As you most certainly know, October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. But because such tremendous strides have been made in awareness, treatment, and, happily, outcomes, we can be easily to be lulled into a false sense of security. The fact remains that 1 in 8 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer. Early detection matters. Karen Bell’s story, which she shares below, is an excellent reminder.
I learned I had breast cancer last December, two days before Christmas. Certainly there is no “good” time to learn you have cancer but I thought the timing was particularly bad. In truth, I had known for two days that the lump in my breast was probably cancer. On the 21st, I had walked into Virginia Hospital Center for my mammogram. By the time I walked out, the radiologist had removed tissue from my breast and two lymph nodes to biopsy. I wasn’t feeling very optimistic.
The way in which my cancer was found makes my story somewhat unique. A friend was over with his wife and kids one evening and happened to ask if I was interested in participating in a study he was working on at NIH. The study was focused on the impact of lupus on the vascular system and the team needed healthy volunteers for comparison purposes. If I agreed to participate, the testing would include a PET scan, a heart CT, and an extensive bloodwork panel. Having just turned 50, it seemed like a great opportunity to get a baseline understanding of my current health.
An area of concern in my breast was identified by the PET scan. When my friend talked with me about it, he said the doctor analyzing the data said it looked “warm” but not “hot” like cancer. However, he thought it was something I definitely needed to investigate further. And so I scheduled a mammogram. I had last had a mammogram about 15 months earlier and nothing concerning had been present. I didn’t feel a hard lump. I wasn’t worried.
I was diagnosed with invasive lobular carcinoma. Although different than the much more common ductile version, treatment and prognosis are generally similar. Based on the size of the lump (less than 2 cm) and that I only had a tiny number of cancerous cells in one lymph node, the doctors staged me at Stage 1. My treatment involved two surgeries and a course of full breast radiation. I will take Tamoxifen (or a similar drug) for the next 5- 10 years in an effort to reduce the likelihood the cancer returns in either breast or metastasizes elsewhere in my body. My odds of remaining cancer free for the next 5 years hover around 97 percent. I am lucky. Without question, early detection increased my treatment options as well as my chance of survival.
Every doctor I worked with throughout my treatment at Virginia Hospital told me how unusual it was for breast cancer to be identified by a PET scan. At one point in my treatment, I had a number of titanium clips placed in my breast as markers for the surgeon. The radiologist that placed the markers was the doctor that had read my mammogram a year earlier. She said she’d gone back through my records to see if she’d missed something but saw no evidence of the mass. In fact, if she hadn’t known exactly where the mass was on the most recent mammogram, she said she might have missed it this year as well. The apparent invisibility of my cancer on a mammogram was due to one key factor — I have extremely dense breast tissue. If I hadn’t walked in that day with the PET results that screamed “look here,” my cancer might not have been caught when it was.
Given this is my first Breast Cancer Awareness month as a breast cancer patient, it is hard not to reflect on my experiences of the past year. I am filled with gratitude for the doctors, staff, family, and friends that have been by my side throughout this journey. With their help, I made it through round one of my cancer battle. I have also worked hard to strengthen my body’s natural ability to fight cancer, for this is how I hope to keep the cancer cells that may be floating around in my bloodstream at bay in the future. I have made tremendous changes to my diet and to the products I use.
Stress management, exercise, and self-care have also become more of a priority.
Breast cancer prevention is the ultimate goal but, in lieu of that, early detection is critical. I got lucky having the PET but I know now that I could have found the lump myself. So my advice ladies is get to know your breasts. Really get to know them – every lump and curve. Assume you are cancer-free so there is nothing to fear in your explorations. Once you know your breasts, you are in a much better position to identify something “abnormal.” I had thought a lump would be round and hard. My lump was somewhat sponge-y and felt more like a raised, flat area. Shortly before my first surgery, I realized that I could see it – a slight, outward bulge in the 10 o’clock position. That realization was terrifying. How had I been so blind? If you are told you have dense breast tissue, know that a mammogram may not be sufficient to detect an early cancer. Talk to your doctors. Educate yourself. Trust your instincts. And above all, nurture your complex, resilient, strong and beautiful bodies. Let’s win this battle for ourselves and the people we love.
Karen is styled by Kiskadee | Johnny Was silk top, Paige Jeans, Dolce Vita booties, Elizabeth and James earrings
How do you spend your time? Trying to be as present and joyful as I can while doing my best to balance it all: a second career, my kids, my health, my family and friends. Certainly, I’m not always successful – but I try!
Neighborhood: Clover-College Park
How long have you lived in Alexandria: Since 1970.
