By Keysha Drexel
Karen Burton, 48, of Hoover thought she was doing everything right to take care of her health.
Burton lost her mother to breast cancer, and so she started getting mammograms when she was just 26 years old to make sure any potential problems were detected early.
Despite her vigilance, Burton was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009.
“I thought I was doing the right thing with the early mammograms, but no one ever told me that for women with dense breast tissue, MRIs are better for making an early diagnosis,” Burton said.
Burton was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer and was told the disease had not spread to her lymph nodes. She had a lumpectomy and was released from medical care.
Burton had genetic testing done after the lumpectomy and found she does not carry the gene for breast cancer.
“I thought everything was fine at that point, that the surgery had removed it all and that I was on my way back,” she said.
But through the insistence of her friends, Burton decided to get a second opinion.
“I just wanted to be extra-careful, and there was a little voice inside me telling me to seek a second opinion,” she said.
When she was tested by doctors at another hospital, she was told she would need a double mastectomy to fight the breast cancer.
The news from the doctors did not improve from there, she said.
“I woke up from having a double mastectomy to learn that the cancer had spread to my lymph nodes,” Burton said. “I couldn’t believe it.”
After six weeks of chemotherapy and 33 radiation treatments, Burton’s breast cancer is in remission. She has scans every six months. Her most recent one this summer showed she is still cancer-free.
Even before her diagnosis, Burton said she felt it was important to raise awareness about breast cancer.
“The statistic is mind-boggling, and I don’t think a lot people realize that one in eight women will be affected by breast cancer in their lifetimes,” she said.
That’s why Burton has been a participant in the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure for several years. Each year, she organizes a team from her office to participate in the fundraising walk and run at Linn Park in downtown Birmingham.
“Even before I had cancer, I walked in the Komen Race,” she said. “But it is a different experience to participate after you are a breast cancer survivor.”
Burton said walking as a breast cancer survivor in the Komen Race for the Cure made her “feel really proud and blessed to be there as a survivor and to see all the other survivors” decked out in their pink attire.
The urge to reach out to others struggling with breast cancer was even more prominent after her diagnosis, Burton said.
“After you get your diagnosis and people know about it, they start coming to you for comfort and advice,” she said. “It was something I felt called to do.”
Burton sends out notes to breast cancer patients and survivors and takes the time to text and email those people she knows about who are fighting for their lives.
“I take food to people, give them a hug, do whatever I can to encourage and inspire women who are dealing with this,” she said.
In June, Burton was presented with the American Cancer Society’s Life Inspiration Award at The Club in Birmingham.
The ACS Life Inspiration Awards began 17 years ago with the aim of recognizing those who make special efforts to ease the battle against cancer.
“It is my prayer every day that God will put me where I need to be to inspire someone else to get through this,” Burton said.
Burton said women with breast cancer often ask her questions about the worst parts of battling the disease, and she said she is always honest with them so that they know what to expect.
Burton said she thought she was prepared for what to expect from the double mastectomy, the chemotherapy and the radiation as she started her battle against breast cancer. But she said there were some tough moments nonetheless.
“You can try to prepare yourself about the changes that are going to take place with your body, but looking at the scars, losing your hair, your eyelashes, your eyebrows, all that can be hard,” she said.
Burton said she was lucky to be surrounded by caring family and friends while she fought breast cancer.
“My children were older and pretty self-sufficient, and my husband cooked and helped out so much,” she said. “But there were still times when all I had the energy to do was make it through the workday.”
Not having the energy to be a “super mom” was also a tough part of the treatment, Burton said.
She was always the mother who went to every school and social event, taking photos of her children and being there to support them at every turn, she said.
“One of the worst nights of my life was when my daughter was getting all dressed up to go out, and I just didn’t have the energy to go and take her picture,” Burton said.
Burton said she fought to maintain a good attitude throughout her treatment and felt God put people in her path along the way to encourage her when she needed it.
One day after she had lost her hair due to the radiation and chemo treatments, Burton was shopping in a home improvement store and wearing her Susan G. Komen Foundation pink hat.
“A woman I had never seen before in my life came up to me out of the blue and asked me if she could hug me,” Burton said. “And I told her sure.”
The woman proceeded to tell Burton that she knew she was afraid of dying. That’s when, Burton said, she broke down in tears.
“It was like she was reading my mind because I was having a hard day that day,” she said.
But the encounter left Burton stronger and inspired her to encourage women battling breast cancer.
“She told me that she had breast cancer 12 years ago and that she was healthy,” Burton said. “I took her message as a sign to keep fighting, just keep fighting.”
And the fight might also involve not only breast cancer but doctors, too, Burton said.
“Women have to speak up for themselves, and sometimes you might be fighting your own doctor or the diagnosis the doctors give you,” she said.
Burton encouraged women to do their own research and be informed about all their treatment options.
“Don’t skip that mammogram, insist on an MRI if you have dense breast tissue, learn about the disease and you’ll be ready to fight,” she said.
Even though beating breast cancer was one of the hardest things she has ever done, Burton said the diagnosis was actually a blessing in disguise.
“I’ve actually thanked God before for the diagnosis because it changed me, for the better,” she said. “I used to me a major control freak. So many things that used to be the end of the world, now I know they are no big deal.”
Burton said winning her fight against breast cancer has given her a confidence she didn’t have before. It’s something she hopes other breast cancer patients and survivors will take to heart.
“I am so confident in who I am now and just try to focus on being thankful for each day,” she said. “I just want to be the best person I can be.”