Editor’s note: The Chronicles of Hope are the real life stories of those helped by Komen for the Cure’s commitment to the care, research and understanding of breast cancer. These are their stories.
Karen Durham is a 23-year breast cancer survivor. In 1989 she was diagnosed with Stage II, ER+ breast cancer.
Ms. Durham remembers that at the time, “They didn’t know much more than that about it. They didn’t have the complete breakdown of tumors back then.”
Ms. Durham worked for the Federal Aviation Administration. She took a five-month leave of absence to receive treatment, which included a radical mastectomy, lymph node removal and nine months of chemotherapy.
In January 1991, immediately after finishing chemotherapy, a scan revealed that she had hyper dysplasia in her right breast. The doctor recommended surgery for the pre-cancerous condition and she underwent a second mastectomy.
At such a young age, Ms. Durham didn’t know anyone who had been diagnosed with any kind of cancer.
She recalled, “It was just before Christmas and I thought that I was going to die, I really did. My surgeon told me that I needed to get my affairs in order and I didn’t want to know what that meant.”
By March, Ms. Durham was attending a support group where she met and bonded with a woman who had been diagnosed one year before Ms. Durham, almost to the day. Ms. Durham learned that people could survive a cancer diagnosis.
She took another short leave of absence but worked through the majority of her treatment, including reconstruction.
She said it was difficult to return to work because everyone knew what she had been through. She suddenly felt weak in the male-centric workforce where she had worked as an electronic technician.
Due to her radical mastectomy, most of the muscle had been removed from her chest and she physically could not do the lifting she had done before. Because so many lymph nodes were removed, Ms. Durham suffers from chronic, sever lymphedema.
She has recurring infections in the left arm, wears a compression sleeve, and undergoes frequent manual lymph drainage.
Ms. Durham joined a work training program and soon became the communications manager for the Dallas/Fort Worth airport. Still, she felt as though her co-workers viewed her differently.
Thankfully, Ms. Durham had a good support system and her husband became her rock. Ms. Durham reports that during those early years “Tom did much better that I did!”
Today, her husband continues to be Ms. Durham’s greatest supporter.
After 19 years in remission, in February 2009, Ms. Durham was diagnosed with Stage IV metastatic breast cancer.
Ms. Durham is back in treatment, and Tom has accompanied her on all but one medical appointment. Her conclusion: “I think I’ll keep him!”
For Ms. Durham, the diagnosis of metastatic disease was “just as devastating, or even more so then the first time.”
The hardest thing has been the realization that surgery is not an option and that she will be in some kind of treatment for the rest of her life.
Ms. Durham has an unusual kind of metastasis that has resulted in an invasive tumor in a muscle under her left collarbone. She said, “It took me a year to accept that they were not going to remove the tumor.”
Doctors suggested that Ms. Durham join a clinical trial because there is no known treatment for breast cancer tumors that have invaded the muscle.
To date, Ms. Durham has experienced minimal side effects from a drug combination that has proven effective in patients with leukemia. The treatment has kept her cancer from growing for just over four years.
If the cancer does progress, Ms. Durham knows she will have to try a new treatment.
After completing treatment in 1991, Ms. Durham became deeply involved with Komen and served in several volunteer positions at the Dallas Affiliate.
In 1995, she moved to Tucson, Ariz., and became a founding board member of the Southern Arizona Komen Affiliate. When she returned to Texas in 2000, Ms. Durham became a volunteer for the Tyler affiliate, where she has held a myriad of roles and currently serves as the Affiliate Grants Chair. Ms. Durham represented the Tyler Affiliate at National Lobby Day in Washington, D.C., in 2008, and has been active in Komen public policy in Texas since 2007.
For many years of dedicated service, Ms. Durham has been acknowledged by the organization through the Komen Cameo Award (2005) and Promise of One Award (2009). In addition, the Tyler Affiliate awarded her with the Joyce Greenburg Volunteer of the Year Award (2011) and she will serve as this year’s Race for the Cure honorary chairwoman.