Karen Bernard: Living life to the full after breast cancer
PUBLISHED: 14:10 24 July 2010 | UPDATED: 15:05 20 February 2013
Karen Bernard was 38 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a double mastectomy. Now she is writing a book about her experiences to help others in the same situation. Here she speaks to Marie Hardingham
'OH my God I've got cancer, am I going to die?'. This was Karen Bernard's initial thought when she was first diagnosed. But the separated mother-of-two was determined to beat this terrible illness - she decided she was young and there was so much she needed to do before she would even contemplate going over to the 'other side'.
When I met Karen she had just returned from a girly holiday in Spain and looked every inch a survivor - vibrant, healthy and high on life. Seven years ago Karen, from Borehamwood, began her long journey for a natural wholesome existence when she noticed a lump in her right breast. She went to see a specialist straight away but was told to rule out breast cancer as she was far too young to have this life-threatening disease, even though seven years previously, her mother contracted breast cancer and had undergone the trauma of a mastectomy.
Infuriated and dissatisfied by what she'd been told Karen decided to go and see the consultant who treated her mother. Upon seeing her he remarked how skinny she was and asked if she was anorexic. She told him she took regular exercise and kept herself fit, although her weight had plummeted from a healthy 8st 5lb to just 6st over a five-month period. The consultant immediately carried out a core biopsy and a mammogram which revealed that the lump was malignant and Karen did in fact have breast cancer.
Karen was with her mum when the bombshell was delivered. She recalls, 'My mum fainted. I smoked about 400 cigarettes that day and phoned all my friends to tell them the shocking news.'
There and then she decided to have a double mastectomy for fear she might go through the same anguish again in the future with the other breast, and that having only one breast off may make her look lopsided. As she was only 38 and in good physical shape the doctors told her she could have reconstructive surgery immediately after the operation.
After a month of being on a rollercoaster back and forth to hospital for tests there was finally some good news. The cancer hadn't spread to her bones, however the tests did reveal some cancerous changes to the left breast.
Two weeks after Karen's double mastectomy took place she was up and about and smiling once more. She was able to raise her arms and talk on the telephone - although menial tasks, they were just some of the things numerous people had told her she wouldn't be able to do so soon after her op.
Describing herself as a bit of an exhibitionist Karen says, 'When I was diagnosed seven years ago there were no books with pictures of reconstructive surgery so I decided to take photographs of myself, and my new boobs, for my book, to let others see that it wasn't really so bad.'
With very high levels of oestrogen present in her body, chemotherapy was not an option so she was put on a course of Zoladex injections. These injections were given monthly and are intended to eliminate the oestrogen hormone. Regrettably in Karen's case they didn't work. Three months later she underwent an oophorectomy (removal of the ovaries).
'I remember waking up the morning after and thinking every bit of my femininity had gone, everything I was born with that made me a woman wasn't there, but it was still wonderful. I felt wonderful. I had had this horrible thing inside me pulling me down and it wasn't there anymore. No more cancer - I was free,' says Karen.
Since her illness, Karen has thrown herself into living. She explains, 'The biggest 'high' is just being here. I say 'thank you' every single day. Cancer has shown me the real meaning of life and allowed me to experience some amazing feats. Skydiving off a mountain in Turkey, being guest speaker at a Sparkle event, a group of women who raise money for cancer research. Going back to college to study massage and my dear friends with whom such inspiration came. We laugh until we're in heaps on the floor - nothing to do with alcohol!,' she quips.
'And my kids - seeing them grow up. My daughter Gemma insists on taking snapshots of me when I get my pioneering bosoms out to sunbathe topless on a beach somewhere nice and hot.'
Sometimes upon seeing her reflection staring back from the looking glass she doesn't always see Alice only the Mad Hatter. 'But that's ok,' she says. 'That's how my friends and loved ones see me - absolutely mad!'
Karen's book is dedicated to all the wonderful friends she's made, living and departed, during a heart-rending time and is a step-by-step guide to surviving breast cancer, aiming to be a light-hearted read to help others in their quest for life.
Karen, 45, is doing amazingly well. Working full-time and running a flourishing massage business, she says, 'Looking back I don't think I ever really believed I had an illness that could potentially kill me, just that I'd been challenged in the greatest way possible. My son James said to me, if I've gained anything from my ordeal it is not to worry about the little things in life as you never know what's around the corner!'