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Jaimie Kim

Emboldened By A Bout With Cancer

Beating breast cancer changed the way Karen Garcia looked at life, and she came out stronger

She stood in the shower, tugging out the remains of her hair.

This is a scene in Karen M. Garcia’s autobiography If I Fall Apart: A Memoir of Breast Cancer and Bilateral Mastectomy.

Published in August, the book provides a candid account of her breast cancer diagnosis, treatment and survival.

It was a project she started as a way to share her story with her two daughters and future generations within the family, and she was largely influenced by her desire to inform other women.

“All during my treatment I was looking for a way to help other women,” she says.

Admittedly difficult at the start, Garcia began penning her thoughts in January.

Her story began with something as innocuous as a lump.

On any other area of her body, it might not have garnered any concern. But this time, it was a lump she found in her left breast while doing a self-examination.

She chose to ignore it – something she sees as “dumb” in retrospect.

“Apparently, when it happens to you, it’s totally different,” she says. “It’s easy to ignore stuff.”

Nearly a year later, the lump forgotten, Garcia found herself in her doctor’s office for an immediate follow-up appointment after a routine mammogram.

She listened as the mammogram technologist informed her that a lump had been detected in her left breast.

Dread filled her as she suddenly remembered the lump she had felt and ignored in July the year before.

After a series of tests to confirm what Garcia instinctually suspected, she was diagnosed with Stage IIB breast cancer in February 2007.

It was news that brought her and husband Nestor to tears.

With no way of running, emotion was short-lived as she realized the severity of her diagnosis and made a decision to fight for her life.

Her doctor told her that the best chance of survival would be to undergo a mastectomy, a procedure that would remove her breast and its tissue all the way to her collarbone. Not wanting to go through the experience again, she quickly made the decision to have a bilateral mastectomy.

“I didn’t think about … how I would look afterward,” she says. “I just wanted it out.”

The next month she underwent her first surgery to remove both breasts.

In the period of treatment that followed, Garcia went through chemotherapy and reconstructive surgery.

In April 2008, she completed active treatment and currently is down to one routine visit to her oncologist every six months.

The pains of the aftermath of surgery and the exhaustion and physical toll chemotherapy wrought, and even her life after surviving, are all told in excruciating detail, but with a voice of strength that is a testament to her character.

With stories of friends who supported her during her treatment and recovery, her biggest champion through everything has remained her husband of more than 30 years.

All you have to do is open the book.

“His name is on almost every page,” she says, laughing.

Most importantly, the autobiography was something born of Garcia discovering herself and finding a place of contentment and satisfaction with her life.

“What happens with a lot of women after going through breast cancer treatment is they become really bold,” she says, “and that happened to me, too.”

Garcia went back to school while still working full time, and in 2011 she graduated with an executive MBA from Shidler College of Business at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

Currently, she works as an executive secretary at Hawaiian Electric Company.

“I’ve always projected the image of being very confident,” she says, “but inside, I’ve always had doubts and now … I feel just as confident and bold as I might appear on the outside.”

October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

“Get your mammogram on time, don’t wait,” says Garcia. “And the other thing is, if you are faced with this type of life-threatening situation, you need to have hope.”

On Oct. 4, Garcia participated in The Power of Pink. The night, sponsored by A Little Bit of Everything, commemorated National Breast Cancer Awareness Month and raised $500 for the Women’s Center Fund at Kapiolani Medical Center for Women and Children.

“If I Fall Apart: A Memoir of Breast Cancer and Bilateral Mastectomy” can be found online at amazon.com and in local stores: A Little Bit of Everything, Hawaii Pacific Health gift shops on Oahu, Highway Inn and Waipahu Dry Cleaners.

For more information about Garcia, visit her blog, whitegingerpress.com.

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