Cel­e­brate life with can­cer sur­vivors

Disease ‘doesn’t dis­crim­i­nate,’ says young breast can­cer pa­tient

Vancouver Sun - - FRONT PAGE - ALEE­SHA HAR­RIS Ahar­ris@post­media.com

When Karen Wall first dis­cov­ered a lump in her breast, she never imag­ined it could be can­cer. Nei­ther, in fact, did her doc­tor. While it’s re­ported that al­most 80 per cent of young women dis­cover breast ab­nor­mal­i­ties them­selves, breast can­cer in women un­der the age of 40 is still rel­a­tively un­com­mon. So, with no his­tory of breast can­cer in her fam­ily, Wall and her doc­tor pro­ceeded with treat­ment of the lump as if it were an in­fec­tion of some kind. But, when an­tibi­otics failed to re­duce the mass in her breast, Wall was sent for an ul­tra­sound and biopsy. The re­sults, she was told, were can­cer­ous. Wall was 27 years old.

“In some way, I felt like I knew it was go­ing to be bad news, but that still didn’t help the shock,” she re­calls of the di­ag­no­sis. “I laughed in dis­be­lief, I cried, and I faced a few of the dark­est days I’ve faced in my life.”

Wall quickly re­al­ized she had two op­tions fol­low­ing her di­ag­no­sis: do some­thing, or do noth­ing. And do­ing noth­ing sim­ply wasn’t much of an op­tion at all.

“Do­ing noth­ing isn’t re­ally a vi­able op­tion, so re­ally you have no choice,” she says.

It was this side of can­cer — the face-it-or-ig­nore-it-and-facethe-con­se­quences as­pect — that led Wall to cringe when she heard peo­ple call her “coura­geous.”

“I hated be­ing told (that),” she says. “(And) still hate be­ing told.”

In­stead, she tried to make the best of what she refers to as her “sit­u­a­tion,” ask­ing friends to tag along with her to chemo­ther­apy ap­point­ments in or­der to help pass the time and pro­vide a wel­come dis­trac­tion.

“(I’d) play mad libs with the other pa­tients and nurses,” she says. “I try to live my life fo­cus­ing on the good.”

While un­der­go­ing treat­ment, she also found sup­port from a group of women who she felt could un­der­stand what she was feel­ing and go­ing through dur­ing her bat­tle with breast can­cer. That group was Re­think Breast Can­cer, an or­ga­ni­za­tion ded­i­cated to rais­ing aware­ness and pro­vid­ing sup­port for young women with breast can­cer.

“Re­think pro­vided me with a group of women who I could re­late to,” she says. “When I was di­ag­nosed I felt so alone. I was only 27 and at the start of my ca­reer.”

Wall says she found so­lace in the fact that, through Re­think’s sup­port net­work, she wasn’t, in fact, alone any­more. Wall par­tic­i­pated in group talks and ac­tiv­i­ties, even at­tend­ing a re­treat that Re­think puts on each year for “thrivers and sur­vivors” of breast can­cer.

“It was a chance to get away from the ‘real world’ and con­nect with peers,” Wall says of the ex­pe­ri­ence.

The women she con­nected with via the group were open and non­judg­men­tal about their can­cer di­ag­noses. Be­cause, be­lieve it or not, Wall says, peo­ple read­ily pass judg­ment upon learn­ing about some­one’s ex­pe­ri­ence with the disease.

Wall says the mis­un­der­stand­ing sur­round­ing the ran­dom­ness and po­ten­tially uni­ver­sal sus­cep­ti­bil­ity of breast can­cer is one ma­jor as­pect of the disease she wishes more peo­ple were aware of.

“It doesn’t dis­crim­i­nate, and it’s not any­one’s ‘fault,’” she says of can­cer. “You can be healthy, and do all the right things, and still get a di­ag­no­sis at a young age.

“That’s why it’s so im­por­tant to not only per­form self-ex­ams, but also to help con­trib­ute to find­ing a cure for this disease.”

One way to do that is to get in­volved in ini­tia­tives and events ben­e­fit­ing the cause dur­ing Breast Can­cer Aware­ness Month. And one such event hap­pen­ing in Van­cou­ver is the Boobyball.

The an­nual event be­gan as an op­por­tu­nity to show sup­port for a friend or fam­ily mem­ber af­fected by can­cer and has grown into a multi-city fundrais­ing event in Van­cou­ver, Toronto, Ot­tawa and Cal­gary.

The Boobyball, which this year boasts a theme of Wild West, is as much a cel­e­bra­tion of those im­pacted by the disease as it is an op­por­tu­nity for all in at­ten­dance to let loose for an evening. That idea of em­brac­ing the here and now, even if for just one night, is one that Wall strongly iden­ti­fies with fol­low­ing her bat­tle with breast can­cer.

“No one’s time here is promised, so we should be liv­ing life each day be­ing grate­ful for what we do have,” Wall says.

That pos­i­tive mind­set, she says, is nec­es­sary af­ter a can­cer di­ag­no­sis. Be­cause one’s life, she says, will never be the same again.

“A lot of peo­ple think that when you’re ‘done’ with ac­tive treat­ment things go back to nor­mal. But you will never be the same per­son you were be­fore your di­ag­no­sis,” she says.

“Even if you’re lucky enough to be de­clared NED (no ev­i­dence of disease) you will al­ways worry. And some treat­ments have life­long ef­fects on your body, as well. So even your body will never be the same.

“You are never ‘done’ with can­cer.”

At­ten­dees dance at Re­think Breast Can­cer’s Boobyball in 2017. This year’s theme is the Wild West.

Karen Wall

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