Diagnosed with stage 3 invasive ductal carcinoma, Karen Kriegshauser insisted she was untouchable. She recalls her and her husband of 16 years, Coby, vacationing and spotting fellow travelers or locals who were ill, and the empty nesters would count their blessings and thank God they were both healthy. The now 43-year-old mother of one never once assumed she would be one of those “sick” people some day. Breast cancer does not run in her family, giving Karen no qualms about her breast health.
In December 2010, Karen was going about her morning routine when her palm brushed against her breast, detecting a lump. Having undergone a breast augmentation and lift 18 months prior, Karen shrugged her discovery off, yet consulted the opinion of her employer, Dr. Patrick Proffer.
“I’ll never forget that look on his face,” Karen says. “He made a funny face and said, ‘We better get a mammogram.’” Dr. Proffer continuously urged her to make that appointment, but despite his insistence and a suspicion that kept Karen rubbing the lump throughout the day, she still convinced herself she was impervious to cancer.
Two days after Christmas, Karen received the news from her radiologist that the lump was indeed cancerous. The diagnosis blindsided them all, she says. Karen remembers watching the ball drop in Times Square that New Year’s Eve, weeping and heaving as she thought this would be the last time she could observe the holiday tradition with her husband and daughter, Kambrie.
But within a week, Karen’s prayers for peace were answered, and she discarded her dark outlook. “I put my boxing gloves on and I was ready to go,” she laughs, as if her imminent battle for her life was nothing but a friendly scrimmage. “I was ready to fight.”
Karen says she stayed on track and never entered the anger process. She remained optimistic about her diagnosis, and after chemotherapy, she returned to work the next day, a decision that proved a valuable form of therapy. Instead of sitting at home, dwelling on her diagnosis, Karen stayed busy and received constant support and encouragement from her coworkers.
Karen’s buoyant outlook continued to soar until day 13 of her chemotherapy. As clumps of blond, straight hair amassed in her hands, melancholy and trepidation spread throughout her body. Karen admits losing her hair was the most difficult part of the process, and the preparation did not make going bald easier. Her hair was part of her image, an attractive image she wanted to hold onto for dear life.
She didn’t want her husband’s coworkers and old buddies to pity them; she didn’t want to be known as Coby Kriegshauser’s ailing wife. “As women, I think we feel like our hair helps define us,” Karen notes. “We’re so self-conscious about our appearance that it was just very, very hard for me that people were going to be seeing a bald head. I just felt it would show people I was sick.”
Karen eventually gave in to the inevitable and asked some of her girlfriends over one night to shave her head. Her husband, who has been a solid rock throughout, Karen says, wandered into the bathroom, and rather than flinching or gasping, he breathed, “Honey, beautiful,” words that still warm Karen’s heart whenever she replays that moment in her mind.
Instead of opting for expensive wigs, Karen decided to have fun with her makeover, and topped her head with hot pink and neon green do’s every day. It made her smile, as well as others around her. About eight weeks later, when Karen’s hair began to sprout, the itchiness and heat of the wigs became overwhelming. So she tossed the wigs and held her hairless head high, a moment she describes as “freeing.”
Karen chose to have a bilateral mastectomy, apprehensive that cancer was “lurking behind the other breast,” and in August of last year, she underwent her first reconstruction. Four surgeries to remove and replace the expander in her left breast and one year later, Karen is still without breasts. Skin too thin for expanders and consecutive infections have prevented a successful reconstruction, and if her most recent surgery does not go well, Karen says she is ready to call it quits.
“I learned through reconstruction that boobs are ridiculously overrated,” Karen chuckles, a laugh exuding a sense of liberation. “If I have any more problems with this surgery, I’m done! I’ve decided I don’t care if I have boobs for the rest of my life. Hair and breasts are completely overrated.”
In December, Karen can officially declare she is in remission. For two years, she has spread hope and faith among other women with breast cancer, but Karen reveals she was not always a positive person. Surviving breast cancer and getting involved with Susan G. Komen for the Cure has given her a second chance to change her attitude toward life and make a contribution to the community. As the 2012 Honorary Race Chair of the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure, the Sept. 29 annual race was Karen’s second.
“I feel like I hit the lottery and I’m going to claim my check on race day,” Karen says in anticipation. “It’s so touching to see all those women with survivor shirts on… Everybody is out there for one person.”
by Drew Belle Zerby
After graduating from LSU in 2009, Drew Belle worked as a page designer in north Louisiana until moving to Amarillo and joining AGN Media in late 2010. In her spare time, she loves to read, travel and spout out useless movie trivia.