Mother, Model, Cancer Survivor

Penny Burkhalter received an unexpected breast cancer diagnosis at the young age of 32, just out of her first trimester of pregnancy. Her inspirational story is one of courage, hope, sacrifice, hard decisions and faith.

By Dwain Hebda, Photography by Lily Darragh

Anna Grace, Penny and Johnna Kay Burkhalter, now 13 years after Penny's diagnosis. 

Anna Grace, Penny and Johnna Kay Burkhalter, now 13 years after Penny's diagnosis. 

 

Penny Burkhalter always wanted to be a mom.

Growing up the fifth of six children, home was a place of noise and constant activity. And while her own brood is substantially smaller—16-year-old Johnna Kay and 13-year-old Anna Grace— the daily shuttle between dance, pom squad, school and church is the very breath of her life.

“As a mother,” she said, “Well, I feel like it’s one of the best jobs that I’ve ever been able to do in my life. There are so many working mothers these days who have careers and everything, but I just never felt that, honestly. I was raised in a big family and I knew that I always wanted to be a mother, that was my No. 1 thing.”

As Burkhalter speaks, she and the girls are on their way to the first football game of the new school year, and a touch of wonder enters her voice pondering where the time has gone. She marvels at how her babies have grown into graceful, athletic young women close in age, yet so much their own person.

“You keep thinking, ‘Oh I wish they’d get through the diaper phase’ and then you can’t wait until they start school and then you start a whole different phase,” she said. “Now we’re into the teenage years, and the driving and the other things that go with that. Each of my children’s lives has been so different. Each one has been fulfilling but at times challenging.”

She pauses.
“So far, so good.”
It’s an incredibly nonchalant summary of Burkhalter’s road. When she was 32 and still glowing in the discovery she was pregnant with Anna Grace, she and her husband, John, were slammed to earth by Penny’s diagnosis of breast cancer, the first in her family.

“I was diagnosed when I was about three months into my pregnancy,” she said. “Because of the type of cancer I had, and being pregnant, it was a little bit more aggressive, so we decided to do the surgery.”

“The surgery” was a double mastectomy and it wasn’t the end of the story. When one of Penny’s lymph nodes showed evidence of cancer, her doctors urged chemotherapy. While that sounds counter-intuitive, research shows certain chemo poses relatively little danger to an unborn child if administered past the first trimester.

Intellectually, Penny and John weighed their options based on advice from their doctors as well as other medical professionals within their wider circle of friends. Emotionally, the decision was gut-wrenching.

“I’m not going to lie, it was probably a lot more emotional for me,” Penny said. “I was just so blown over by the whole diagnosis. I was told that I had cancer and within five days I was having surgery, you know, everything moved so quickly. It was so much to take in.

“Initially they said we’ve got to focus mainly on you because we need you to be healthy to have a healthy pregnancy, but in my mind I could not focus on myself. I just remember praying that I was making the right decision for [my baby]. I just ... I guess I knew in my heart that I was.”

Though the chemotherapy posed little threat to her unborn child, its effect on Penny hit with some savagery, as she learned during five treatments between February and May 2003. Along the way, she also discovered that while she may only have been carrying her second baby, she had a far bigger family than she knew.

“I had family members and friends and an outpouring from people I didn’t even know,” she said. “They’d show up at my house and help me and bring food to us.”

Anna Grace was born perfect and screaming with joy. Penny said she remembers the run-up to the scheduled C-section, and the rush of emotions upon learning her newborn was the picture of health.

“Gosh, that day couldn’t get here fast enough, just knowing she was going to come out and be perfect,” she said. “Anyone who has children knows what that day is like, you wish every day could be like that, you can just never get enough of it. And knowing that she was here and that she was healthy, it was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. All the emotions of being a mother.”

The Burkhalters’ calculated decisions not only yielded a healthy daughter, but stopped Penny’s cancer in its tracks. As the family settled into a new normalcy, parenting their two girls, Penny found it natural to be the kind of mom who could talk easily about the scariest of topics, even with the people she loves most. 

“Well, initially it was brought up by the fact that there are scars and [the girls] asked me questions about that at an early age,” she said. “I would just explain to them mommy had breast cancer and they had to remove it to get rid of it so I could be healthy. As they’re getting older we talk about it more and they kind of bring things up. ‘How did it feel when you lost your hair?’ and all of those things. I just explain the emotions I went through.

“Obviously, the girls realize I had cancer, but I don’t think they’ve completely grasped what the effects of this disease can do because, thankfully, they were both so little they don’t remember it,” she said. “They do ask me sometimes, you know ‘Does this mean that I’m going to get it?’ I tell them it’s not a guarantee, but obviously because we have a history of it now, they’re going to have to get screenings for things sooner than someone who doesn’t have a history of it,” Penny said.

