When most people think of costumes, they imagine children on Halloween or cosplayers converging on the convention center, but certainly not cancer patients at chemotherapy—well, unless you are Krista Andersen.
Costumes and Cancer Treatments
Andersen is a doctoral candidate, a master mediator, and has mothered 12 children. If she didn’t already have enough on her plate, Andersen battled breast cancer last year. She chose to wear a costume to each of her cancer treatments to bring an element of joy and hope to herself. In the process, she brought joy to others.
“I one hundred percent believe that cancer is as much of a mental and emotional experience as it is physical. Early on, I made a choice that I would wear costumes to my cancer treatments. It gave me a creative outlet to focus on instead of what was coming,” she says.
At first, Andersen chose to wear superhero-themed costumes to give her that extra boost of confidence.
“It was a huge distraction. Wearing a costume is how I got myself there. I’d get dressed up and feel empowered to be able to go,” she explains.
Over the course of her treatment, Andersen’s costume collection grew to over 40 costumes. She’d do a photo session in them and started posting them on her Instagram @twosidestothestory. A few highlights are Wonder Woman, Elastigirl from the Incredibles, Batwoman, Princess Leia and Rey from Star Wars, a pink Power Ranger, Princess Elsa from Frozen, a chicken, and a red devil.
Initially, Andersen’s providers thought it was funny. Then they were a bit surprised when she brought in Star Wars-themed costumes for her medical providers to wear as well.
“My doctors were so cute about it, both my radiation oncologist and my medical oncologist. I told them, ‘I have a Yoda head for you to put on while we meet today’ or ‘I have a cloak and a lightsaber for you.’ They thought it was great. They liked being dressed up, too. I could be Princess Leia, and they could be Yoda or Han Solo. It was fun,” says Andersen.
One of Andersen’s oncologists was Dr. Brandt Esplin with Revere Health.
“I recognized a unique strength in Krista’s spirit the first time we met,” he says. “Unlike any other patient I’ve taken care of before, or after, she decided to show up to each chemotherapy treatment dressed in a different superhero costume. I knew these outward displays of courage were only a manifestation of her inner resolve to fight cancer, which grew stronger and stronger with each round.”
Bringing Cheer—and Courage—to Fellow Cancer Patients
Andersen had chemotherapy or radiation on the same day and time. She met the same people almost every time. As soon as she walked in the door people would say, “We’ve been wondering what you were going to wear today.”
“They began to forward to it as much as I did,” says Andersen. “Especially because during the pandemic, we were not allowed to bring a support person with us. We were alone.”
She continues, “Having cancer is the loneliest experience I have ever had in my life. You often think that with cancer people rally around you and your family is there for you, but they don’t. They vanish. People don’t know how to be with somebody who is sick, and they don’t know how to help them.”
Dr. Esplin says that Andersen’s strength helped inspire his other patients as well as his nurses and staff.
“We eagerly anticipated her return visits. Everyone was excited to see which superhero was going to come through our doors that day. She never disappointed,” he recalls.
Jason Perry, a registered oncology nurse, agrees.
“The different and unique costumes were always something to look forward to, lifting the spirits of not only the patients but also her care team. Krista’s positive attitude toward treatment inspired other patients during their treatments. Patients like Krista help to make a difficult job as an oncology nurse worth every minute. Krista will always have a special place in my heart.”
Like a Phoenix Rising
Andersen says that wearing a costume opened conversations with others during her treatments.
“It almost permitted me to approach people,” she explains. “I felt like I had an alter ego because if I was Elsa or Batwoman or whoever, people were more willing to talk to me. It was like going to Disneyland and everyone talking to Mickey Mouse. I would find someone who was awake and sit down with them and ask, ‘Who are you? What do you do outside of cancer? I met the most incredible people in cancer treatment.”
Dr. Esplin says that although Andersen was going through her own difficult journey, she helped so many others along their way as well.
“Krista made it a point to personally interact with those around her, offering genuine words of encouragement, compassion, solidarity, and inspiration. We love Krista and are truly better people because of her,” he says.
Dr. Esplin said he would “always remember the phoenix costume with the six-foot wingspan” that Andersen wore for her final round of chemo.
