A new future for Ascension Illinois breast cancer survivor

This Chicagoan didn’t let a loved one’s death scare her away from getting timely care for breast cancer at Ascension Resurrection.

Tripping and falling to the ground can leave you suffering from chronic pain. It can even be fatal. For Karen Wilson, though, a fall may have saved her life.

In February 2018, Karen fell on a sidewalk near her Chicago home, causing a slight pain under her left arm. As the months went by, the pain grew worse and worse.

“I thought I might have broken my ribs,” she recalled.

Karen, 63, intended to see a doctor about it, but she was too busy with other concerns. Her sister, Diane, was in palliative care for an aggressive form of endometrial cancer. She passed away in October, leaving no will, and it fell to Karen to manage her estate.

“I was running here and there, to the banks and to the lawyers, and all this time, my side is hurting like nothing else,” said Karen.

It was the winter holidays before she finally had a chance to see her primary care doctor. The doctor she met with immediately referred Karen to Mark Karides, MD, an oncologist she recognized from Diane’s care team at Ascension Resurrection. Dr. Karides and his team worked quickly to give her a diagnosis.

“They got me in right away,” Karen said. “They were so good. Dr. Karides got my biopsy scheduled on Christmas Eve. That’s how fast it was.”

As Dr. Karides delivered the diagnosis of stage 3 breast cancer, all she could think of was what Diane had gone through. Dr. Karides told her that her cancer was not what her sister had. He reassured Karen that he knew what type of cancer she had and how to treat it.

It was exactly what she needed to hear.

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Life doesn’t stop during chemotherapy for breast cancer

Karren standing on the staircaseKaren is very close to her family. Her sister had lived in the house next door to Karen and her husband, David, in Norwood Park. After Diane’s passing, Karen’s daughter, Catherine, moved in with her husband and two children. Karen’s son also lives within driving distance.

This support network helped sustain her through all the ups and downs of treatment, starting with chemotherapy every three weeks from February through June. This was in addition to 12 monthly infusions of trastuzumab, a medication for breast cancer that has spread to the lymph nodes.

A self-described control freak, Karen came to appreciate the downtime during these sessions. 

“Watching TV and reading the cards my friends sent me was a luxury,” said Karen. “I’m usually really busy doing something.”

When recovering at home, Karen liked to lose herself in the little things. She built a detailed miniature of a Cape Cod cottage with working lights and furnished rooms.

For Karen, one of the hardest parts was losing her hair. Luckily, she found a beautiful wig in Skokie.

“I wore it to my son’s wedding and got a lot of compliments on my hair,” she laughed.

Karen appreciated how her care team worked her treatments around her top priorities in life. In July 2019, her mastectomy was scheduled for the same day that Karen’s son was getting his Master’s in school psychology. Karen notified her team that “I’m going to crawl through broken glass to get to that ceremony.” They pushed her appointment back a week.

Chicago breast cancer survivor Karen Wilson shows off the miniature-style bungalow and Cape Cod cottage she built during chemotherapy.
Karen shows off the miniature-style bungalow and Cape Cod cottage she built during chemotherapy.

Breast cancer surgery and reconstruction

Karen had two pleasant surprises when it came time to surgically remove the cancerous tissue from her left breast. First, advances in chemotherapy and immunotherapy have in turn led to advances in breast cancer surgery, allowing surgeons to remove less tissue and fewer lymph nodes. Second, her surgeon would be a woman who understood her concerns: Rabia Bhatti, MD.

A board-certified general surgeon who performs breast surgery at Ascension Resurrection, Dr. Bhatti has honed her skills with techniques that hide scars and preserve the nipple and physical sensation in the breast. She also worked closely with Karen’s plastic surgeon, Stefan M. Szczerba, MD, to coordinate breast reconstruction. The goal is to make as few changes to the breast’s look and function as possible.

Dr. Bhatti recognizes how traumatic a mastectomy can be for a woman’s self-image, so she often focuses on the perks. 

“I often tell my patients, ‘the bad news is you have breast cancer,” said Dr. Bhatti. “'The good news is we can remove the cancer and give you new, perkier breasts.’ And that does so much to put them at ease and alleviate their fears.”

Dr. Bhatti was careful to remove as few of Karen’s lymph nodes as possible in order to minimize any swelling in the left arm afterward that could turn into lymphedema. Karen was able to alleviate her swelling with physical therapy.

Karen’s care plan was completed with six weeks of radiation therapy, which used a highly targeted particle beam to eliminate her remaining cancer cells. When this part of her treatment became uncomfortable, Karen remembered the words of her father, a U.S. Army veteran who had a bomb land so close to him during World War II that it showered him with dirt, yet did not explode: “Every day is a gift. How you use it is up to you.”

Cancer doesn’t wait. Neither should you.

Chicago breast cancer survivor Karen Wilson holding shrapnel from a WW2-era bomb

(Image, Left) Karen holding a piece of the bomb that taught her father "every day is a gift.

Karen still remembers calling her husband on June 6, 2019, to tell him that she was officially in remission, and how the news brought him to tears. He took Karen out to celebrate with dinner at their favorite Italian restaurant. It’s a tradition they’ve kept up ever since.

“I consider every June 6 my new birthday,” said Karen.

Karen is glad to be active again. She walks her dog four miles per day. She is back to work with the family business: Village Cycle Center in Old Town, a popular bike shop that has been frequented by Chicago celebrities and athletes.

Karen is also giving back as a community representative for Ascension Resurrection’s breast cancer program.

“By sharing what I went through — the treatments, picking out wigs, what to eat — I want to let women like me know that it’s not so bad on the other side,” she said.

And if watching a loved one go through cancer has made you reluctant to see your own doctor, Karen would like a word with you:

“Cancer doesn’t wait. If you suspect something, go! Go to your doctor as fast as your legs can carry you. Every year, they’re coming up with new drugs and new treatments. Everyone on this journey is there to help you.”