The daily chaos of a high school band room, with its crashing cymbals and thundering drums, might seem like a sure-fire migraine trigger to most of us, but to Kristen Torres, it is peace, order and comfort.
Her life has chaos coming from another direction, and the band room, with all its cacophony, is its antithesis.
Torres, the Golden Valley band director, is on her third go-round with cancer.
This time, it’s stage 4 metastatic breast cancer.
One Tuesday morning, her advanced band, mainly consisting of juniors and seniors, was rehearsing for its holiday concert scheduled later that week. All seems to be calm and bright as her band performs "Silent Night," but suddenly the 30-year-old has a look on her face, and the musicians know exactly what it means.
"Come on, guys," Torres said, after brass instruments failed to reach the big dynamics they had been practicing for weeks. "Just hit it immediately."
She repeats the passage, and this time they nail it. One can't help but notice her wide smile and the way her eyes light up when her students get through difficult measures without a problem.
As the group reaches the end of the gentle carol, she closes her eyes, moves her arms delicately and savors the moment. It's as if she's taking it in one last time.
In the six-year band director's case, each one of these musical moments mean more each day. It's been a tough five years to say the least — countless surgeries and close calls — but hearing her students share the same passion she has has given her a sense of hope.
‘THIS FEELING OF INVINCIBILITY’
"I’m proud to be a band nerd," she'll say to anyone she meets. Torres played all throughout elementary, junior high and high school and was selected to be a drum major for East Bakersfield High School her senior year. She majored in music education at Cal State Bakersfield and student-taught at Ridgeview High School.
As luck would have it, there was an opening at Golden Valley High School for a band director in 2014. The school was coming off of three directors in three years, so Principal Paul Helman needed someone who could bring stability into the program.
"I will be here, I will grow this program," Helman remembers Torres saying during their interview, and she's ran with it. "She doesn’t dwell on obstacles too long, she finds a way around or through them."
When Torres accepted the position, life pretty much fell into place. To this day, it's evident that there is no other place she'd rather be than that podium, and though she "drives them crazy," her students are grateful for her.
"I look up to her a lot," said Issack Duran, a baritone and tuba player. "I wouldn’t be able to make it through this year emotionally or physically without her because of all the work and help she’s given to me."
Her dedication shows. Tables and shelves full of trophies fill the band room, showing off all of the accomplishments her current and former students have achieved these past six years.
"There’s no better high than standing in front of a group of kids who are not good at something in the beginning of the period and when you can get them to get good at the end of the period, it’s amazing," Torres said. "You have this baton in your hand, and you have this feeling of invincibility."
A LIFE-CHANGING YEAR
In 2015, Torres, 25 at the time, experienced her first big feeling of loss when her younger brother, Ty, died.
Two months later, one week changed her life forever.
She went in for an annual checkup on a Monday, and her doctor felt a lump.
"I didn’t even register it. No 25-year-old is going to think, 'I have breast cancer,'" she said.
The next day she had an ultrasound that looked a bit abnormal. That Wednesday she had a biopsy, Thursday she received a call telling her she needed to see an oncologist and Friday she learned she had early stage 2 breast cancer. It was "almost like you’re watching it from above happen to someone else," she said of that moment.
Her mother, Rawlyn Campas, decided early on to be strong and encourage her daughter throughout the journey.
While Torres received treatment, Campas remembers she'd smile for her daughter, but would go to the bathroom to cry. "I’d wash my face, fix my hair, go out there and say, 'Let’s do this, honey, let’s get it done.'"
Doctors recommended they perform a surgery almost immediately, but she just couldn't do it.
"That would have meant them having another director leave them," Torres explained. "They had all these (directors) come and go, and I didn’t want to be another one."
Torres finished off the remainder of the school year with six rounds of chemotherapy and 33 rounds of radiation, and in July 2015 had a double mastectomy. By that point, her cancer had progressed to stage 3 and spread to her lymph nodes.
To say there's no stopping Torres — or that she's stubborn — is an understatement. Four days after her surgery, her mother heard her bouncing a basketball in her backyard court. After 28 days, she was at summer band camp.
"I wanted to do it and show them that even when (expletive) sucks or you get dealt a (expletive) hand, you can still live," she said.
Torres was in remission and continued going to monthly checkups. Then came more tough news.
A MOTHER TO ALL
A year and a half later, cancer returned and it started metastasizing to her bones. Torres underwent an additional 20 rounds of radiation, which were done on her schedule so she could be there for band rehearsals, football games, competitions and concerts, but it took a toll on her.
"Every day that I went, the weaker and weaker I got. You go in there for a few minutes and you come out and feel like you ran half a marathon," she explained. "I’m 30 years old and I feel like I’m living in a 70-year-old's body."
Torres has tried to put on a brave face for her loved ones, who have been with her every step of the way, but she's experienced anger, hurt and loneliness on the inside.
Her second diagnosis also came with devastating news: her cancer was 95 percent estrogen based and she would need a hysterectomy, eliminating the possibility of becoming pregnant and having a child. It was the most difficult choice the 29-year-old had to make in her life because she always wanted to have children, but necessary to stay alive.
It was during this time that a small, but in charge, dachshund, Linkin, came into her life. Torres felt an immediate connection to him when she first laid eyes on him, and today he is her child, along with being an emotional support animal. He is seen strutting around Golden Valley with Torres almost every day, and even when she gets emotional discussing her cancer journey, one hug and kiss from him can make it better.
She even refers to her students as "my kids."
"Ms. Torres could have easily said, 'I can’t go to school today,' but she gets up every day, brings Linkin and teaches us and other periods," trumpet section leader Noah Simpkins said. "She just shows that no matter what is going on in your life, you come in this room and start making music and everything else in the world disappears."
After her surgery, there was no evidence of disease.
Unfortunately, the good news didn't stay, and for a third time she was diagnosed, this time with stage 4 metastatic breast cancer.
Two loves have kept her going throughout her journey: family and music.
She's lucky to have three parents — father Jerome Torres, stepfather Paul Campas and her mother — in her life. They've seen the good and bad times, and without them Torres wouldn't have been able to get through it all, she said.
It's been an indescribable five years for them. The time they have together is more sweet and precious nowadays, especially during the holidays, said Paul and Rawlyn Campas. Even a lazy day at home can be paradise.
Jerome Torres doesn't know where his daughter finds all the strength to give a thumbs-up and smile, but there's no denying she's his "little hero."
"I think when people get bad news with their health, that takes them down immediately," he said. "You have to have a drive and reason to live, and I think that’s keeping her going and she continues to do it."
For her, that's music. Torres could have stopped teaching when she was first diagnosed, but feeling the way she does when she gets in front of her students was impossible to walk away from, even during her worst moments. For the first time ever this year, she had to miss a band competition because she had an emergency surgery. She tried to convince doctors to let her go, but they wouldn't budge and it was devastating.
She's not one to listen if someone tells her to stay home or take a day off — Helman can concur — but she just wants to show others out there that life doesn't have to stop when cancer comes in the picture.
"If I can help one person who's newly diagnosed or is going through what I'm going through and make them feel not alone and know there’s someone else out there who is trying to survive like they are, I want to do that," she said.
Torres knows cancer will be with her through the remainder of her life, but with the care, love and support she's receiving, she feels like she has a shot of living past 40. What this next decade will bring is a mystery, but there's one thing she knows for sure: "Even though I’m sick and even though I don’t know how long I'm going to be here, I just want to teach."
Immediately after finishing her interview with a reporter, she walked into the band room, greeted another group of students and did just that.