As a little girl, Karen Lewis lost four aunts to breast cancer. Karen was petrified that she would die as they had, and her fear grew with age.
At 40, she had her first mammogram. After evaluating the findings and noting an abnormality, the radiologist recommended Karen return in six months. Instead of six months, Karen waited six years.
Finding an ally
"I thought if I did nothing, whatever it was would just go away," Karen says. But after years of worrying, Karen dug deep to find the strength to get another mammogram. In doing so, she laid the groundwork for beginning a new chapter in her life. "I knew I had to take care of myself," she says.
The second mammogram revealed something suspicious, and Karen's anxieties skyrocketed. Finally, at the urging of a friend, Karen sought the help of Andrea Madrigrano, MD, a breast cancer surgeon at Rush.
A biopsy confirmed Karen had an early form of breast cancer, ductal carcinoma in situ, in which abnormal cells appear in the milk ducts. Her cancer had the potential to spread into her breast tissue and lymph nodes, which is why treatment was crucial.
"I was crying, but Dr. Madrigrano touched my arm and said, ‘You are not going to die from this,'" Karen recalls. "She always made time for me. She made me feel like I was her only patient."
Because Karen's disease affected a large portion of her breast, Madrigrano recommended a mastectomy. Karen then made a seemingly odd request: She asked Madrigrano to remove both breasts.
"We approach each patient's treatment individually — for some patients a breast-sparing operation and radiation therapy may be in order; for others a mastectomy," Madrigrano says. "We don't take removing a cancerous breast, much less a noncancerous one, lightly. But considering Karen's almost crippling anxieties, it was the right call for her."
A new perspective
Today, Karen feels confident for the first time. "That fear I carried around since I was nine is gone," Karen says. And now that she's faced down breast cancer, she's conquering other fears as well.
She speaks publicly to share her experiences and help others. And for the first time ever, she is self-assuredly wearing sundresses, thanks to her reconstructive surgery performed by plastic surgeon George Kouris, MD. "After something so life-changing, all these little fears seem like no big deal," she says.