Meet Karen Rice – a remarkable woman who has battled cancer two times – first breast, and then colon. Through her strength and courage, she has emerged as a shining example of resilience. Karen candidly shares her journey and offers wisdom to others who may be navigating their own challenging journey.
In this week's In Her Words, we explore the life-changing moments that led Karen to embrace the mantra, "This Too Shall Pass," and discover the true meaning of surviving a life of adversity. She reminds us that beauty shines brightest when it emanates from within – a true testament that cancer cannot dim the brilliance of the human spirit.
Name: Karen Rice
Location: Houston, TX
Current Health Status: Living in the moment.
Tell us a little but about yourself.
Born and raised in Houston, TX, I was the seventh child growing up in a large family. Even with so many other people around, I always found a way to sneak time for myself to dream. I grew up in church, as my father was a Baptist minister. While in high school, it was planned that I would becoming a model and actor. I worked at it, while also working at other jobs to raise my child alone after a broken marriage. Later in life, I had a head-on collision with not only breast cancer, but colon cancer as well, which changed my entire outlook on life. Through my tragedies and strength, I'm encouragement to share my thoughts and experiences with others. My interests and hobbies are writing, modeling, singing and spending all the time I can with my daughter and grandkids.
When were you diagnosed with breast cancer?
I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2002 at the age of 46, and then colon cancer in 2011 at the age of 55. My breast cancer was stage 1, and my colon cancer was stage 3. My breast cancer was found when I began taking estrogen for hot flashes. A few weeks later, I began to see and feel a large knot growing in my breast. I ignored it for a while, but I felt a little uneasy about it. So, I decided to seek advice about what it could be, so I could know the truth.
When I went to the doctors to have it checked, they performed a mammogram, which came back negative. My MD said that I was OK – that the knot was a side effect from the estrogen – but I did not agree with this answer. Something was not right, because as time went on, the knot began to grow even larger. I went back to the MD and this time, I wasn't taking “nothing was wrong” for an answer. On this visit, an ultrasound was performed on my right breast and a biopsy was taken. I knew that I had cancer without even being told that I had it – I could just tell from the look on the MD's face who performed the biopsy. Once the MD walked off for me to get dressed, I looked over at my daughter who was with me and stated that I knew the answer already. Of course, she tried to ease my mind, but it did not work then, nor the weeks after, as I waited for the results. Once the results came in, it was true. I had cancer.
During the discovery of my colon cancer, I never really had symptoms – only a little bleeding when I had bowel movements, so I thought it was due to hemorrhoids that I had for years. Suddenly, I began to have strong, painful bowel movements –so painful that I had to hold on to bathroom towel racks to try and ease the pain. Once day the rack broke, and I knew for sure something else was going on. Once evaluated, I found out I had colon cancer, stage 3. I never knew if colon cancer or breast cancer ran in our family, but cancer did. Both of my great grandparents died from some form of cancer, but we never knew which type.
How did you feel when you were diagnosed?
My first thought upon receiving a breast cancer diagnosis was, "What bad deed had I done in my life to have deserved this? Why was I being punished?" I know many people get cancer, even children, but I've always wondered why some get this horrible disease and others don't. Now that I had it, and knew that I hadn't done anything to warrant it, I was upset. But I didn't stay upset for an exceedingly long period of time. I still had sad moments, but I felt better knowing that I was going to be OK. When I was diagnosed for the second time with colon cancer, I was not as bothered or upset. I just knew I needed to do whatever was needed in the way of treatment and be done with it all.
How did your friends and family take the news?
My daughter took the news as best as she could. I'm sure she was hiding how she truly felt, but I deeply appreciated that she did that for me. I would have been much more upset if I had known how much I was hurting my child. I only had a couple of family members by my side during the ordeal. Most of my siblings and other family members did not really show concern, and a lot of them were never aware that I went through cancer twice. But that didn't really bother me. During those horrific times, I had my daughter and grandkids by my side, and they were all I needed. I also found comfort in many of my co-workers – they truly showed that they cared.
What kind of treatment did you seek?
