Aimee Krzykowski, a police officer and canine handler with the Berlin Police Department in Connecticut, has served her community for nearly 18 years in roles such as D.A.R.E. officer, honor guard, detective, field training officer, community service officer and canine handler, her personal favorite. Through all of Krzykowski’s life events, there has also been one constant: beloved dogs. She added that she cannot imagine a life without a wet nose and wagging tail in her day.
“I have been blessed to hold the leash for two amazing K9 partners: my first, K9 Titan, who served beside me for nine years, and my current canine partner, K9 Casner. I enjoy the opportunities that my job gives me to serve my community, but even more how I get to interact with the citizens in my town,” Krzykowski said. “In addition to being a police officer, I am a wife, dog mom, daughter and sister in pink to my fellow breast cancer survivors. I have been diagnosed with breast cancer twice, both times winning the fight! I use my face in the public to advocate for breast cancer awareness, raising money for charities and speaking about my journey.”
Krzykowski’s childhood was a happy one, but also filled with conversations about cancer. She, along with her five siblings, were raised in the quiet town of Blandford, Mass. Unfortunately, cancer runs in her family. Her grandmother passed before she was born from breast cancer, and her twin aunts Paulette and Denise both battled the disease, with Denise passing away when Krzykowski was just 13. Krzykowski’s mother, Lucille, was diagnosed with breast cancer when Krzykowski was young and continued to battle the disease several times, until it metastasized to her lungs and throughout her body. For Krzykowski, growing up and talking and learning about breast cancer was a part of “normal” family conversation.
Krzykowski credited her primary care doctor for taking the initiative during a routine physical when she was just 30 years old. She described a swollen lymph node in her arm pit, thinking it was related to a cold or something minor. Her doctor, aware of her history, sent her to get an ultrasound and ordered a mammogram. She initially was going to cancel the appointment because she felt fine and did not have lumps, but for some reason kept the appointment.
It was at that appointment dark spots were revealed in the mammogram. The original cancer diagnosis was DCIS, which is ductial carcinoma in situ.
“DCIS are breast cancer cells that are contained in the milk ducts,” explained Dr. Diana James, section chief for breast imaging at Jefferson Radiology and Hartford Hospital. “You do not need to be lactating. All breasts have ducts. It’s considered stage zero and the earliest form of breast cancer. This is very common and can be detected via a mammogram. 3D mammography is more efficient and able to detect more invasive cancers—on average 40 percent more. This is the best technology for all women and is now covered by insurance as part of your preventative care.”
DCIS is the most commonly detected form of breast cancer, and that’s why early detection is key to saving lives and reduced treatments.
At this point, Krzykowski had been an officer with the Berlin Police Department for eight years and a K9 handler with her first K9 partner, Titan, a patrol-trained K9 who came from Hungary, for four years. They worked together, played together and even competed in the Connecticut K9 Olympics several times.
“I was floored at the diagnosis. I never expected my biopsies to be malignant,” Krzykowski spoke about how the cancer diagnosis was a complete shock. She and Titan were off-duty and on their way to meet friends for a night out when she got a call to stop at the cancer center office immediately.
“You have cancer and I recommend a double mastectomy,” she was told by the doctor. His demeanor was abrupt and cold, and his approach clinical. Krzykowski decided to assemble her “dream team” of medical professionals, who continue to take care of her to this day. Lucille, Krzykowski’s mother, who was in remission, helped her as they wanted to schedule the double mastectomy surgery immediately. Her sergeant, the chief and the entire department were amazingly supportive.
The first battle included a double mastectomy with no chemotherapy or radiation as they were able to take out the tissue and cancer-affected areas. She was in the positive margin. She was lucky because it didn’t spread to her lymph nodes.
“All in all, I was out of work for a total of 12 weeks,” said Krzykowski. “I used my time out of work to get myself physically and mentally ready to return to my job. Titan was by my side; we did this journey together. He was the reason I got out of bed. K9 Titan became the most amazing caregiver. He was so gentle with me; at the end of the day, Titan was there, lying beside me, reassuring me it would all be alright.”
Soon Officer Krzykowski and K9 Titan were back to work in the city of Berlin. Career-wise, she felt her path was direct and certain. Personally, it was a different story.
“Being 30, not married, with the dramatic physically altering surgeries, it removed the image I had of myself as a woman,” Krzykowski explained. “I didn’t know how my life would go. I didn’t know if I would get married or have children or how to even date someone, let alone if I met someone I cared about. How would I tell him about my physical appearance? Would he care? Would I be ashamed? Would I even take the chance?”
“People may say, it’s just a dog, but I can tell you that dog is why I got through one of the most traumatic, at the time, experiences in my life,” Krzykowski said about the bond she had with Titan growing stronger.
After she was diagnosed during her first battle, she became a voice for those who would listen. She was young and decided to use social media and speaking engagements to speak to women about the importance of taking care of themselves and advocating for themselves.
Krzykowski remained cancer free for six years. During that time, she added another K9 to her family in 2017, K9 Casner from the Czech Republic, as Titan was scheduled to retire. A new journey was embarking for the three of them.
Then Krzykowski’s mother’s cancer returned and metastasized; it was deemed terminal. Krzykowski’s father, Charlie, became her mother’s primary caregiver. Titan became her mother’s support dog too.