She’s also taken time to care for the other family birthed during that pregnancy, the community of cancer patients and survivors who walk the same road she did. She’s been to 13 Komen Races for the Cure and for about as many years has been involved with Runway for the Cure, a fashion show benefiting research that features survivors as models. It was a group she discovered in the most unusual way.

“I was on the elevator coming from an OB appointment and I was pregnant and I didn’t have any hair and this lady, Evelyn Menz, said, ‘Do you have cancer?’ She started calling me and asking me to model as soon as I got through everything. I knew immediately that I wanted to be involved, because I could see the difference this made to someone who, after going through treatment and losing her hair, got to feel beautiful for a day.”

The activity allows her to be inspired by patients older than her, and to act as a mom to the young women with their whole lives ahead of them, and who these days look an awful lot like her own daughters. It’s a tangible way to give back for the blessings her life holds.

“It’s just overwhelming; it makes me tear up right now just thinking about it,” she said. “It was such a hard journey and it’s hard enough just being pregnant, but to do it while you’re going through cancer treatment ...”

Another pause.

“It’s not anything you ever want to go through, for sure, but it has changed our lives and it’s made me so much more thankful for my children and everyone in my family.” 

 
 
Penny Burkhalter
 

THE INSIDE SCOOP with PENNY

WHERE WERE YOU BORN? North Little Rock.

WHERE DID YOU GO TO HIGH SCHOOL? Cabot High School.

WHO IS YOUR ROLE MODEL? My mother has been such a great role model. She is a true example of what
a mother should be. She selflessly raised me and my five brothers and sisters. She taught us how to be loving, compassionate and always encouraged us to be the best we can be.

WHAT IS THE HARDEST THING ABOUT BEING A PARENT? The hardest thing about being a parent is realizing that they aren’t always going to like you. Also, allowing them to make their own mistakes.

WHAT IS THE BEST THING ABOUT BEING A PARENT? The best thing about being a parent is getting to experience all the different stages in their lives—watching them grow and making memories.

WHAT DO YOU ADMIRE MOST ABOUT YOUR HUSBAND? The thing I admire most about my husband is that he is truly the hardest-working person I know. He is loving and supportive and is a great father.

WHAT ARE THREE THINGS STILL ON YOUR BUCKET LIST? Cage dive with great white sharks, go on an African safari and learn to scuba dive.

WHAT DO YOU DO TO RELAX? Take a hot bath.

WHAT IS ONE GOOD PIECE OF ADVICE YOU’VE PICKED UP ALONG THE WAY? To remember that every single day is a blessing.

WHAT IS ONE THING MOST PEOPLE DON’T KNOW ABOUT YOU? I have a huge fascination with sharks. I love Shark Week! 

 

UNDER-40
BREAST CANCER STATS

Younger women face special challenges with breast cancer. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, most breast cancers occur in women 50 years of age and older. The American Cancer Society says only about 5 percent of cases, in fact, affect women under 40. Add to these statistics that across all age groups, 80 percent of women who are diagnosed with breast cancer have no family history of the disease, and it’s easy to see why the typical woman under 40 isn’t on the lookout for breast cancer.

However, this still translates to 70,000 cases in women age 15 to 39 and 1,200 deaths annually in this age group. Younger women also tend to get more aggressive types of cancers, and have lower survival rates than older women.

Incredibly, there is no effective breast cancer- screening tool for women under 40, according to Young Survival Coalition. This can be explained in part by the relative rarity of younger patients, which makes them under-represented in many research studies.

The emotional toll of being diagnosed and undergoing treatment at a younger age can be overwhelming for a younger patient, combined with issues surrounding future fertility, body image and financial problems related to the disease. Education is critical; to learn more about breast cancer and early detection in young women, visit the American Cancer Society (cancer.org) or Young Survival Coalition (youngsurvival.org).

RESOURCES

Baptist Health Breast Center
501-202-1922; baptist-health.com

Breast Cancer Clinic at UAMS
501-296-1200; uamshealth.com/breastcancer

BreastCare
This state-funded program provides breast and cervical cancer screening and services for eligible Arkansas women. Services include: mammograms, clinical breast exams, pelvic exams and pap tests; and follow-up testing, if needed. 501-661-2513; healthy.arkansas.gov.

CHI St. Vincent Breast Center    
Locations in Little Rock and Hot Springs 800-527-3279; chistvincent.com

Komen Arkansas, Race for the Cure and Runway for the Cause
501-202-4399; komenarkansas.org