Survivor Series – Meet Fawn Kleemann

For survivor Fawn Kleemann, it was the love and support that carried her through.

By ELLYN SANTIAGO

Breast cancer runs in Fawn Kleemann’s family. On her maternal side, it was her aunts. On her paternal side, her father’s mother, her grandmother, also had breast cancer.

“With an extensive family history of breast cancer, I started getting mammograms when I was 35,” Fawn said. “At 37, I had genetic testing done, and I had no genetic markers for any cancer and was given a low chance of getting cancer within the next five years. And they did an MRI and referred me to a breast surgeon, just in case, so that way I had somebody more in tune looking for this. I liked having that extra doctor in my corner.”

But ultimately, it would be Fawn who made the discovery.

Fawn, “Doing my favorite thing, relaxing on the water.’ From 2019.
Fawn, “Doing my favorite thing, relaxing on the water.’ From 2019.

In September 2022, then age 41, Fawn and her husband were boating with friends, her favorite pastime. Living on the Thames in Gales Ferry, the boat is docked and at the ready. That day, the friends were tubing from the river-anchored boat. A very good time. But later, Fawn felt pain in her chest. Muscle soreness from tubing?

“It felt like I had a knot in my muscle. It was just very sore,” she recalled. "But it abated, until a month later. “I was doing something and I felt it again. I could feel that it, the knot, was bigger. That was around the end of September 2022.”

It was a flag she would not ignore and so she called her doctor.

“I was really nervous. I felt this one. At first, I thought it was something else. Now, it was bigger. They took me in the same day,” Fawn remembered.

The doctor didn’t feel anything, though given Fawn had missed her last scheduled mammogram, she was sent for an emergency test.

“A couple of days later, they said they saw something but didn't think it was anything. But because of the family history, they all agreed that I should have a biopsy done. A few days later, it was Friday, the beginning of Columbus Day weekend, I was headed up to upstate New York for my friend's mother's funeral. Doctors told me that I wouldn't get a call if it was after five o’clock.”

She decided she’d silence her cell for the weekend, where her friend’s family were gathering for the funeral, and where family activities were planned.

That evening, with many folks gathered including her husband, her friend, and many others, all about to head out for dinner, she turned to set her phone to ‘off’ when she “noticed the little symbol from MyChart.”

Her biopsy results.

“I said, ‘My results are in,’ though at first, nobody heard me. I called out my friend's name: ‘My results are in.’”

Her husband and friends looked at her, and each other, and she handed off her phone. Then she did something she doesn’t do: chugged a hard cider. Instead of waiting anxiously, she went outside to play tag with laughing children.

“Five minutes later, my friend’s daughter walked out …with her head down. She said, ‘Boys, it’s time to go.’”

When Fawn’s husband came out, she “saw it in his face.”

“I guess I knew the whole time, but it was a real confirmation when I looked at his face,” Fawn said. “I had cancer.”

Stage 1a Invasive Ductal Carcinoma grade 3 ER and PR positive and Ductal Carcinoma in Situ grade 3 in the right breast. In the left breast, they found multiple cysts with changes and atypical ductal hyperplasia. Meaning it wasn't long before the left side had cancer too, she said.

“We went to dinner, and I cried alone in a parking lot,” she shared.

On Saturday morning, the PA who did the biopsy called Fawn.

“She actually called me from home to talk me through it. We were at church services for the funeral. She left a message. “I see you read the results. I’m sorry. It’s horrible they do this.” This means posting the results to the online medical chart before a physician sees, evaluates, and then contacts the patient. That process can take days.

“The message was, ‘If you want to talk, call me, and I’ll tell you what's going on.”

Fawn said she did “not want to take away” from her friend’s grief, so waited until after the burial and until they were enroute to the reception hall. She told her husband and friend about the message and called her PA.

“‘First thing, I’m so sorry this is how you had to find out,’” the health care provider told Fawn. “‘What questions do you have?’”

