Breast cancer knocked her down, but this survivor got right back up

Family
Andrea Kirchner

Myrtle Beach resident Andrea Kirchner is back on her feet after successfully battling breast cancer.

After breast cancer threw her for a loop and chemo knocked her off her feet, Andrea Kirchner was feeling down. But she was determined to get back up.
“I did not want this walker anymore,” she says. “I wanted to get up and walk and do everything.”
Kirchner, who lives in Myrtle Beach with her husband and son, lost her ability to walk unassisted after side effects from chemotherapy took a toll on her balance and strength. Today, after undergoing successful treatment for her cancer and months of physical therapy, she has regained her life, all while inspiring others along the way to do the same.

From cancer to chemo

Kirchner’s journey began in December 2016 when she was diagnosed with malignant neoplasm of the breast. She was stage 2, meaning the cancer was growing but had yet to spread to other areas of her body.
Dr. Craig Brackett, medical director of the Tidelands Health breast health program, gave her the news.
“He said, ‘It is cancer.’ And I had cold chills, and I started to cry and everything,” Kirchner says. ”He said, ‘Andrea, you are in good hands. Nothing will happen to you.’”
Kirchner began her first round of chemotherapy with Dr. Sara Adams, a leading oncologist with Tidelands Health Oncology, on Jan. 13, 2017.
Chemotherapy is used to treat cancer by preventing cancer cells from dividing and growing. The treatment helps save lives, but it can also have side effects, so physicians must closely monitor their patients.
“When I was getting the treatment, Dr. Adams kept asking me, ‘Are you having any tingling in your hands, or your feet?’” Kirchner says. “I said, ‘No, not right now. I’m not having that.’ I could walk fine, absolutely fine and everything.”
Dr. Adams was concerned about the possibility Kirchner might develop a common side effect of chemotherapy called peripheral neuropathy, Dr. Adams says. Symptoms can occur suddenly or build with each ongoing chemotherapy treatment, which is why the team at Tidelands Health closely monitors patients as they continue through the chemotherapy treatment process.
“Chemotherapy is an effective way to kill cancer cells, but it presents an inherent risk of side effects,” Dr. Adams says. “Some of those side effects are mild, but in other cases they can be more serious.
“That’s why one of our top priorities is to maintain an open line of communication with our patients so that we can respond promptly to any concerns that may arise.”

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A fall

During Memorial Day weekend last year, Kirchner started to feel dizzy. She then had a serious fall in her home. Her son took her to the hospital where she stayed for two days.
“My gait was off balance,” she says. “I couldn’t walk. I couldn’t stand straight.”
After learning of Kirchner’s condition, her care team decided it was best to pause her chemo treatments until after surgery to remove the cancer. She was given a walker to help her get around, she says.
For a time, Kirchner was worried that she’d never get back to being the able-bodied, independent woman she once was.
“I was very, very embarrassed,” she says. “I said to myself, ‘Is this ever going to go back to normal?’”
On June 26, 2017, she underwent successful surgery to remove the cancer at the Tidelands Health Breast Center, our region’s only surgical practice dedicated solely to breast health, and restarted chemotherapy treatments through the health system’s oncology program. The breast center and oncology programs are both parts of the Tidelands Health Cancer Care Network, our region’s most comprehensive provider of cancer care.

Physical therapy

To help her regain her balance and strength, Kirchner’s care team sent her to physical therapy where she first met Sheryl Finkenbiner, a physical therapist at Tidelands Health Rehabilitation Services at Myrtle Beach.
Finkenbiner vividly remembers Andrea’s first day at therapy.
“She presented on the first day very weak,” she says. “She had difficulty rising from a chair.”
But despite her struggles, Kirchner had an optimistic outlook, which translated into a strong work ethic.
“If I would give her something, she would go home and work on it,” Finkenbiner says. “She was always ready for something new. She didn’t shy away from a challenge.”
Kirchner’s get-up-and-go attitude was a welcome presence at the outpatient rehabilitation center. She often chatted up other patients and encouraged them to push through their exercises as well.
“Her spirit was just always positive,” Finkenbiner says. “She was always talking to other people in and around the clinic, motivating them.”
After four months of physical therapy, Kirchner no longer needed her walker. Her balance had improved, along with her strength and endurance.
Kirchner attributes a lot of her success to her physical therapist Finkenbiner.
“She never gave up on me,” Kirchner says. “She made me work, and I love her to death.”

Inspiring others

Kirchner finished her chemotherapy and, in June 2018, her physicians at the Tidelands Health told her she was in remission.
Today, she says she is feeling better than ever and she wants other breast cancer survivors to know they can get there, too.
“No matter what, I encourage people that have breast cancer to keep going,” she says. “Don’t give up.”
Although she is no longer in physical therapy, she continues to work hard. She gets to the gym at 6 a.m. six days a week to exercise.
Finkenbiner says Kirchner’s story shows that even when people are no longer under the care of a physical therapist, they can continue to live the healthy lifestyle they want by following an exercise plan.
“This is true success,” Finkenbiner says. “She transformed her life through exercise and activity. With her positive spirit and drive, she continues to progress forward.”
Kirchner is also continuing to inspire and encourage others. At her local gym, she often cheers on and motivates other gym members.
And she doesn’t expect to slow down anytime soon.
“Don’t give up,” she says. “Just keep going.”

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