Kristen Berset was on a high, recounting the highlights of her Nashville bachelorette weekend to her fiance. But as they climbed into bed and he brushed against her, she felt a sharp pain. Rubbing the skin beside her left breast, her fingers touched a hard ball.
Again. Just where she’d found one the first time.
“Seriously?” she thought. And then, “There’s no way.”
But it was true. The cancer had come back.
Once again, despite her best efforts to beat the disease, the 35-year-old WUSA 9 sports anchor was staring at an uncertain future.
Nine years ago, Berset was 26 and just starting her career as a sports reporter in Panama City, Fla., when she found a small lump in her breast while doing a self-exam. Consulting a doctor at the urging of a colleague who covered health issues, she was told that it was a cyst and was advised to stop drinking so much coffee.
Six months later, the lump had doubled in size. Her doctor wanted to remove it but didn’t convey any urgency, so Berset decided to wait. She was busy packing up her Florida life. She’d just gotten her big break — a sports reporting job in Baltimore, a top 30 media market.
Berset, a former Miss Florida USA, threw herself into the job, taking every possible assignment. But her mother kept nagging her about the cyst. So in June 2009, she went in for a consultation with a surgeon. She expected the appointment to last an hour, maybe two. But the doctor kept ordering more tests — two biopsies, an MRI, a mammogram.
Berset was at work the next day when the doctor called to tell her that she had breast cancer. It was early stage, but she needed to deal with it right away. “That’s when I called my parents,” she recalls. “I said: ‘I have cancer. But that’s all I know. I don’t know what else to tell you.’ ”
There was no significant family history of breast cancer, and Berset didn’t test positive for the hereditary gene. Still, she opted for a bilateral mastectomy and reconstructive surgery to reduce the chance of a recurrence.
The challenging part was that she didn’t know anyone who had been through anything similar at such a young age. “I’m single, never been married, want to have kids, starting my career. What do I do?” she recalls thinking.
But the upside of youth was that she was busy and bullheaded, taking little more than a week off from work after surgery. Her mother stayed with her for a month, doing her hair before she went on the air because she couldn’t lift her arms. “In hindsight, I probably should have taken time off,” she says. “But I was 27. I was like: ‘I can bounce back. No problem.’ ”
And she did, reporting through the hot flashes caused by hormone therapy as her career flourished. In February 2011 Berset moved to Washington and joined the WUSA sports desk. Many of her off hours were spent raising money for organizations supporting people with cancer.
It was at a cancer fundraiser that she connected with fellow sports reporter Brent Harris. Not because there was a spark, but because he caught the onstage marriage proposal of Berset’s then-boyfriend on video. Harris got her phone number to text her the footage and left it at that.
Until the next year, when he texted to see whether she’d be attending the fundraising event again. No, she explained, she and the boyfriend had called off the wedding, and it “might feel a little weird.”
Soon they were texting and talking frequently, even if their various March Madness schedules prevented them from meeting in person for a month. Once they had their first date, “it was just kind of easy and seamless from there,” she says.
After a year and a half of dating, Berset and Harris got engaged on Christmas Day 2015. They planned to wed on Dec. 30, 2016, so that they’d share an anniversary with her long-married parents.
It was less than two months before the wedding that Berset felt the second lump. “I’m just trying to tell myself that this can’t be really happening,” she says. “You really don’t know how to feel.” When she had it checked out, it was deja vu. The doctors asked her to stay for more tests, more tests.
Two days later, she was in Florida with her mom, getting ready to go to a fitting for her wedding dress, when she got the call confirming that it was cancer. “We kind of cried a little bit,” she says. “We were both, I think, angry. Like, ‘How is this happening?’ We did this really massive surgery before so we didn’t have to worry about it again.”
It was probably just a few cells that weren’t removed, her doctor told her. They were in the subcutaneous fat tissue and suppressed during the five years of hormone therapy but started growing once that ended. Berset wanted the tumor removed right away, but her surgeon persuaded her to wait until after the wedding.
Only their families, including Harris’s two young daughters from a previous marriage, and bridal parties were told about the recurrence before the Florida ceremony. No one seemed to notice that Berset and Harris choked up a little more than the average couple during the “in sickness and health” portion of the vows. The day, Berset says, “was so perfect.”
But when it was over, it was time to get to work. The surgery was scheduled for Jan. 19, and in an emotional segment on Jan. 16, Berset told viewers that she would be taking a leave of absence.
Like the first one, this tumor is Stage 1, and Berset has a great prognosis, but she will probably require six weeks of radiation therapy and possibly chemo. And it comes just when she and Harris were talking about having a baby. “So that’s also something else I have to think about,” she says. “We have to consider all of our options.”
Now a few weeks out from surgery, Berset says that the hardest part was telling everyone — friends, family, viewers — that she had cancer again. But the greatest salve has been the reaction she has received.
“Immediately I was just flooded with emails and Facebook messages from viewers,” she says. “It’s been an outpouring.”
It’s tough knowing that she might miss spring training and March Madness, but this time, she says, she has come to understand that it “takes a stronger person to realize you’ve got to take care of yourself.”