At 24, Kayla Redig was like a lot of women her age. Single, early into a career, a competitive swimmer whose biggest concern was where she should be going to meet her friends on the weekend — until she discovered a lump on her breast that turned out to be cancerous.
The daughter of two teachers and coaches, Redig grew up in suburban Downers Grove before moving to Southern California in 2010. A little over two years later, she moved back to Chicago and was working in what she calls the “family business” —teaching elementary school in Wilmette when she discovered a lump. Not taken seriously at first, a fact Redig attributes to her age and because she had a 1 percent chance of actually having cancer, she was sadly proved correct that there was something wrong — and life threatening.
For the next year, Redig would undergo radiation and chemotherapy, eventually beating the cancer that threatened her life. The experience took a toll, mentally and physically. Along with her treatment, Redig underwent a double mastectomy, had her lymph nodes removed and then had reconstructive surgery — part of the experience that reshaped her life’s path and forced her to realize no one is invincible. And despite having a positive outlook, loving family and supportive friends, Redig said she often felt alone during the experience.
It’s that feeling that led her to make the documentary Vincible, which is currently in post-production. Vincible focuses on young-adult cancer patients and their social network — family and friends; with the goal to let others who may face similar obstacles know that they are not alone.
Bob Chiarito from The Chicago Ambassador recently chatted with Redig, now 29 and living in Northern California with her husband Jeff Schmitz and their 1-year-old daughter about her ordeal and her film, which is expected to be released in the summer.
CA) Did you have any film background?
REDIG) None whatsoever. My background is in psychology and teaching. I was always pretty set on doing that. When I got sick I was teaching. Originally I thought I’d go into social work because of my psychology background but I fell into the family business of teaching. Everyone in my family teaches.
When I got sick, it was really when I was going through treatment, I realized that there were some things that I did to get myself through that I knew were unique and I really wanted to help other patients find different ways to get through their treatments and know that this may be the plan that the doctor planned out for you, but how can you make it your own. So, for example, all my chemo treatments had themes so we called it “themo” instead of chemo. If you came to my treatment you had to be fully dressed up and committed to whatever the theme was that week. It was just little things like that which I realized how much I enjoyed doing and I realized how much joy it brought to myself and my friends and other patients that were there. When I was actually going through it I’d meet with my social worker, I was always like, ‘How can I make this different for other patients’ and she would tell me to settle down and focus on myself first. So, I kinda knew that I wouldn’t be able to go back to doing what I was doing before after the experience that I had been through, and I think that’s pretty common because your life changes so much, especially when you’re 24 and having to face your own mortality.
It’s something that changes you forever. So when I tried to go back to teaching it really wasn’t a good fit for me. My priorities shifted and I felt like I matured a lot. I got into patient advocacy and really loved it and through that I got into writing. I was really encouraged to write a book and while I set out to do that, I realized that people were way more interested in watching something rather than reading it.
I had no film experience but I talked to the right people and asked a lot of questions. I’d talk to anyone that would give me the time of day. I started making connections and people wanted to help.
CA) It sounds like you have that teacher gene in you – you said the impetus is to help or teach others what you learned
REDIG) Oh yeah, exactly. That was something that was instilled in me at a very young age by my family. Both of my parents and even my grandparents were teachers.
CA) After receiving your diagnosis, was going through chemo an easy decision or something that you had to think about?
REDIG) I think because I grew up in a teachers’ household and because I was a dedicated athlete who did exactly what my coaches told me and didn’t question much, when I received the treatment plan, we did get a second opinion but I didn’t think to question it. Whatever my doctor said, that’s what we were going to do. I think that’s from years of being an athlete and also having things expected of me as a student because of who my parents were. So I didn’t question it and it’s funny because after chemo someone pointed out to me that they had a patient that was going to stop getting treatment and they wanted me to talk to her to mentor her through it. I remember my first reaction was, ‘Wait, you don’t have to do this?’ So it never occurred to me that you could say no to chemo. Something that sticks out to me also is that before I started it, and I was only 24 and didn’t know anything about it – I only knew the basics of what Hollywood portrays, that you lose your hair and throw up a lot but I didn’t know what it was like to go through it. So before I started I adopted the mindset that ‘chemo is my friend. I’m going to embrace it and love it’ and I was so excited to start. My mom always tells me that it was a hard thing for her to hear as a parent because that’s when she realized that her daughter had no idea what she was getting into. And I think that that’s true, I had no idea. A normal person doesn’t look forward to chemo but I did.
CA) Do you think it made it any easier?
REDIG) I think it did. That was the mindset that I forced on myself and I think there was something nice about being naïve as many young adults are as they are going through the process. The problem is that if you do survive, then there’s this whole survivorship thing. I think that’s where being naïve affected me in a negative way. It was good while going through treatment but afterwards it made it a lot harder because I had in my head that life goes back to normal and it was the complete opposite. I was such a different person and I was terrified of certain things and dealing with PTSD and the effects of everything I had just gone through. I wasn’t expecting that. I think I was in the same boat as a lot of people who think you have cancer and hopefully it goes away and is gone from your life forever like a cold or a broken bone, but really it’s something that’s going to stay with me for the rest of my life.
