Karen's story - Personal stories • Breast Cancer Foundation NZ

Karen's story

Karen, who is 39 years old and lives in Napier, is doing the Wellington Pink Ribbon Walk after she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2017.

My name is Karen and I am walking for myself. I was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer in 2017. I was only 36 years old!

In November 2016, I found a lump in my breast. I shrugged it off as there was no history of breast cancer in my family. But to be sure, I went to my GP to get checked out just in case. They did a breast exam and said to me that the lump was probably hormone related as there was no family history of breast cancer.

In January 2017, I woke up in searing pain. I couldn't get comfortable and ended up taking some tramadol that I had in the house from a previous surgery. It dulled the pain but didn't eliminate it completely. I rung Health Line to make sure I shouldn't go to the Emergency Department and they said to wait until the morning and make an appointment with my GP. My GP was away, so I had a locum GP who immediately organised an appointment for a mammogram and an ultrasound for the following week.

The following week I attended my appointment for the mammogram and ultrasound. While having the ultrasound done, they said that they could see two lumps and wanted to take a biopsy. I said sure, still not thinking that this could be anything. Well, after eight biopsies, I was in so much pain but still in denial that this could be anything serious.

Two weeks later (as our local doctors had organised strike action and I couldn't get my results before then) I was back at my GP's office awaiting my results. My GP was still away so another GP saw me. He asked what he could help with and I said “I am in for my results from my mammogram, ultrasound and biopsy”. He turned around and said “You have an appointment with the breast surgeon next Monday”. This was on Thursday. I asked why and he said “You have breast cancer”. I was like a stunned deer in headlights. He then realised that I didn't know and he had delivered the verdict in an offhanded way.

My world fell apart after my diagnosis.

From that moment on, it was a whirlwind of appointments with my surgeon, nurses, fertility specialist, numerous blood tests and psychologists.

My surgery was scheduled for the 14th February 2017. I went in for a bilateral mastectomy. On the plus side, I woke up to a lovely smelling room full of flowers and some very relieved people - my partner, my mum and dad and my two children. However, when the bandages came off and I looked for the first time at my body, I cried! I said to my partner that I looked like Frankenstein's Wife and he should leave me for someone prettier than me. Fortunately, he didn't leave me and I am now proud to say he is my husband.

After healing from surgery, I did months of chemotherapy. My hair fell out after five days from my first dosage which was devastating. I also lost my eyebrows, eyelashes, and all other hair on my body (which to be honest, some of it was not bad!).

Not much of a break from finishing chemotherapy and it was down to Palmerston North to do radiation. Weeks of radiation was endured. My last few sessions were cancelled as my skin was black and incredibly painful. The lovely radiologist said she could not do anymore damage to my skin and took pity on me. The staff at Ozanam House were incredibly friendly and understanding on my various moods - and let's be honest, I was pretty moody at times...

Back in Hawke’s Bay and under the care of the public health nurses, and I remember one of the district nurses saying "This is the worst radiation burns I have ever seen!" This did not boost my confidence in my already low morale of myself.

I have healed as best I could from the radiation but my skin will never be the same again. On the plus side, I am still here on this earth to tell my story.

I started monthly hormone injections in September 2017 along with a daily hormone tablet.

I have since had three more corrective surgeries to give me some 'breasts' back and to try and make them look 'normal' - though normal they will not be ever again.

I had my last surgery a few months ago and that was to get some nipples back. They look better than I expected and it just makes me feel semi-women again (not so Frankenstein-like).

My family and friends kept me going in the dark days with their ability to make me laugh and their unending support of my journey. For that I will be forever grateful!

I am now more comfortable with what my new body looks like and I wake up every day with a new appreciation of life. I do not get so stressed with the little things. I fully intend to live life to the fullest as you never know what is around the corner and how your life can change in an instant.

I know that everyone's journey is different but I am doing the Pink Ribbon Walk to support all women and men going through this journey, both past and present. It is not an easy journey and not one that I wish anyone to partake in.

The support, resources and vital research that Breast Cancer Foundation NZ provides is invaluable. Doing the Pink Ribbon Walk is my way of thanking them for all that they do.

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