For breast cancer, I underwent a mastectomy with reconstruction. I didn't require chemo or radiation, so the treatment for breast cancer wasn't that bad. Following surgery, I began having chronic pain in and around the breast area though, and I found out I had post-mastectomy pain syndrome as well as neuropathic pain, stemming from severe nerve damage. I still live with neuropathy today. For colon cancer, my colon was resected, and I received chemo and radiation. It was hard to deal with, but I thought it probably wasn't as hard on me as it was for others, especially children.
Did you work while you were going through treatment?
During cancer treatment, I continued to work, but due to the chronic pain and not getting enough sleep at night, I ended up having to leave my job of 26 years. I tried to work, but because the pain was keeping me up at night, I became so sleepy and unable to perform well during the day. I would find myself placing my head on my desk, time after time, due to lack of sleep. My medication was strong as well, causing drowsiness and the need to leave work early. I just couldn't do it anymore.
How did you find the best care?
I was lucky to find a place that made me feel comfortable during my treatment –Texas Oncology. They were great. The staff was so friendly and caring every step of the way. I would not have wanted to be anywhere else – they eased my mind during such an ordeal.
Did you receive additional support or seek alternative therapies?
Since my initial diagnoses and treatments, I haven’t received any additional support or alternative therapies. For a while, I did receive a lot of information about natural ways to heal cancer, and I read them all. I have even kept up with some of them, especially Beatcancer.org, that talked about a man who fully cured his cancer through alternative measures. (Measures I did not learn about until I was already in treatment.) But of course, I am not sure those therapies would have worked for me. Everyone is different, and in these moments, we go with our gut.
Who have been your biggest supporters and make up your cancer tribe?
My biggest supporters have always been my daughter Conti and my grandkids., Madison and Chase. If it weren't for them, I would have been a mess during this horrible time in my life. At times, they were able to help me forget that I had cancer through lots of laughter and fun outings – that made a huge difference in the experience. It was also a pleasure to visit my mom who was in a nursing home at the time. I was not happy she was there, but it made my day just to go by to see her, as well as take care of her while visiting. My mother and my kids were the only ones that made up my cancer tribe, and that is the truth.
What has been one of the most challenging aspects of the experience for you?
I would say the most challenging aspect of the whole experience was when I was alone – it hit me more. I felt black-balled, like everyone else was enjoying their lives while I was stuck dealing with cancer, one of the deadliest diseases ever. It almost felt like I had done something so terrible in my life, that I caused it upon myself. Physically and socially, I was OK, but it was the emotional part that really got me. I had to hide my feelings around others, which I usually do not do.
What is one thing you wish you knew before you were diagnosed?
There are many things I wish I had known before being diagnosed with cancer, but the biggest one was all the causes and risk factors. Maybe I could have prevented myself from getting it.
Is there a particular mantra or inspiration that helps you?
There are many inspirational verses, sites and people that have inspired me throughout my journey. But there is one expression I can always say freely and believe to be true, which is “This Too Shall Pass.” Nothing lasts forever.
If you could offer a woman, who has been newly diagnosed, some words of wisdom for her journey, what would you tell her?
I would love to offer any woman on a cancer journey the reality that throughout it all, I did not allow the diseases to take away who I am, or what I stand for. I am a two-time survivor, and living proof that cancer can happen to anyone. I continue to live my life. I look and feel just as beautiful, inside and out. And I shine brighter, because I am real.
What are you most proud of in your cancer journey?
Without question, I am most proud of the fact that I truly experienced what faith and belief are. I feel like I found the true meaning of life, and how I really feel about myself. I have experienced many trials and tribulations in my life, yet through it all, I gained strength that I never knew I had. I developed much more confidence in myself, which led me to love myself all over again. I had a new beginning, all on my own.
How has breast cancer affected your outlook on life and illness?
Cancer has affected my outlook on life in a large way. It taught me to not blink twice. It became an awakening for me. I enabled me to face beginnings, new hope. I do and see more of life in a whole new way. I now share words and phrases of encouragement, true words of faith, with others. I want to make a positive impact on someone who is ill or struggling, so that they can proceed with life in a new way as well.
Throughout this journey, how have you changed?
Surviving cancer has changed me for the better – I appreciate life that much more. I do not take it for granted. The scars and misshapes that are now attached to my body due to cancer are just that. They are symbols to help give otheres inspiration and hope. I am thankful, because if I had not struggled, I would not have found my true strength.