“My Voice” by Karen Yee

Karen Yee - 'Survivor'

I noticed something was different about my breast.  It looked yellow and a little pinched.   I was 43, and hadn’t had a mammogram yet.  I looked in the phone book and found a listing for “Breastlink Breast Center”.  I went in on a Wednesday for my appointment.  They did a biopsy that day, and I returned on Friday to hear the results. I was told I had inflammatory breast cancer.  I started chemotherapy the following Monday.  I did this for five months to shrink the cancer cells before I could have surgery.  I had a radical mastectomy and all the lymph nodes in my right arm were removed.  It turned out 35 of 50 lymph nodes were affected.  After that I resumed my chemotherapy for another three months.  My veins by this time were completely shot, and it became more and more anxiety producing every chemo visit.  When I finally finished with chemo, I had three months of radiation treatment.  This brought me to the anniversary of my diagnosis.  My doctor told me  I was “cancer free”.  The following year brought multiple reconstructive surgeries.  I felt I had been through the wringer.  I wanted to feel normal again, and wanted it all to go away.  I fell into a deep depression, and denial.  I had had enough of doctors poking and prodding me.  I felt like an empty shell and a rag doll.  I stopped going to my oncologist for my biannual check-ups after four years and tried to pretend I wasn’t sick anymore.  Unfortunately, in February 2008 I mysteriously lost my voice.  I ending up going to an ENT in May who told me I had a paralyzed vocal cord.  Since the most prominent reason for this is a tumor pressing on the cord, and with my case history, the doctor ordered PT and CAT scans.  He told me they came back negative, it wasn’t cancer.  I learned that once a vocal cord is paralyzed, it can up to a year to come back, or it could become a permanent condition.  I waited for my voice to come back, but it steadily grew worse.  I felt run down, tired and about the same as I felt when I was undergoing chemo.  I finally went to another ENT in November of that year who ran the same tests.  This time he told me it was cancer that had metastasized to my bones. The lesions were pressing on the vocal cord and caused the paralysis.  I went back to my oncologist who put me on oral medication and monthly infusions to strengthen my bones.  Within four months I was back in remission. The lesions had shrunk so significantly, they were almost nonexistent and my voice came back.   I am now a two time cancer survivor of 7 years since my initial diagnosis.  I know now this is something I can not ignore.  I have made my peace with the fact that I deal with this for the rest of my life.  Thankfully, and hopefully, I will be able to do that for a long time.

When I think about being a survivor, and what surviving cancer means to me, I think about what I have done since that day I was told I had inflammatory breast cancer.  I had always wanted to see Europe, but didn’t have the chance before dealing with cancer.  So I made a point to go in 2006, and again in 2009, both times with my family.

Also,  I started an art career after learning about my cancer.  My mother had painted with oils when I was a child.  I was always surrounded by art, and expressed my artistic side in many ways, mostly drawing and craft-like projects, but felt oil painting was the “major leagues” and even though I wanted to, felt it was not for me.  So when I was faced with my mortality, I decided it was now or never and took an oil painting class.  I also had a feeling of wanting to leave something for my daughters, a sort of legacy, if you will.  Now that I am a survivor, and don’t feel death looming over my shoulder quite yet, I still paint and savor every day and every painting I make.  I now consider myself a fine artist, and this is a part of myself that was born completely after surviving cancer.  I would have to say it is even in part due to having had cancer.

I am grateful for every experience I have had since being told I was cancer free, and I look forward to each and every moment to come.

Karen’s Art:

Karen Yee 'Self Portrait'

Karen Yee 'Self Portrait'