Katie Joy Duke’s Journey with Loss, Survivorship, and Support

October 5, 2023

She has *SO* much to say. Ahead of this year’s Surviving with Style Fashion Show and Gala, I (Cancer Pathways’ Shayla Ring) met with one of this year’s models, author-speaker-writer Katie Joy Duke. Surviving cancer wasn’t Katie’s first life-altering experience, years earlier she and her husband’s first daughter was stillborn. Building on tools and insight learned from navigating the loss of her first daughter, Katie offers wisdom to others going through cancer, her experience with Camp Sparkle, and what she’s looking forward to about modeling in our Gala.

How did you first get involved with Cancer Pathways? 

I was referred to Cancer Pathways through my social worker at Swedish Edmonds. Moxie, my daughter, was four when I was diagnosed and I’m sure as you can imagine that was incredibly overwhelming just the thought of going through cancer treatment was such a little young one. So I got all the resources that I could possibly get my hands on, and my social worker referred us. 

Then in terms of getting involved Moxie’s experience at Camp Sparkle was actually the first event experience that we had with Cancer Pathways specifically.

We loved meeting you and your daughter Moxie through Camp Sparkle. Can you tell me a bit about the impact Camp had on you and Moxie?

Moxie absolutely loved her time at Camp Sparkle. She had such an incredible time and I feel like Camp Sparkle was really empowering for her to be with other children who either had cancer themselves or whose parents had cancer. It really helped normalize the experience for her and I feel like it was an opportunity for her to feel like she really belonged as opposed to being this odd kid out whose mom was sick. She got to meet other kids who are sick or whose [parents] are sick. 

She was able to articulate clearly that [my cancer] was not her fault, that she had nothing to do with it, that she can live a happy, full, energetic life outside of my diagnosis. That cancer doesn’t define her or me. 

I remember really feeling like my daughter had a place to go to process. We’re such an open family, I mean we didn’t keep a single thing from her [about my cancer] … but Camp Sparkle was such a great place to be. 

I knew that she was in the hands of really well-educated people who were going to talk to her about what she was going through, and what I was going through, from a trauma-informed place. It was comforting. Michelle was awesome, Morgan was awesome, all those little [therapy] doggies … I got such a kick out of it. I loved the whole experience. I loved going into Capitol Hill and picking her up, and I feel so connected to this community. 

I feel like we belong, it’s really been an amazing thing to be a part of a community that unfortunately affects so many of us, but I feel really special. 

What led you to deciding to model in this year’s Surviving with Style Gala and what does being a model mean to you?

I am a beacon of hope, that’s just who I am. I know these things have happened to me and I just keep alchemizing and turning [them] into something beautiful. 

I want other people to know that they’re not alone, and by being a model it’s like, ‘Hey, here I am, I went through this too and I survived this too. I’ve had a body part amputated. I’ve lost all my hair and I’ve gained 20 pounds.’ All these things that I’ve had to go through and I’m just as valuable, and just as worthy, and just as beautiful as I’ve ever been, if not more, because of what I’ve been through. My inner sense of worth and value is so grounded now. I don’t struggle with the same limiting beliefs that I might have before because I don’t have time. Life is precious and I’m really present to that. 

I love how the light is like streaming through the window right now. I get to appreciate every moment in a new way. When I hug and kiss and cuddle on my dog, and my daughter, and my husband. When I see a friend I haven’t seen for a long time. When I get to hug another person When the light comes in and hits me and it’s warm … I’ve got a new lease on life. 

I don’t think that we need to go through these Earth-shattering experiences in order to have gratitude, we can be healthy and well and grateful for that. We don’t need to have horrible things happen to us in order to have this mindset. I mean, I have had horrible things happen to us. But because of them I’ve chosen to be more open. I am more vulnerable. The more honest about what I go through, the more it gives other people permission to be honest and vulnerable and open.

So being a model was an opportunity for me to flaunt my stuff on the runway and also hopefully make an impact, you know, help make a difference. Plus I love clothes and I love music. I modeled in the Northwest Hope and Healing Breast Cancer Fundraiser [last year] and then this year I got to emcee the fashion show which was so fun. So it made perfect sense to me to sign up when I heard about this gala. 

As a cancer survivor, what are some insights and wisdom that you can share with others about your journey?

First and foremost asking or and being willing to receive the help that’s out there. Whether that’s in your immediate community, or whether that’s from a nonprofit organization, or whether that’s from your social workers at the hospital. 

I learned a lot of this the first time through the death of my daughter who passed away, she was stillborn at full term, so my cancer diagnosis was like an opportunity for me to reapply what I had already learned. Other people really do want to help and you can never be a burden. You’re never, ever, a burden. I know that so many people stay hidden for that very reason. They feel like they’re a burden; they feel like they’re not worthy of the help; they feel like they have to do it all on their own, that they can just hide and they’ll just get through this.

I would just hope that more cancer patients could know their worth and know their value and know that their lives are precious and that people want to help see them through and that they never, ever, have to do this alone.

The other thing I would say is … I learned how to set boundaries for myself. For anyone that’s diagnosed with cancer, if something feels toxic get it out. You do not need it. You do not need to please anyone, this is 100% your time to drop everything and save your own life.

Put yourself first. This is your time to say, ‘Y’all can have cereal for dinner cuz I have to go take another nap and I have to heal.’ Like, I’ve got poison pumping through my veins right now. You have to heal, you have to go take care of yourself. Again, when you ask for help, and you let all those people cook your family lasagna for 6 months, just receive the help. Humble yourself enough to say this is not your time to do it all. 

This is not the time to figure it out, this is not the time to get strong and pull up your bootstraps. That’s an antiquated way of thinking, that, ‘I’m just going to shut the curtains and deal with this and wear a wig and hopefully no one will know what’s going on.’ I’m like ‘Forget it.’ I’m walking out with my bald head for everyone to see. I need people to know what I’m going through so that I don’t feel alone. 

If I can help one person [say], ‘Oh, she accepted every single offer for help, that means I can accept them too,’ then then I’ve done my job right. I have made a difference. 

And I get it. There are situations where people [say], ‘My insurance is the one that’s getting me to the hospital so I have to keep working.’ Okay, cool, but what can you do? Can you talk to your human resources department? Can you be really vulnerable with your boss? Can you say, ‘Look, this is what I’m capable of,’ or, ‘I need to work four days from home,’ or, ‘I need to work at night instead of during the day.’ Being willing to ask for what you need is so important. 

What are you looking forward to most about this year’s Gala?

I can’t wait to see what I get to wear! I can’t wait to meet the other survivors and to walk that stage with them. I look forward to meeting all of the supporters of this organization. I just have so much to say, I have so much to say. I am ready, I am well, and I am cancer free.

We are just weeks away from Surviving with Style, our biggest event of the year. Register now and join us on October 21st for an unforgettable night celebrating cancer survivors in our community. 

Katie Joy Duke is an author, writer, mindset coach for women and mothers, and speaker. She is a stillbirth and stage IV breast cancer survivor. Her memoir Still Breathing: My Journey with Love, Loss, and Reinvention was a #1 Amazon best seller and is available in paperback, ebook, and on Audible. Learn more on her website www.katiejoyduke.com