“The doctors said they found calcification,” Karen said. “It had clustered, and it was cancer.”
Karen was diagnosed with invasive lobular carcinoma on her left breast. It’s a type of cancer that begins in the milk-producing glands of the breast.
She was focused on beating the disease and didn’t want it to slow her down. But her determination didn’t overshadow her fear of hospitals. “I didn’t like them,” Karen said. “I even hated driving by a hospital.”
Karen strived to overcome her phobia of hospitals and worked with Heather Adkins, MD, an MD Anderson Cancer Network certified surgeon at Atrium Medical Center, to begin planning her lumpectomy, a procedure that removes cancer or other abnormal breast tissue.
Heather Adkins, MD, an MD Anderson Cancer Network certified surgeon at Atrium Medical Center
“You would’ve thought I was the most important person in that entire hospital,” Karen recalled. “I was surrounded by people who couldn’t do enough for me. She (Dr. Adkins) took out one of the lobes and surrounding tissues. The surgery lasted about an hour and they only removed 1.2 centimeters.”
Karen’s cancer journey continued with Nkeiruka Okoye, MD, an MD Anderson Cancer Network® certified oncologist at Atrium Medical Center. Dr. Okoye helped guide Karen through the chemotherapy process, through which she would receive 12 treatments.
Nkeiruka Okoye, MD, an MD Anderson Cancer Network® certified oncologist at Atrium Medical Center.
“Once she got diagnosed, we went over the treatment and talked about her chemotherapy and side effects,” Dr. Okoye said.
“I come from a family of redheads,” Karen said. “One of the big things was that Dr. Okoye told me I was going to lose my hair. I really wasn’t surprised. But my hair began to fall out after my fifth treatment. It didn’t traumatize me. I planned for it.”
Dr. Okoye and an oncology nurse navigator educated Karen on her phases of treatment, expectations, medications, and side effects. She also worked with her navigator in selecting and getting fitted for a wig through Atrium’s Wig Boutique. The boutique offers free wigs, hats, scarves, and turbans to anyone who has cancer.
“We’re here to help them accomplish their goals and remove barriers,” said Phyllis Rudokas, RN, an oncology nurse navigator at Atrium. “It’s such a scary time, from the decision of who the patient is going to see, to simple things that make a big impact like trying on wigs or being a source of guidance.”
The support has been critical for Karen’s journey. Through her chemotherapy treatments, she has worked to make this experience and diagnosis positive for herself and those around her.
“I do not dread going to do the treatments, and it only takes a few hours each week,” Karen explained. “I’ve gotten to know everybody during the therapies, and it’s been an awakening experience.”
“You just can’t help not to be drawn into her circle of positivity when you’re around her,” Dr. Okoye said. “She is such a vibrant lady. She has a very positive outlook and that hasn’t changed.”
Karen could have faced a different outcome if she hadn’t gotten a routine mammogram. The American College of Radiology recommends patients over the age of 40 schedule a yearly check-up.
“People hear about cancer and how deadly it can be, but breast cancer is a disease where we can catch it early and treat it all from a mammogram,” Dr. Okoye explained. “There’s not a lot of other cancers where you have that opportunity.”
“My family was always blessed with good health and I felt that I had good genetics,” Karen said. “In my prayers, I always thank God for my health. Even though this had to happen, I still thank Him because this was a wake-up call.”
Karen’s cancer journey has made her grateful for the little things in life, such as taking a walk around her 10-acre property, spending time with family and friends, but most importantly, continuing her excursions around the world.
“If one person can read this and it encourages them to get checked, that’s a win for me,” Karen said. “The whole experience changed my thoughts about hospitals. I looked at it as something that was a last resort, but that’s not the way it is. They’re here to save your life.”
Completing her 12th and final chemotherapy treatment, Karen has not missed a day of walking three miles around her Warren County home. She’s already planning her next adventure.
She says early detection saved her life and will allow her to continue doing the things she loves most.
“First thing I’m going to do is plan a trip,” Karen said. “When all of this is over with, my friend and I would like to go to Africa. I’d like to visit a park with elephants in Kenya.”
To schedule a screening mammogram, visit premierhealth.com/mammo or call (855) 887-7364 Monday through Thursday, 7:30 a.m. to 7 p.m., or Friday, 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Women without insurance coverage may be eligible for a free mammogram or other women’s health services. Call (866) 838-8973 to see if you qualify.