Fawn had many questions, and she was put at ease by the compassion and genuine concern her provider displayed.

“She called me on her time. I could hear her kids in the background at home, playing. She took the time to call me,” Fawn shared. “She was like an angel.”

After that conversation, she tried her best to bury it. For the time being anyway.

“I tried to forget about it for the rest of the weekend. We went to Montreal. Had a nice dinner. But then on Tuesday, a six-hour drive back.”

Those hours were consumed with the reality of the situation. And to make matters worse, her father had passed away the year before, and her mother was still mourning his loss; they’d been married for 45 years.

“It was really, really hard to tell my mom,” Fawn shared.

And, it turned out that during testing, a second spot was found, and an MRI-guided biopsy was ordered. She and the surgeon discussed her options beginning with a lumpectomy. But, depending on the results of the second biopsy, there was a good chance they’d have to take the breast anyway and that was just going to prolong everything.

“We talked over the pros and the cons, but given my family history, I decided that if you’re going to have to cut me again and again, I just wanted to do the double mastectomy. They found a second spot. I just wanted the cancer out.”

A month later, on November 30, she’d undergo a double mastectomy.

“I went in early in the morning and was having a very hard time. I don't love my body, but the one thing that I have always loved is my boobs. They were perky! The thought of having to remove the only part of my body that I liked was absolutely devastating.”

And from that day until just last month, Fawn’s been through hell and back.

Fawn, a few minutes before one of her many surgeries.
Fawn, a few minutes before one of her many surgeries.

Undergoing reconstructive surgery immediately following the double mastectomy, in hindsight, was perhaps a mistake. Or rather, perhaps it should have waited. There’s no way to know for sure. But what is known is that she’s been through it: from November 2022 until March 2024. Seven surgeries, complication after complication, ER visits and hospital stays, potentially deadly infection battles, newly discovered allergies to everything from adhesive on bandages to some medications she needed. And then there was the omnipresent pain. Some days, unendurable. Even the spoken details are themselves unbearable.

“I was a mess.”

But along the 16-month-plus journey, she said she was “absolutely blessed with my breast cancer team.”

Now, following her seventh surgery just weeks ago, she feels so much better; no infections and no pain, and breasts she’s happy with.

When asked about being a survivor, Fawn said she doesn’t necessarily feel that way. And this sentiment has been shared by more than one breast cancer survivor that TBBCF has spoken to.

“I don’t feel that I’m a survivor, or thriver, like you say. I don’t feel like I have gone through as much as some women who undergo treatments like radiation and chemo,” she shared. “But I am in therapy …with PTSD. So maybe.”

But she noted that she’s had tremendous support along the way, from her family, her friends, her care team, especially from Northeast Plastic Surgery Center and the members of her Rose City Network group, who’ve had her back the whole journey.

“We are on a group chat, and sometimes when I wasn't feeling the best, I wouldn't look at my phone for hours or days. When I would, there would be 30 to 60 missed messages. I felt like I was still a part of the world, even if I couldn't mentally get out there myself,” she shared. “They are what you would hope for during a difficult time.”

Indeed, she walked the 2023 TBBCF marathon with the Rose City Network team.

The Rose City Network Team, and some of Fawn’s best friends (l. to r.) Xylee, Mandy, Kelly, Steph, Marissa, Jeremy, Fawn, and Dino.
The Rose City Network group, and some of Fawn’s best friends (l. to r.) Xylee, Mandy, Kelly, Steph, Marissa, Jeremy, Fawn, and Dino.

 

Fawn’s other core friend group, who were an essential support. (l. to r.) front, Fawn, Tammy. Back row, (l. to r.) Robert, Phil, Denise, and James.
Fawn’s other core friend group, who were an essential support. (l. to r.) front, Fawn, Tammy. Back row, (l. to r.) Robert, Phil, Denise, and James.

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