They say bad luck runs in threes.
That was certainly the case for Papamoa’s Karen Kemp, with surgery for a hole in her heart followed by a hysterectomy in 2015 and a diagnosis of breast cancer the following year.
“I turned 50 and it all went to custard,” she laughs.
Three years later, she is on the road to recovery and enjoying a well-deserved holiday with her husband, Vince.
Before the pair left for sunnier climes they spoke to The Weekend Sun for Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
Karen’s breast cancer was diagnosed after a routine mammogram. “That’s when the journey began,” she says, “and it is a journey with many stops and bumps along the way. Sometimes you have to take a deep breath when you’re on that journey.
“I found a lot of inner strength that I didn’t think I had. Once I was told [about the cancer] I thought ‘right, I’m gonna beat this’.”
She has undergone a mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiation, but the experience has not all been negative, says Karen, because she has made new friends along the way, including volunteers from the Cancer Society and the Breast Cancer Support Services Tauranga Trust.
“It was the hug,” she explains, “and just knowing you could chat and ask things you thought sounded silly. Clinicians are very clinical; they don’t really look at the whole person in terms of emotions. “Going [to breast cancer support] was a real help, and every now and then they would call or email just to touch base.”
Karen and Vince also appreciated the frozen meals delivered to their door for those times when they just didn’t feel up to cooking.
Vince joined the trust’s men’s support group, which gave him the opportunity to talk about how he was feeling and listen to others going through a similar experience.
He says he felt the pressure of being “everything” all of a sudden - breadwinner, cook, cleaner and nurse. “Some men just can’t do it,” he says, “and I don’t know how some guys manage with a family.
“Our whole life stopped for three-and-a-half years. It’s difficult financially, and Karen will never be the same again. For a guy that’s hard. Guys need support too.”
Karen agrees that the carers are often forgotten.
“Sometimes we forget about our partners because it’s all focussed on you to get well,” she says. “They are going through a tough time too.”
The support groups were invaluable for Karen and Vince, who battled through her illness without family support. They also credit their dogs for helping them cope.
“Lucy helped get me through this,” says Karen. “I had her by my side constantly, even when the nurses came to do procedures. She just sat there and watched.”
Karen says having a sense of humour, and making the most of opportunities to have fun, has been important for the couple.
“When I lost my hair it was sad, but we got a bottle of champagne and Vinnie shaved my head and we took shave foam pictures.
“And when I was bald, breast cancer support had a day of henna tattooing and I got my whole head done.”
Despite the laughs along the way, Karen says she became quite depressed at the end of her treatment.
“I thought ‘now what do I do?’, because your whole life revolves around it. You can get that really down feeling.”
But the ‘now what?’ for Karen has become living in the moment and enjoying the simple things in life. In tears, she recalls a quote from a young man she knew who died from cancer recently.
“He said ‘if I could tell my 18-year-old self what I know now, it would be don’t stress’. I want to live my life. We stress about work and money and it’s not worth it.”
To top off the run of bad luck, Karen was recently made redundant, but far from being glum about it, she sees it as an opportunity to give back. She recently attended a ‘Look Good, Feel Better’ event for cancer patients and would like to become a volunteer.
“Sometimes it’s true that you can’t give people advice unless you’ve walked in their shoes,” she says, “or given them a hug and said ‘I know how you feel’.
“It’s a new beginning.”
The Breast Cancer Foundation Pink Ribbon Street Appeal is on today and tomorrow, October 12-13. Volunteers will be accepting donations at collection points throughout Tauranga.