Breast Cancer Survivor

Think of Yourself As a Survivor

Breast cancer didn’t run in Karen Reid’s family, so she thought she was safe. But when her husband’s sister was diagnosed with breast cancer, she performed a self-exam. After finding a lump and following up with her doctor, she learned she had Stage I invasive ductal carcinoma. Eighteen months later, Karen was declared cancer-free. She hopes the lessons she learned will help others facing similar situations.


At 50, I was physically fit, followed a healthy diet and diligently had annual medical appointments, including mammograms. During a quick self-check on a Friday, I discovered a hard knot that wouldn’t move. Online research only increased my anxiety and, by the time I saw my OB doctor on Monday, I was convinced the lump was breast cancer.

As it turns out, it was. Results from a 3D mammogram and an ultrasound showed three 2-centimeter tumors. After a biopsy, my doctor told me my cancer was Stage I. The tumor in my right breast was benign, but the two in my left breast were cancerous. One was ductal carcinoma in situ and one was invasive ductal carcinoma. With our daughter and son in mind, I had genetic testing. The results showed that my tumors were negative for BRCA1 and BRCA2, but I learned the tumors were ER+/PR+/HER2-.

Two months later, I had surgery to remove the tumors. My doctor recommended a single mastectomy, but whether I should have been or not, I was worried about the cancer coming back in my other breast, so I chose a double mastectomy. My plastic surgeon felt that I would be most satisfied with back latissimus dorsi flap surgery with implants. This required bringing part of the back muscle around to the front during reconstruction. As a figure skating coach, I am active, but this was an intense procedure and recovery was pretty tough. Physical therapy helped.

During that surgery, a fourth tumor was found and removed. The pathology results showed a lingering positive margin, so I had a second surgery to remove more of the margin. The next pathology report showed no signs of cancer cells but, because of some inconsistencies in the reports, my doctor referred me to a radiation oncologist to discuss additional treatment. After the consultation, we ultimately decided against radiation and decided to follow up with frequent MRIs for the next three years. I came to the decision of no further treatment after considering several positives — a Stage 1 non-aggressive type of breast cancer, low-grade tumors, clear lymph nodes, a negative BRCA test and low Oncotype recurrence scores (from a test that estimates the likelihood of cancer recurring). That’s when I started taking a drug, which my doctor said is meant to prevent recurrence anywhere else in the body. I’ve experienced some side effects such as hot flashes, weight gain and what I call “brain freezes,” but I’m not sure if I can blame them on the drug. I’m premenopausal, so we’ll revisit the continued need for ongoing medication in the future.

Coincidentally, my best friend from college, my sister-in-law and I were being treated for breast cancer all at the same time. We lived in different cities and, as we supported each other throughout treatment by phone and text, we discovered our experiences were vastly different. My sister-in-law’s doctor sent her for a mammogram the same day followed by a biopsy the next day, whereas I was told I couldn’t have a biopsy for a few weeks or see a specialist for two months. That scared me because a lot could happen in two months! Once I finally landed with my breast surgeon, my experience was excellent. She was confident and incredibly patient. I’m sure I asked the same questions over and over, but she didn’t blink an eye at explaining something again. My friend, however, was often brushed off by her physician, who said things to her like, “I already answered that question.” That was disappointing because she, like the rest of us, was just looking for some guidance and support from her doctor. The inconsistencies in care were frustrating, and it confirmed how important it is to stand up for your own care.

Eighteen months after diagnosis, I had my first MRI, and my doctor told me I was cancer-free. I have regular follow-up exams and MRIs now. I feel healthy, and I’m moving along great.

My survival tips for you

The medical scare tested every ounce of my patience, but it didn’t crush my determination. I got through it with a lot of faith, love and support from our family and friends. My husband was my rock through it all. I also found strength through journaling and writing. I hadn’t written poetry prior to my illness, but it helped me express all the feelings I had pent up. I published "Pink Warrior Poetry & Tips," a compilation of my poems and tips I learned along the way. A cancer diagnosis is overwhelming enough on its own. If my experiences offer guidance or relief to even one patient, then it was worth it. Here’s a sample of tips. I hope they help you, too!

  • Right from the beginning, think of yourself as a survivor. You are your own best advocate.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help. My nurse navigator was like a big sister to me. I could call her at any time with questions.
  • Keep a journal. You’ll find yourself in more medical offices than you could imagine, and it will be impossible to remember all the details and acronyms without writing them down.
  • Be patient. Collect your thoughts before making decisions.
  • Be organized, and stay on top of your bills. Dealing with insurance companies and medical bills can add a tremendous amount of anxiety.