Health & Wellness

Surviving the Fear

Family and faith helped Karen through her Breast Cancer journey
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Educator and mother-of-two Karen Joyiens considered herself a very fit and healthy person when she went for her annual mammogram in summer 2016.

There was no history of breast cancer in her family, she ate healthily, exercised often and had no reason to suspect she might have the disease.

Ms Joyiens, 59, expected to get the usual letter from Bermuda Cancer and Health Centre telling her there was nothing unusual on her x-ray. Instead, she received a phone call.

“The fact that I got a phone call was scary,” she said. “They said something was a little different. I was very emotional.”

The centre had spotted something on her scan which indicated a change from the previous year.

Ms Joyiens was asked to go for an ultrasound, which detected a “very small lump” the size of a peanut. She then underwent a biopsy which confirmed she had stage 1A cancer.

She recalled her doctor telling her the diagnosis of lobular carcinoma in situ – a rare cancer in the milk glands of the breast.

“I think every single person, including myself, who hears the word cancer just panics,” she said. “I said to myself ‘I’m young, healthy, a go-getter, a people person. How could this possibly be’. I had thought my risk of getting breast cancer was almost non-existent.”

She added: “I cried. I’m like ‘why me?’. I’m such a good person. I treat people the way I want to be treated. It was hard.”

Her husband Byron, daughter Khayriyyah, 29, and son Khairi, 25, were equally devastated. “They cried in the beginning,” she said of her children. “I remember them shedding a tear because when you hear the word cancer you just think it’s a terminal disease.

“The doctor reassured them ‘It’s stage one, your mom is going to get the radiation treatment and she’s going to be okay’.”

Ms Joyiens underwent a lumpectomy to remove the tumour at King Edward VII Memorial Hospital and had a test which determined she didn’t need chemotherapy, as the cancer was “low-level” and had thankfully not spread.

But radiation was required and, at the time, it wasn’t possible to have it on island. BCHC has since opened a local radiation treatment therapy centre.

Ms Joyiens, the administrator at Southampton Pre-School, underwent a seven-week course of radiation at Northside Hospital Atlanta in early 2017, accompanied by her mother. She stayed at her sister’s home in the city and her husband and children were able to visit.

“It was a breeze,” she said of the treatment. “I went in there, put on my clothing. Because it was on my left breast, I had to take deep breaths because my heart is right there as well.”

The radiation was less gruelling than expected and there were no major side effects, just mild burns which cleared up with cream.

Being surrounded by relatives, and getting involved with her niece and nephew’s activities, helped enormously.

“I think because I had the family support, for me it was a home away from home. It was a lovely experience.”

Ms Joyiens said she felt “very confident” in her doctors here and abroad, with her religious faith proving a source of huge strength.

“I just felt I was in God’s hands,” she said. “I never for a second doubted anybody.”

Her treatment was successful and Ms Joyiens has now been in remission for five years – a milestone marked with a surprise party organised by her daughter and sister earlier this year.

She takes the hormone therapy drug Tamoxifen to prevent reoccurrence of the cancer and will have to do so for ten years.

Ms Joyiens meets regularly with other breast cancer survivors as part of a group called Just Between Us Divas.

“The newly diagnosed people get referred to us,” she said. “It’s like we are a listening ear – a helping hand.”

Ms Joyiens said it was wonderful to be able to talk with women of all ages who had “been down that road as well” and survived.

Members often take part in fundraising events, such as Relay for Life and the BF&M Breast Cancer Walk.

At the latter event in 2017, she did not feel able to join in when the organisers asked all breast cancer survivors to go on stage.

“I wasn’t ready to put it out there yet,” she said. “I wasn’t ready to share with the world that I was a breast cancer survivor. But in 2018 I went on the stage.”

Now she feels compelled to share her story and to encourage others to go for their annual mammograms, and regularly examine their breasts.

“If my pain, my experience, my testimony and my transparency can help somebody else, it is worth it,” she said.

Ms Joyiens is in no doubt that cancer changed her for the better, despite all that her body and mind have endured.

“I’m not the woman I once was,” she said. “I think God has used breast cancer to challenge me and stretch me.

“He has shown me things about myself that I frankly would have ignored but he doesn’t allow me that and for that I am grateful.

“I believe that God didn’t give me breast cancer but that he allowed it to happen and I’m truly blessed that, in the ways that count, I am better for it.”

Ms Joyiens said she no longer takes anything for granted, adding: “I try to live my best life. I do a lot of self-care. I just try to do right by people.”

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