What is your hometown? Alexandria! I’m a proud graduate of Beverly Hills Cooperative Preschool, MacArthur Elementary, George Washington Middle School, and T.C. Williams High School.
What brought you to Alexandria? My parents. I was born in Quantico, VA while my father served in the Marine Corps. After Vietnam, my parents moved to the D.C. area and ultimately settled in Alexandria.
What would surprise people about you? Before starting graduate school, I rode a bicycle across the U.S. 13 of us traveled together for almost three months starting in Yorktown, VA and finishing in Portland, OR. We carried our gear, camped, accepted what Mother Nature threw at us, marveled at the diversity and beauty of this country, and drank beer in more small town bars than I can remember. It was an incredible adventure.
You’re a superhero: what’s your superpower? I can fly…high and fast!
Favorite cocktail: My go-to drink is a margarita on the rocks (with salt!) but sometimes only a bourbon and ginger will do.
Last book read or movie seen: “Wonder Woman” (what can I say, I have kids).
Guilty Pleasure: A long, morning bike ride.
Phrase you overuse: Is that right?
Facebook or Instagram? Insta what?
Latest binge-watch: “This is Us.” Next up: “Game of Thrones”
Bucket list travel destination: I really want to see the Aurora Borealis so Alaska, Canada, or Greenland.
If you only could have one for the rest of your life: wine or coffee? Wine with friends is often a life-saver. I pick wine – with friends!
Define your style in three words or less: Casual and fun
The go-to piece in your wardrobe: Boots!
Favorite trend ever: I did rock the shoulder pads
Favorite current trend: Cropped or ankle length jeans and boots
Beauty product you can’t live without: Drum roll…Crystal Deodorant Stones. As I’ve shifted towards more natural products, it’s by far the best alternative I’ve found to antiperspirants.
Heels or flats? Flats, though I do like a little heel in my boots or on a dressy occasion.
Favorite room in your home: My bedroom – it’s often my oasis when life gets crazy.
Antiques, modern, or a mix? I lean more towards the clean lines of contemporary/modern.
Last item bought for your home: A painting by Barbara Spraul at the King Street Art Festival. I love her work!
Next planned purchase: I really want a compost tumbler. My attempt at a vegetable garden this summer was generally lackluster and I believe my soil is to blame.
Favorite way to entertain: Well, I’m a terrible cook but I’m happy to host. I love having a few families over, cooking together, and letting the kids run. I’m certainly fortunate to have friends that know their way around my kitchen as well as I do!
Clutter-free or well-lived in? Clutter-free
Wallpaper — yes, totally modern or no, so dated: No to wallpaper! I love trim/molding/millwork and feel it stands out best against a painted wall.
Your go-to work-out: A 3-mile run
Most fun way to exercise: My family goes to the same beach every summer and I always take my roller blades. Though I’ll admit to feeling a little retro as the lone blader out exercising in the early morning hours, it’s a great way to start the day.
Group exercise or solo: Classes are fun but I often need to exercise when and where I can.
Fitness goal: Drink more water and do more yoga.
Haven’t yet, but might be willing to try with coaching / encouragement: A spin class!
Proudest fitness achievement: I completed a Dogwood Half Hundred (kilometers) One Day Hike on the Big Blue and Massanutten Trails many years back. I did not train enough so it came down to battling through the pain and putting one foot in front of the other. I lost three toenails – but I finished!
Favorite spot in Alexandria: Mt. Vernon Avenue in Del Ray
Last purchase in Alexandria: Besides the painting mentioned above, I also recently bought a T.C. Williams magnet for my car. My daughter is the class of 2021!
Best coffee / happy hour / date night spot: Best coffee – Swings, Favorite Happy Hour spots – Laurie’s House, with my “Bookclub” or in the Cul-De-Sac, Date Night – Taqueria Poblano (Taqueria also gets my vote for the best margarita in town!)
Favorite charity: The Red Cross – I’m not sure how to better help the communities devastated by the recent hurricanes.
Favorite annual Alexandria event: Art on the Avenue and it’s this weekend!
Looking for a killer cocktail number for the latest party? Shoes for running around town? Eye-catching separates for lunch at Cheesetique? Kiskadee has you covered. A favorite destination in the heart of Del Ray, shopping this boutique is akin to browsing your friend's lust-worthy closet. Kiskadee is fun, flirty and full of original designers,a ll presented to you with a focus on personal service. You will always be welcomed by a friendly face, eager to assist!
2205 Mount Vernon Avenue
Alexandria, VA 22301