Sun Prairie family finds a 'new normal' after cancer comes back

SUN PRAIRIE, Wis. - Kristin Wilkinson stands out for a number of reasons.

The first grade teacher will give you a hug without hesitation. Her smile and willingness to love and laugh are all contagious.

As her teenagers will tell you, she's often the loudest one courtside, cheering on her daughters in whatever sporting event they may have that weekend.

And, oh yeah, she has no hair.

What may set Kristin Wilkinson apart more than any of these things is her journey and her tireless pursuit to make things "normal" for her family.

"I definitely have those, you know, times where I think, 'How can I do this? How can I be strong today?'" Kristin Wilkinson said. "But I like to say God gets me through it. A lot of prayer and Jack."

Jack--also known as Officer Jack Wilkinson of the Sun Prairie Police Department--is Kristin's husband. He spends his days watching over the kids at Sun Prairie High School and every other minute with his wife.

"And that is what this battle is. It's understanding the place you're in right now, and making the best of what you have," Jack Wilkinson said.

When cancer comes back

In 2011, Kristin was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer. She did everything she possibly could to make sure it was gone and never returned, including some treatments that went above and beyond what her oncologist suggested. After the chemotherapy, radiation, double mastectomy, and breast reconstruction surgery, she was ready to be a survivor.

Then, last year, Kristin felt a pain in her ribs as if one of them had been bruised or cracked. The doctor checked and confirmed that the cancer was back. This time, it was stage 4.

Kristin said the worst part was telling Jack.

"Those are moments you don't forget," Jack explained. "You don't forget the moment that you're told you have cancer. You don't forget the moment when you're told it's come back."

"When you're facing a stage 4 diagnosis, you know there's not a cure. You know that at this point, it is terminal," Kristin said.

Planners by nature, the Wilkinsons were suddenly had to stop putting things on the calendar for the months or years ahead. While it gave the family a reason to speed up plans and live for those precious moments, the cancer's return left Kristin feeling a bit defeated.

"I didn't feel like I got to call myself a survivor anymore. I felt like I had lost a little bit whereas before I had T-shirts that said survivor," Kristin said. "I felt like I had conquered something, and now, you know, here I was in a position where I didn't feel like that. I had to gain that strength back again."

Then, there were conversations on topics most teens don't have to touch. Sixteen-year-old Alyssa and 12-year-old Jenna had to come to grips with the fact that mom would die someday as a result of this disease.

"That's probably the toughest thing is that, one wish is to go back those four years, and it's never going to happen. It's never going to be the same," Alyssa said.

"This is what we've had to make as our normal," Jenna said.

Her sister smiled.

"We're just normal with a plot twist," Alyssa added.

The girls admit there are good parts and hard parts wrapped up in this journey, and sometimes, being a "normal" middle- and high-schoolers isn't an option. That said, they say mom and dad keep them going.

"She's been good about still keeping us going, I guess. She's a big part of getting through it," Alyssa explained.

Family first

Faced with inevitable mortality, Kristin and Jack say they find comfort in faith and being the best parents they can possibly be.

"We still want to be defined as the parents we want to be, and not the parents we can be because of cancer," Jack said.

Kristin said she understands having a bald mom can't be easy for Alyssa and Jenna, but she hopes she can reinforce something positive.

"Hopefully, it's taught the girls a lesson," Kristin said. "I'm trying to teach them that you're not defined by what you look like, what is on the outside. You're defined on how you carry yourself and what you bring to life."

Jack and Kristin said their experience with cancer has given them unique opportunities to meet people and do things the family would have never been able to do.

"That's how we as parents are trying to take it and turn it into something that we can say we've grown from it," Jack said.

Kristin admits the smiles don't come so easily every day.

She says the first time battling breast cancer, she couldn't wait for the future. The next day brought her closer to her final treatment. Now, as much as Kristin and the family want to turn back time or at least slow it down, she said they have to look forward and savor every single second.

"I want to make sure that I give them the best of what I can give them in the time I have left on this earth," Kristin said. "Hopefully that's a long time, but we just don't know."

The community's support

The Wilkinsons are used to being the ones giving, not receiving. Jack said when support started cascading into their home, they were overwhelmed. Since then, they've learned to cope and accept the embrace of the Sun Prairie community.

"It's the people, it's the experiences that we never would have been able to have as a family, to be able to mold our girls into the young people they're going to become," Jack said.

Fellow officers at the Sun Prairie Police Department donated sick time to Jack to make sure he could be a caregiver.

Faculty and staff at Kristin's school started "Team Wilkinson" to show their support.

Alyssa and Jenna even see it in the grocery store, people coming up to mom asking her questions and offering their encouraging words.

"So that can be amazing just seeing how she can change other people's views on it," Alyssa explained.

Justice For a Cure has also been a part of the Wilkinsons' journey. The organization links law enforcement with cancer awareness and prevention. The Sun Prairie Police Department donated hundreds of dollars to the cause Wednesday.

Kristin calledit all "nothing short of amazing." The community would say the same about her.

That new normal

Saturdays are spent on fields and courts.

Jack still coaches. Kristin makes it to every event she can when the treatments aren't dragging her down.

The girls continue to excel, both tall and athletic. Jenna towers over the other middle schoolers in the Sun Prairie gym. Alyssa is trying for soccer scholarships.

As for the cancer, Kristin and Jack describe the battle from here on out as a game of maintenance. They'll try different medications and therapies, see how they do, and switch them if necessary, knowing it will never be beaten, just suppressed.

Rides to the doctor's offices become a chance to be together. A blessing, if you will.

"If this is the challenge that God has thrown in front of me, you know, I'm pretty lucky in a lot of ways because a lot of other people have bigger hurdles to overcome and things like that," Kristin said.

Kristin and Jack continue the prayer, positivity, and acceptance that there can't be a game plan.

It's not easy, but it's now normal.

Breast cancer may cut Kristen's life short, but it won't keep the Wilkinsons from living.

"Life is what is laid down in front of you, and you can lay down and let it just consume you, or you can look up at what you can do to learn from it, to grow from it," Jack said.

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