CA) Did you catch it early in a self-exam?
REDIG) I did find the lump myself. I caught it in a later stage but thankfully it wasn’t incurable. What was weird is that it seemed like it appeared overnight, but I recently asked my oncologist if she could guess how long it was in my body before I found it and she said it probably did pop up quickly and grow rapidly, which is kind of what I had expected. I found it and it took a lot of medical people time to find it and take me seriously because everyone told me that I was too young to have cancer, that there was nothing for me to be worried about. It wasn’t until we got the biopsy results and it was cancer that people paid attention.
CA) In the film trailer you talk about ‘the biggest problem for young cancer patients.’ What do you consider the biggest problem?
REDIG) First of all being heard. Although I had cancer, I was healthy otherwise. I looked healthy, I was participating in normal activities. I wasn’t sleeping well and was very tired but other than that I appeared healthy as most young adults do. A lot of young adults are diagnosed later than they should be because it’s hard for anyone to take us seriously because most young adults are healthy.
I had a less than one percent chance of getting breast cancer at my age but it does happen. I’m an example of that.
The other major issue that young adults face is the social isolation, either after or during their treatments. The cancer world is very pediatric and geriatric and although the young adult population is larger than the pediatric population, they are so much cuter than us. And the geriatric community makes up the majority of the cancer population so it makes sense that there are a lot of resources geared towards them. But the young adult cancer patient is a group that slips through the cracks and is often overlooked.
While I was going through treatment, and support group that I sought out consisted of a group of 50-year-old women and while they were lovely, they understood some of my experience, there was things about being with them that made me feel even more isolated. That was something that I was already struggling with because all my peers were going out and doing whatever they wanted and I couldn’t participate in that so I felt very different.
I couldn’t relate to things that they were going through, how cancer effects your marriage and things like that.
CA) In the documentary, how many people did you profile?
REDIG) We profiled patients, caregivers, and friends and family. We did more than 70 interviews but will see how many make the final cut. We have a ton of footage and some really great stuff. It’s going to be hard for it to not be a 12-hour film.
CA) How far along are you?
REDIG) We are in post-production, editing. Our goal is to have a final cut by the spring.
CA) I love the title. Was it an easy choice for you?
REDIG) Once that word came out to the core team, it was an easy choice. I think the title is brilliant and so many people I’ve come across think it’s brilliant, but some have said they don’t get it or that they’d recommend calling it something else. This has been one of those cool moments and one of those big-girl moments. The reason why I’ve clung onto the project the whole time and haven’t turned it over to anyone else is because I know exactly what the experience is like and I want it portrayed accurately. I think it’s the right word for the film and resonates with anyone who has ever been touched by the young adult cancer experience.
CA) Is one of your goals to create an atmosphere that would have helped you had you been able to see this movie when you were first diagnosed?
REDIG) Absolutely. We want awareness to happen, for people to know young adults get cancer too. And we want change to happen. We want age appropriate resources and for the experience to be different for the young adult. The number one reason why I made this film is that I want young adult cancer patients and survivors and their friends and family to watch this and see themselves in it and know that they are not alone, because I felt so incredibly alone through my experience. It wasn’t until I started building this community through this film that I found a home with these people. It was something that I was longing for.
CA) What age group are you focusing on?
REDIG) 18-39 has been our sweet spot. We didn’t interview anyone younger or older than that for the film.
CA) I’m guessing it’s all types of different cancers?
REDIG) Yes. All types. We tried to find as many different cancers as we could along with people from different races and socio-economic backgrounds. We want it to be a film for everyone.
CA) It sounds like someone who is lucky enough to have no experience with cancer can get something out of it as well.
REDIG) I think so. I think that person you’re describing is rare – even if they didn’t have cancer themselves, who doesn’t know someone who had cancer?
But the young adults who don’t have cancer are going to see their peers in it and hopefully they will learn that it can happen to you and look at their life and their lifestyle choices to help prevent that.
I hope it’s an educational tool also for those who don’t know much about chemo and I think it will help to start a lot of great conversations.
CA) You’ve also been speaking to groups and schools?
REDIG) Yes, I have and I love it. I particularly enjoy speaking to any young adult groups that I come across. I love sharing my story and hopefully they will be a little better equipped than I was whether they find themselves in my shoes or find one of their friends in my shoes.
CA) Once the film is completed, is the goal to get it into festivals and that sort of thing?
REDIG) Distribution is something that we’re trying to figure out. I know we’d love to have it on a major streaming application because we want everyone to see this. However we can get as many people as possible to see it is our goal.
CA) What’s your current health status?
REDIG) I’ve been cancer-free for 4 years now. I still am on hormone therapy since to stop production of estrogen. and will be for several more years. I go to my oncologist every six months and am tested twice a year.