Beating Cancer and Filling Stockings

How Angela Holtgraves is Using Her Cancer Experience to Lift Spirits at Christmas Time


Angela Holtgraves

Angela Holtgraves smiles with a nurse after undergoing her third round of chemotherapy.

Caché Goracke, Editor and Chief

Breast Cancer took her grandmother. That was the reason her father became a diagnostic radiologist, as well as the reason she went to get a mammogram the moment she felt something was off. After several hours of waiting for the mammogram’s results, the nurse came in and told her she had to go home. That’s when Angela Holtgraves knew she was sick. 

Holtgraves is a Center Based Resource teacher at West, a wife and mother of two, and a five-year breast cancer survivor. Since beating cancer, she has led a project dedicated to filling hundreds of Christmas stockings for children with cancer, and in addition, is currently writing a children’s book for children whose parents are battling cancer. 

Her journey began on June 13, 2014, the day the doctors discovered the cancer. After the mammogram, she drove home alone to find her dad sitting on the couch in her family room. 

In my 28 years, he had never left the hospital early except that day. And sitting there in the family room, he says to me, ‘You’re going to beat this.’ ”

— Angela Holtgraves

“In my 28 years, he had never left the hospital early except that day,” Holtgraves said. “And sitting there in the family room, he says to me, ‘You’re going to beat this.’” 

While coming from a family with a history of breast cancer, Holtgraves also comes from a family with a history of something a bit more fortunate. She has eight doctors in her family. 

“It’s bad when the idiot of the family has a masters and a half,” Holtgraves said. “My uncle’s best friend was Edith Perez, the leading breast cancer researcher in the world. So, great chick to have on your side.”  

Almost immediately, her results were sent to Perez, and a report was promptly given back to her. At 28, she was diagnosed with stage 2C breast cancer and a month later had a full bilateral mastectomy. She proceeded to go through eight rounds of chemotherapy and 32 rounds of radiation.  

Her diagnosis came while she and her husband were just getting ready to celebrate their fourth wedding anniversary. With a 14-month-old and a three-year-old at home, Holtgraves strove to find a way to explain this terrible disease to two young children. There were children’s books out there with the purpose of explaining to a child that mommy has cancer, but none of them seemed to fit for Holtgraves and her family. 

Holtgraves’s husband helps their three year old son cut her hair in preparation for chemotherapy.

“When I got sick the only books out there were about mommy losing her hair,” Holtgraves said. “But there’s way more than just hair loss. When the kids hear that mommy’s going to chemotherapy, they don’t understand that, because they can’t go into the rooms.”

It was this realization that led Holtgraves to begin working on a children’s book of her own. The book intends to explain, not only hair loss, but what cancer is and how chemotherapy can help.

“It explains cancer using the terms of superheroes,” Holtgraves said. “Chemo is the ultimate superhero fighting cancer, and mommy losing her hair is like the city being destroyed when the good guys and the bad guys fight.”

The idea for the children’s book came from Holtgraves deeper desire to find something positive out of this whole experience. She recalls one particular day when she shared this desire with her husband. 

“I told my husband, ‘This is a horrible disease.’” Holtgraves said. “But I said, ‘When we beat this, we’re going to find something positive to come out of this. I don’t know when and I don’t know how, but we’re going to find something.’”

Holtgraves’s family gathers together to support her by helping cut her hair.

A few years later, Holtgraves was teaching at a school in Shawnee Mission, when she had a childhood Leukemia survivor in her class. Her students, while keeping this student in mind, and while noticing the pictures of her from her breast-cancer-days that sat on her desk, decided they wanted to do something to give back to the cancer patients and survivors in their community. And from this came the stocking project. 

Because pediatric cancer – cancer in children ages 2-19 – gets significantly less money donated to it each year than breast cancer, Holtgraves and her students decided to support these golden-ribbon-kids. 

Big-name companies like Sephora, Charlie Hustle, Sporting KC, Russel Stover, The Royals, and many more, loved the idea of supporting golden ribbon cancer patients and donated make-up, toys, chocolate, and much more to Holtgraves and her students. When all these things were collected, a Christmas party was held to stuff the stockings that would eventually be delivered to Children’s Mercy right before Christmas. Holtgraves still continues this project here at Olathe West with her advisory’s Give a Hoot. 

“Again, it was simply finding something positive out of this ugly disease,” Holtgraves said. 

Since Dec. 4, 2014, Holtgraves has been completely cancer-free. And while she enjoys talking about her story, it wasn’t always easy for her. 

Holtgraves family took pictures to celebrate being declared five years NED (No Evidence of Disease).

“It wasn’t an embarrassment to talk about, but it was hard,” Holtgraves said. “The more I talked about it, it would bring up memories.”

She went on to explain that everyone handles it differently, and no one way is more correct than the other. 

“Some people buy everything that has the pink ribbon,” Holtgraves said. “I was the one who actually hated the pink ribbon. Actually, for several years I would have anxiety attacks if I saw too many of them just because it brought up too many memories.”

Holtgraves now sees the past as a platform to reach others. She wants women to know their signs, and young women to know that it can happen at any age and there is no shame. 

When asked what she would say to someone recently diagnosed with breast cancer, she gave these final words. 

“It’s not the end,” Holtgraves said. “You’re going to be able to look back in a few years and think ‘That was a really hard fight. That was a lot that I just went through, but I did it.’ You realize your strength. You realize the community around you. There will be days you’re going to cry and there are going to be days you don’t want to talk to anybody, and that’s OK. It’s your journey, and you’re in control of that.”