Karen's Story - "from not leaving the house to strutting on the beach in her swimmers"

07 Oct 2022

By Luan Lawrenson-Woods 

Karen, 43, carries the BRCA2 gene variant and has a very strong family history of breast cancer, with many of her family also carrying the gene variant. “Approximately 70% of the women on my mum’s side of the family have had breast cancer, and my mum’s had it twice”.

At the end of 2018 Karen elected to have a risk-reduction skin-sparing bi-lateral mastectomy, when both her breasts and nipples were removed, and expanders put in. Karen had almost postponed her surgery because it was just before Christmas, but something prompted her to go ahead. Pathology from her surgery identified that, despite regular routine screening, she unknowingly had triple-negative ductal carcinoma in-situ in one of her breasts. Her surgeon told her that if she had waited a few more months, “it would have been a very different story”.

Karen’s team assessed that she didn’t need treatment for cancer, and she was able to continue with her reconstruction as originally planned, and her expanders were exchanged for under the muscle silicone implants 3 months later. Karen had loved the shape and size of her expanders after having “mum boobs” that had breast-fed her children but says that she never really felt happy with her implant reconstruction.

“I cried and cried for days. People kept telling me that once the swelling went down, I’d see the shape and size, but I couldn’t bear to look at myself in the mirror. I just hated myself and my body. I stayed at home and got into a real state of depression. I didn’t go out for probably about six months”.

It wasn’t until Karen went to see her surgeon that she discovered one of her implants had moved out of its ‘pocket’. Karen’s surgeon suggested that both implants be replaced with bigger implants, which was done in 2020. “I felt better instantly once I had the bigger implants, because I’d been quite big before, and the new ones were actually the right shape”. But Karen still felt down.

During this time Karen also had a hysterectomy and she says she felt like a “shell” because she had no ‘natural’ breasts, nipples or uterus, “It was like ‘I’m not a woman anymore’”. Because Karen didn’t have treatment for breast cancer, she felt that she didn’t get the support other women get. “It was just scary. And I didn't feel like I fitted in anywhere either. Which support group am I part of? Am I a cancer survivor? Am I a preventative surgery patient? And I still don't know”.

Karen now she realises that going into surgical menopause contributed to her depression, “Looking back now, I think ‘ah, that was the menopause’. Because you wake up after your hysterectomy in surgical menopause with no warning for your body and the emotions that come with that. That was rough. That's when it really got worse”.

In the last 12 months things have changed, “I’ve started a new journey of self-acceptance and happiness and I’ve realised now that I go out more. When I go shopping there’s a whole new world of clothing that I can wear that I was never able to wear before because I had big breasts. I couldn’t wear a strapless bra before. Now I can wear dresses and off the shoulder tops and look a million bucks. I don’t know what that shift was or how it happened. “

Karen has a horizontal scar across the middle of each breast, which she says have healed really well. She had ‘dog ears’ that were visible when she wore a low top, but these were removed in March 2022 with a small procedure under a local anaesthetic in her surgeon’s rooms, and she no longer feels self-conscious about her cleavage.

“I went to the beach with my girls the other day and I wore swimmers and I felt really good because I had a nice chest. It’s a really lovely shape and I just love my breasts now. I’m so happy. And not having nipples is a God send! One of my friends said to me as we were walking through a cold shopping centre ‘You don’t know how lucky you are not having nipples and not having to worry right now’”, she laughs.

“I joke around with the girls all the time that I’m Barbie. A middled aged Barbie. I’m probably 10 kilos heavier than when I started, but that’s OK. I’m happy. I’m alive. It sounds shallow, but I love that I can wear little tops. I’ve been through all this, then I deserve to look good in a dress or a tank tops”.

This is the first time that Karen has shared her story outside of close friends, family and support groups, like Pink Hope. She wants other women to know that recovery may not always be easy, and that everyone’s journey is different. If a girlfriend disappears off the radar, it may be that they’re having a tough time. “I had a lot of people write me off when I was in hiding, because they didn't understand. It has been a journey. It hasn’t been easy. But I’m there now”.

This content is brought to you in partnership with MSD and developed independently by the team at Pink Hope in consultation with medical experts