Many thanks to HMSA’s Island Scene for sharing my story in the Fall 2014 issue. I hope it will remind women to get an annual mammogram.
Living Through It
A survivor’s experience with breast cancer.
By Nicole Duarte
HMSA Island Scene, Fall 2014
“When I was diagnosed with cancer, I was really scared and I stayed scared for a long time,” says Karen Garcia, a wife, mother, and cancer survivor. “As time went by, I was less scared and learned to manage my fears. But they never really go away.”
Garcia was diagnosed with stage IIB breast cancer more than seven years ago. Doctors spotted a tumor on a routine mammogram. “I never thought about breast cancer before because it’s too scary – too scary to even think about,” she says. “I also thought it wasn’t going to happen to me because no one in my family has it.”
After discussing it with her doctor and after much consideration, Garcia decided to have a bilateral mastectomy (removal of both breasts). In previous mammograms, her left breast had shown no signs of cancer, but doctors were always concerned about the right breast because the tissue was dense and so the X-ray was usually murky. “So when the left side had cancer, I thought, ‘what if the right side becomes cancerous and I have to go through all this again?’”
Members, however, should check their HMSA plan benefits. In some cases, removal of the opposite breast for prevention may not be covered if it shows no signs of cancer.
For Garcia, 2007 started out with a cancer diagnosis and quickly became an arduous year of doctor’s appointments, tears, surgery, recovery, pain and pain management, chemotherapy, and more surgery (reconstructive) and recovery. She’s been cancer free since she completed her treatment, but doctors continue to closely monitor her health.
Help from her friends
“The hardest part about cancer is the anxiety and worry,” Garcia says. “You have to just live through it. There’s no short cut. And you can’t let yourself get dragged down in the darkness. You have to keep everything in the light. You have to stay positive, because that’s how you get better.”
Garcia credits a strong support network with keeping her going. Her husband, KHON2’s Nestor Garcia, and two daughters were there for her every step of the way. Friends at work who survived cancer gave her candid counsel about the details of treatment. And friends at the gym showered her with gifts and get-well cards and helped her celebrate the end of her treatment.
The support she got from loved ones and friends was essential to her healing. “I didn’t join a support group because I had this informal support network of friends and family,” Garcia says. “But I would recommend it to anyone who’s going through this.”
The new normal
“Before I went through all of this, I thought that everything was going to go back to how it was,” Garcia says. “But it doesn’t.” She says that the side effects of chemotherapy have aged her. The treatment sent her into early menopause and left her with excruciating joint pain (at one point she couldn’t even use chopsticks). She can’t exercise at the level she could before and the hair she lost didn’t all grow back.
But the experience also brought about positive changes in her life. A natural leader with a type A personality, Garcia used to run her household and office with an iron-fisted attitude. “Before this experience, I was just so controlling,” she admits. Cancer taught her that there are some things she can’t control and it showed her the value of acceptance and letting go. During her recovery, Garcia had to let go of her urge to do everything herself and trust others to care for her.
The outpouring of support she received touched and inspired her. She now makes a conscientious effort to be more considerate of others and live a kinder lifestyle.
Garcia says there were many life lessons she wouldn’t have learned if she hadn’t gone through this experience. “A wise man once told me that the most important thing in life is how we treat people,” Garcia says. “I totally believe that now.”
Read a candid account of Garcia’s journey in her book, If I Fall Apart: A Memoir of Breast Cancer and Bilateral Mastectomy.