Even in the middle of her harshest chemo treatments, Kathleen Mininno rarely worried that she’d die. But she did wonder how she was going to live. 

More importantly, she thought a lot about how she wanted to live.

“At one point during chemo, I called my breast surgeon and said, ‘I don’t know if I’m ever going to be the same again,’” says Kathleen, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in September 2017. “She told me, ‘No, you’re not. But that doesn’t mean you can’t be a new and improved Kathleen 2.0.’”

The advice stuck with her. Because at that time, she says, she desperately needed a new mindset – cancer or not. Her diagnosis came right after an already difficult time in her life. She had just divorced her husband of 20 years, leaving her a single mother of 3 kids, 17, 16 and 13 years old.

Another snippet of wisdom from her doctor: Cancer can either bring a family together or tear it apart.

“I remember asking, ‘Do I have to have chemotherapy?’ Because I was afraid it would be too much for them to handle,” she says. “And I’ll be honest, there were times when it tore us apart.” 

It was a lot for her kids to handle all at once, says Mininno, and when she put herself in their shoes, she understood. Their parents had just gone through a messy divorce. Then their mom gets cancer, and all of a sudden, she looks different, she’s more tired, she cooks dinner less. No matter how hard she tried, that couldn’t change. 

“My focus was, ‘How do I do this in a way that my children will be proud of me?’” says Kathleen. “Every show, every sporting event, I was there. I would go sick. I would go bald. I worked part time.” The only thing she missed was her daughter’s swim team senior night after a horrific chemo treatment.

Kathleen says she was determined to not be “any less of a mother.” 

“Did I 100% succeed? No, definitely not,” she adds. “There were times when the neuropathy was so bad, I couldn’t do something as simple as help put on a necklace, because my fingers didn’t have the control. They may tell this story differently, and I don’t blame them. I did what I could, and I hope they can look back and see that.”

But as much as Kathleen tried to show up as a mom, she also needed to show up for herself. That meant she needed support. So while she rarely posted on Facebook because of her job as assistant prosecutor in the Camden County Prosecutor’s office, that changed when she got her diagnosis. 

“At the time, I didn’t have anyone in my life who had gone through this sort of thing,” she says. “I felt alone, and I thought I might be able to find some sort of community.” 

She began sharing everything – from her diagnosis to her double mastectomy in November 2017, her 6 months of chemo, her reconstructive surgery, the infusions that followed, and the times when her appointments dwindled to every 3 months, then 6, then a yearly checkup. Her year and a half of actively battling cancer was documented on her Facebook feed. 

Now, 5 years since being diagnosed, she still posts about cancer every once in a while, but most of her posts have a completely different tone. It’s not “I’m Kathleen Mininno, and I’m battling cancer,” it’s “I’m Kathleen Mininno, and I survived cancer. Now really watch me live.” 

Kathleen 2.0 has begun.

She had never been a runner before but decided she would be now. At first, she entered small community races. Then a 5k. Then a 10k. Then she entered races with a team, which grew to more than 100 people. She ran her first half marathon this year. 

Then Kathleen began to travel, hiking to Machu Picchu in 2021, after taking  her first solo trip in 2019 – a small group safari in Kenya.  

“I was terrified,” she says. “I was married for 20 years and had no idea how to be alone. But I didn’t want to let that hold me back.”

The trip ended up being life-changing. 

“I left so much behind in Africa,” says Kathleen. “Anger at my divorce. Anger about my cancer. Anger at myself. I felt like it was a place where I left a part of my soul. It showed me how much bigger the world is than me.” 

Kathleen Mininno and her son Tyler on an African Safari earlier this year

So she couldn’t say no when her son Tyler asked her to join him to hike Mt. Kilimanjaro during his gap year before starting college next fall. 

“The idea came from a book I used to read to them as kids, ‘Geronimo Stilton, Mighty Mount Kilimanjaro,’” she says. “As I said I was going to do it, I thought, what was I thinking? Am I physically capable of taking this trek?”

Kathleen left for Tanzania on January 28. As soon as she got to the mountain, she knew she would make it. 

“I went through a messy divorce. I battled cancer. And this was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done – but I knew I could do it,” she says. “There were times on the mountain when you’ve hiked for hours and hours overnight and early morning. You’re battling altitude sickness. You take your boots off in your tent, sleep a few hours, look at your empty boots and bloody toes and wonder how you’re going to put them back on – but of course you do, and you continue the hike, and you see things you could never have imagined.” 

The trek, she says, was all about resilience. It was the best metaphor she could find for life, she says. Things are hard, and there are roadblocks, and just when you think it’s going to go in a straight line, it zigs in a completely different direction. And then something comes around that makes it all worth it. 

The day she reached the summit, she had already been hiking for 6 hours. It was cold and windy. She was using her headlamp to see. And then she summited, and none of it mattered. 

“We did a full moon hike, and it looked like you could have walked right to the edge of the mountain and touched it,” she says. “The sun curved around us, and glaciers sparkled on either side.” 

She hugged her son, took a video to show her daughters when they got home and prepared for the hike back down. 

“All I could think on that mountain was, ‘You know what? Anybody can do this if they wanted,’” says Kathleen.

Of course, the adventures don’t end there. She has plans for more epic hikes, white water rafting, unique hobbies. And there are other adventures too – her kids are graduating from school, and they’ll have even more exciting life events soon. 

“One of the things I learned from the cancer was you just have to live life,” says Kathleen. “You just have to try new things. Embrace opportunities. You’re only stopped by the limitations you put in front of you.”

“I would never wish cancer on anyone,” she adds. “I lost a lot, but I also think I came out better as a person.”  

 

 

May 2023
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