"Our control on the outer world is limited, temporary and often illusory."
Karen Gooding, the North Carolina freelance writer who pens the Athena blog, is a three-time cancer survivor and eternal optimist. Diagnosed with breast cancer at age 34 in 1995, she underwent a double mastectomy, chemotherapy and reconstructive surgery and then got back to her favorite job, raising daughter Elizabeth, then 5, and son Thomas, then 2.
Karen, can you tell us about your personal experience as a three-time cancer survivor and how did you balance your career and home life raising two great children?
I was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 34 in 1995 when my children were five and two. I was stunned and scared. I had a mastectomy followed by several months of chemotherapy. The following year I had a second, preventive mastectomy, along with reconstructive surgery.
My biggest fear wasn’t dying per se, but that my children would lose their mother. I just wanted to be around long enough to help them grow up. (Now, of course, I’d like to be around a lot longer!) On the plus side, the only person I knew who had been diagnosed with breast cancer at such a young age was my mom, and she was healthy and active. She was my role model and the basis for my expectations about recovery.
Because both Mom and I were diagnosed with breast cancer in our early 30s and hereditary breast cancer is linked to a higher risk for ovarian cancer, I figured there was something genetic going on. But, when I was diagnosed in 1995, there were no laws to prevent insurers or employers from discriminating against me – or my children – based on genetic testing. After the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act was signed into law in 2008, I decided to be tested and learned that I have the BRCA1 mutation. The great news is that neither my daughter nor my brother has the mutation! My son will be tested at some point, as well.
I experienced an ovarian cancer recurrence in 2012. After more surgery and a relatively new method of heated chemotherapy during surgery, I was back on my feet in about six weeks. I feel great now, and I’m getting good reports. I have incredible doctors who stay on top of the latest research and treatments. I’ve been with my primary oncologist for 19 years now, and I truly trust her with my life.
As for my career and home life, I had lots and lots of help while I was sick – more than anyone could hope for in one lifetime. My amazing husband has always been a hands-on dad, so the kids were perfectly happy with him as their primary caregiver. With help from family and friends, he also took care of everything around the house. Folks made meals for us for months and helped with child care when my kids were young and carpools when my kids were older.
As a self-employed freelance writer, I pretty much make my own schedule, so in some ways my career was not a huge issue. I’m incredibly fortunate to work with kind, compassionate clients, who were more concerned about my health than their deadlines. They graciously allowed me to take time off and then pick right back up when I was well again.
That said, I know how fortunate I am that we could live comfortably on my husband’s earnings when I was out of commission. Perhaps I could have worked part-time during my breast cancer battle. But I could not possibly have worked during my ovarian cancer treatment; I was just too sick. I also am fortunate to have always had health insurance. Honestly, without it, my first bout with cancer would have bankrupted us, and I’m not sure I would have survived the second. Without getting political, let me just say that I believe affordable health care should be available to everyone.
Your mother was instrumental in you taking charge of your life with cancer. Can you tell us about your relationship with your mom and some special moments that you both shared?
My mom is my role model and my hero. She battled breast cancer before pink ribbons – in the early 1970s. She has the most hopeful, kind and giving spirit of anyone I know. Many of my favorite memories – from childhood through this most recent Thanksgiving – include her.
I also think it was easier for me to deal with the loss of my breasts because of my mom. I was eight at the time of her first cancer diagnosis and 13 at the time of her second. She made it seem as if losing a breast – or two – wasn’t a big deal. She continued to swim and play tennis and look beautiful.
Mom taught me – through example – not to let cancer get in the way of living. My brother and I definitely inherited optimism from her and my dad.
What is it like to be a part of an Athena team with Amy Grant and Kellie Pickler for Athena Water company
I’m thrilled and honored to be part of the Athena® team. Purchases of Athena® bottled water, which was created by a breast cancer survivor, have raised $2 million to fight breast cancer. Athena® plans to raise another $1 million or more by 2016.
I first met Amy Grant and Kellie Pickler in September at the Nashville launch party for Amy’s new song, Welcome Yourself. Amy co-wrote the song with breast cancer survivor Beth Nielsen Chapman exclusively for Athena® and the breast cancer cause. You can see the lyric video and download the song at athenawater.com/download. For each download through Dec. 31, 2014, Athena® will donate 77 cents to the American Cancer Society.
Amy and Kellie are as gracious and kind and authentic in person as they appear to be on stage and screen. And both are passionate about fighting cancer, which has altered the lives of people very close to them. I love being an Athena® Warrior with these two incredibly talented, beautiful women – and with all the other Athena® Warriors across the country.
You mention that you are an eternal optimist. Do you still have the same level of optimism each time you were diagnosed? What would you tell others about optimism and how to keep it going?
Yes, I’m still an optimist at heart. I’m not saying I’m optimistic every single minute or even every single day. Are there things I wish were different? Of course. But, I do believe everything will turn out OK in the end. My faith plays a big part in that, but I also see a whole lot of genuine goodness in the world.
At the same time, I’m realistic. I know I’m in remission from a disease that might come back, so I try to make healthy choices. And, I try to balance being well informed with being over-informed. As much as possible, I stay on top of current wellness research without being swept away by every alarmist new trend.
Honestly, it’s not that hard for me to be an optimist. There are so many people who are hurting or hungry or struggling every single day. Except for a few setbacks, I’m generally healthy, I have a home and enough to eat, and I’m surrounded by people who love me. I have a wonderful life.
What would your message be to both ovarian cancer patients and those with other cancers affecting women based on your experiences? As a writer, what tools would you recommend they use to manage their treatment and journey?
First, let go of responsibility for a while. Take care of yourself, and let other people take care of you. One of the hardest things I had to learn was to say yes to help, even though I knew I would never be able to repay my family, friends and even casual acquaintances. A good friend once gave me great advice: “Just smile and say ‘thank you.’” In other words, accept kindness without worrying about repaying it. As a woman, and especially as a mom, that was hard. But I learned.
Second, create your own journey. Listen to others, but then figure out what works for you. For me, dry Cheerios by the bed helped with nausea; chicken soup did not. During treatment, I preferred short, funny books not inspirational cancer stories. Laughter with friends – even laughing about hair loss or chemo brain – was really healing for me. Surprisingly, even though I’m a writer, I had no interest in journaling, yet others have told me keeping a journal helped them a great deal. I liked being alone when I didn’t feel well; others want someone right beside their bed. There’s no right way to manage cancer. It’s going to turn your world upside down no matter what. Travel the path that works for you.
What is the life lesson you learned as you went through your journey?
It sounds a bit cliché, but I learned that life goes on. With each diagnosis, I felt as if my life had stopped and would be forever changed. My life did change, but not in all the ways I expected. For example, after my first mastectomy, I thought I would never wear anything the least bit form-fitting again. Thank goodness I didn’t give away all my clothes.
I also thought I would spend every single moment of every single day thinking about cancer. Thank heavens for my mom, who told me there would come a time when I might go days or even weeks without thinking about cancer. I didn’t believe her, but she was right.
Life goes on in all its lovely, unpredictable beauty and messiness. I’d like to say I’ve learned to appreciate every moment, but of course I haven’t. I appreciate a great song or a beautiful sunset, but then I get frustrated when the car won’t start or I’m caught in cold rain without an umbrella.
The lesson I’m still trying to learn is to be both present in the moment and eyeing the future, with hope and gratefulness.
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