A phoenix is an immortal bird from Greek mythology that regenerates or is otherwise born again. It obtains new life by rising from the ashes of its previous life.
“The phoenix costume was my favorite one of all,” says Andersen. “I found these wings that were a span of orange and yellow feathers. After six months of chemotherapy, I felt nearly dead at the point, but I could only go up from there. I was the phoenix rising at that point.”
As well as wearing the phoenix costume on her last day of chemotherapy, Andersen brought in “breast cancer–themed” cookies to share with the medical staff and patients at the oncology clinic. Some were heart-shaped with a pink ribbon; others were rounded squares decorated with the words “Boob Voyage” or a woman doing a self-breast examination.
Andersen says she found a baker on Etsy to custom make the cookies for her. Her name was Amanda Henneman, a busy mom of three young children who runs her baking business, Baked by Amanda out of her home in Highland, Utah.
Henneman says Andersen specifically asked for “happy cancer-free boobs” cookies in her order. “I loved that, and immediately wanted to help,” says Henneman.
When Andersen came to pick up the cookies, the two women sat and talked as if they had known each other for a long time.
“Usually, a [order] pick-up is a quick exchange, but Krista felt like a friend immediately. I could tell she was someone special. She has been through so much and still fights with a smile on her face. She brings humor and happiness to a very delicate topic. Her outlook on her diagnosis and treatment is inspiring and uplifting. The world needs more Kristas,” says Henneman.
Andersen says Henneman would not let her pay for the cookies.
Taking Control of Her Cancer Experience
While the costumes helped Andersen cope with her cancer, she still struggled.
“I had very dark days,” she recalls. “Not all the costumes, the meeting people, and everything lightened it all. I had dark, dark moments. There were times when I would cry in my car a lot. It was my hiding place.”
Andersen also coped with cancer by deciding at the beginning of her diagnosis that she was going to be in control of her own cancer experience. She interviewed medical providers and picked her own oncology team.
“I am not a number. I am not a chart. I am a person with feelings and needs and I expected to be treated that way,” says Andersen.
After interviewing four oncology teams, Andersen eventually chose Dr. Brant Esplin to be her oncologist because he listened and was willing to answer all her questions about feasible alternative treatments. He said, “Nothing you do is going to be worse than what I am going to do to you.”
A Family History
She was not going to acquiesce to doctors as her mother and sister did during their breast cancer experiences.
Andersen was 10 years old when her mother had stage four breast cancer.
“My mother’s doctors immediately suggested some awful, hard treatments. She was taught that the doctor ‘knows everything.’ You don’t question your doctors,” says Andersen.
She watched her mother struggle for six and half years before she lost her battle with cancer. After her mother’s funeral, Andersen read some of her mother’s journal entries.
“She told her doctor she was ‘feeling something new.’ He said, ‘You need anxiety medication There is nothing wrong with you.’ Well, it turns out that the cancer had come back. The doctors would discount her. They would not listen to what she instinctively knew,” says Andersen.
When Andersen was 30 years old, her sister, just a year older, was also diagnosed with breast cancer.
“I always saw my sister as the strongest person on the planet,” she recalls. “She is an LAPD officer. She is tough as nails. I watched my tough sister cower to her doctors, too. They made bad decisions that extended her disease and cost a lot of problems.”
When Andersen was diagnosed on Christmas Eve in 2020, a random radiologist on duty called her and told her that she had cancer.
“He didn’t have any empathy or compassion. He could have told me that my laundry was at the dry cleaner, for as empathetic as he sounded,” she says. “You should be able to tell someone they have a life-threatening disease with some kindness in your voice.”
Surrounding Herself with a Winning Team
Andersen decided she that she was going to interview and hire her own oncology team.
“I was not going to let somebody else talk to me that way again,“ she says. “I asked myself, ‘Are you going to cave and let other people decide things for you, or are you going to take control of it and at least do it in a way that you can live with?'”
Andersen’s cancer is now in remission, but she says that having cancer was a gift because now she can connect with other people who have cancer.
“I get it. I get the loneliness. I get confusion and the level of how much it sucks,” she says. “The beauty in cancer is a community of people—the people who help you the most are the people who understand it, the people who have done it.”
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