During the final months of her mother’s valiant battle against cancer, Krzykowski was diagnosed again with breast cancer in 2018. This time it was a lump, even though the double mastectomy was supposed to have removed the breast tissue that could lead to breast cancer. This is quite uncommon. Her team of doctors, nurses and Krzykowski were in shock. A decision was made not to tell her mother. She wanted her mom to pass peacefully and surrounded by love. Her mother passed April of 2019 as Krzykowski’s treatments were completed.
She underwent a lumpectomy, chemotherapy and radiation. Her family, community and police department once again had her back as did Titan and Casner. Her department started the KRZY Strong Movement to help support her through another battle, through social media platforms, town events, and local and national media stories. The Connecticut K9 Olympics opted to change the T-shirts for all competitors to “Pink for Aimee!”
“And there was the big man, Titan, always by my side. And now I had Casner to help me through. He surprised me with how gentle and calm he was—being he was young and a high-drive German shepherd,” Krzykowski remembered. “On the days I felt well enough, I took the pups hiking. To me, being outside is my happy place. We, the mighty three, spent every moment outside we could.”
This time the toll of treatments and surgeries totaled six months out of work. Her first battle took her breasts and had her questioning her womanhood. Just as she was conquering those feelings, this time cancer took Krzykowski’s hair.
When chemo treatments and 35 rounds of radiation finished in the spring of 2019, she was given the OK to go back to work. She assumed that she missed her chance at happiness as a “couple” but decided that the three main men in her life would be Titan, Casner and her dad, Charlie. In addition to being an advocate for women and cancer awareness, a K9 officer and craftswoman, Krzykowski is a photographer with her own business, which has grown since 2014 from family photographer to pet and holiday-inspired sessions.
During the next few months, she was afraid another shoe would drop. “But I couldn’t—you can’t live like that, another cancer diagnosis, a loss of a family member, you can’t live like that. I can’t live like that. You have to live every day to the fullest,” said Krzykowski.
This self-sufficient attitude was instilled by her parents. Her mother would often quote, “if you want it done right, do it yourself.” Combined with Krzykowski’s father’s work ethic, she felt those qualities made her stronger, especially with the help of Titan and Casner.
“Yes, they are working dogs, not your typical at home pet or service dog, but they adapted to me,” Krzykowski stated. “I adapted to them, and we were united as a family.”
In the summer of 2019, she met her future husband, Greg, who works in federal law enforcement.
But cancer was not through with Krzykowski and her family. In the fall of 2020, K9 Titan was diagnosed with mouth cancer. Krzykowski and Greg fought that battle hard with support from the community; Titan was and still is a local hero. She was able to bring him back to his favorite place at work and spoiled him with Jeep rides, ice cream and love. Greg was in charge of the Dunkin munchkins every morning.
“How do you say thank you to your best buddy, your co-pilot who gave everything to you in your time of need? You honor him the same way,” Krzykowski asked. Greg, Krzykowski and Casner said goodbye to Titan in December of 2020. He was lovingly remembered at their wedding ceremony in September of 2021.
The two added to their family in January of 2021 with a little pittie rescue named Abby, who rules her “precinct at home” over Casner.
Due to Krzykowski’s family history of cancer, a genetic test was recommended. She tested positive for the BRCA gene.
“There are two types: BRCA 1 and BRCA 2. The difference is BRCA 1 is the highest genetic risk for breast cancer with a risk between 55 percent and 72 percent, typically affecting younger people. If you carry the BRCA 1 gene, breast screening is recommended at a younger age. A person without the gene has an average risk of less than 13 percent. Those with the BRCA 2 gene have a much-increased risk of breast cancer than the general population and will generally develop breast cancer later in life and will require additional screening tests,” explained Dr. James.
All women should be talking to their healthcare providers about screenings, family history and scheduling their mammograms. Women are more at risk for breast cancer, but men can be diagnosed too.
“As a male, you can carry the BRCA gene,” Dr. James added. “In addition, there are other vulnerable populations including transgender and those transitioning from male to female taking high doses of estrogen and progesterone have been documented at increased risk of breast cancer. This means you should be speaking with your healthcare providers and scheduling important screenings and tests.”
For Krzykowski, a hysterectomy was highly recommended to prevent future ovarian cancer. This was not a decision she took lightly and consulted with her physicians. Krzykowski recently underwent the procedure, recuperating at home with Casner and Abby by her side and Greg taking care of all three.
“If I could once again be a voice for anyone, please live your life, but don’t let your guard down: pay attention to your body. You know it better than any expert. If you have a dream team like I had, you will get through it,” Krzykowski concluded. “I have always been able to take my cards and handle them; that’s not to say I don’t get frustrated. Sometimes life can be so cruel, but it can also be so generous.”
Krzykowski’s story is about survival, determination, spirit, the bond of mother and daughter, the healing love our beloved pets can provide, and that everyone is worthy of love and happiness. We can learn a lesson from her journey: we are worthy, we matter, and we need to take care of ourselves so that others may enjoy the light we bring to this world.
Renee DiNino is an iHeartMedia radio and TV host, blogger, podcaster and public speaker. Connect on Facebook @ReneeDiNinoCT, Instagram @reneedinino and Twitter @MyCTcommunity.