PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — In less than a month, Kayley Berezney will graduate from Portland State University with a Master of Fine Arts. The 26-year-old New York native moved to Portland in the fall of 2015 to get this degree.
That was more than a year after she learned she had Stage 4 breast cancer.
Five years ago when she was an undergrad in Albany, NY, she felt a lump in her right breast, went to the doctor and had an ultrasound.
“They kind of responded that it was normal, that it would go away,” Kayley told KOIN 6 News. Another doctor told her the same thing, she said.
“It was misdiagnosed most likely because of my age ” — she was 21 at the time — “they just didn’t think that is what the issue was.”
But she had pain in her hips and back. She went back to the doctor again and had a mammogram and biopsy. In August 2014, Kayley was diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer and it had spread to her bones.
“It was kind of shocking. I just didn’t think that is what was going to be the diagnosis,” she told KOIN 6 News.
But Kayley got busy and embraced life.
“I felt optimistic. I felt young and that I was strong enough that I could overcome this or twist it into this powerful, empowering thing. Which I think I’ve done.”
She always wanted to live on the West Coast and chose Portland because of its active art scene and quality of life.
“Art has always been a place for me to really release and let go and be my true self,” she said. “It’s also a challenge and intellectually fulfilling for me.”
As she continued her education and her cancer treatments, Kayley came to realize that sharing her cancer experience openly through art “became empowering and really radicalized that experience.”
In her work space at PSU, she began sculpting pieces inspired by organs, using surgical tubing and other clinical tools to make her art.
“It was kind of a process of really opening up and owning that. That’s what a lot of my art is influenced by,” she said. “It’s also healing for me.”
Over these past 5 years, Kayley Berezney has at least one piece of advice for others: Advocate for yourself.
“You really have to know your body. You know when something’s not right and it can be tricky having a doctor say, ‘No, you’re fine,’ and you’re, like, ‘Well, I’m really not.'”
There’s not a lot of awareness around metastatic cancer, especially for younger people, she said. From the time she felt the lump in her right breast until her diagnosis was about 2 years.
Her diagnosis changed her perspective and propelled her to get the masters degree she had only been thinking about before. It “really changed my perspective of time.”
“I just think it’s important to find ways to make yourself happy, and this is what makes me happy,” she said. “Life is short, even for any lifespan.”
Kayley continues to undergo treatment, including a now-FDA approved experimential drug and she said she’s doing well.
“Scientists are working on this stuff. There’s new studies out pretty regularly,” she said. “I’m optimistic about it.”