didn’t go because she couldn’t bear to leave her sweetheart behind. She decided to attend Lincoln Land’s program instead. There she discovered a love of cooking that has never left her. She confessed, somewhat sheepishly, that she would love to own a bakery. We agreed that perhaps these diseases she’s been battling may have opened a niche for her style of baking (she’s also vegan). “How great would it be for someone like me to be able to walk into a bakery and get a delicious cupcake?”
I told Kinstle I had one final question for her – what five words would you use to describe yourself? She rolled her eyes and started laughing, “Oh no! The test question!” So I caved, ok, what five words would others use to describe you? That was a lot easier. Funny, positive, tall (another story in itself!), strong and kind. I told her I firmly believed that she thought those things too; it was just easier to say nice things about her when framed through others’ eyes.
Always humble, she agreed. My hour with her was rewarding to say the least. I felt really good when I left there. Something she said kept echoing through my mind – “Life is something that is happening for me, not to me.” I smiled all the way home.