Battle of a natural fighter

It was the news Karen Diamond had been dreading. The painful lump in her right breast was cancerous.

It was the news Karen Diamond had been dreading. The painful lump in her right breast was cancerous. She was to undergo surgery a week later before starting a course of chemotherapy.

Unable to take it in, Karen bolted out of the door. The nurses dashed after her, calling for her to come back. But all Karen wanted to do was curl up on the sofa with her mum.

"I couldn't get out of there fast enough," she says. "I remember the doctor sitting me down and saying: `I'm really sorry but all the tests have confirmed you have cancer.' I burst into tears and kind of switched off from reality.

"I heard the words chemotherapy and operation, but I wasn't really listening. Even now looking back it's all a blur. They asked me if I had any questions and I just pushed past everyone and ran out. I got in my car and drove straight to my mam's.

"The lump had been hurting, but two doctors and a surgeon said they didn't think it was cancer. They sent me for a biopsy anyway and of course I was worried, but it was a terrible shock when I found out the results. I was only 36 and perfectly fit and healthy."

That was November 15. The date is etched on Karen's memory. One week later, Karen, now 37, was admitted into hospital to have 15 lymph nodes removed. She also had a lumpectomy before beginning chemotherapy just two days before Christmas.

She has just completed her fourth bout and has two more to go before moving on to radiotherapy. After four weeks of that she will start taking cancer drug Tamoxifen, which she is to remain on for the next five years. Today, sitting in her

Cramlington home and reliving the last four months, the chemo is taking its toll. Karen is feeling weak and is suffering from a chesty cough. But she has vowed to stay upbeat and her steely determination is helping her win the battle.

When her hair started to fall out she decided to go blonde by buying a set of glamorous wigs.

Although at times a huge struggle, she has even managed to continue working, taking as few as three days off from her job with a Northumberland design company for each chemotherapy session.

And, in keeping with her cheeky sense of humour, a plaster mould of Karen's pre-surgery breasts sit, pride of place in her kitchen.

"I had it done the day before I went in for surgery," she smiles. "I wanted to be able to remember what they were like in case I needed to have a mastectomy.

"The chemo makes me feel sick all the time and very tired. But it's all part and parcel of what's going to make me well again. When I started to lose my hair, in a lot of ways that was even worse than being told I had cancer. I was in a meeting at work and a clump of hair dropped out right in front of two clients. I just picked it off my chest, put it on the floor and carried on. But it was pretty horrendous.

"But you've just got to get on with things. You can't go through life thinking woe is me. I usually just wear a hat if I'm out and about and I wear a wig if I'm going to meet clients. I've always wanted to be a blonde and I love my blonde wig. And my hair is starting to grow back in little wisps.

"Obviously there are some days when I just want to stay in but I try and snap myself out of it. My friends, family and my boyfriend have all been brilliant. I don't know what I would have done without their support.

"It's been hard going but I'm on the road to recovery and that's what I'm focusing on. I'm through the worst of it because I know radiotherapy isn't as bad. I'm changing my diet and looking at ways I can keep on getting better. And I know I'll never go on a sunbed again.

"It's made me look at life in a different way. I always notice a beautiful sky or a sunset. Before I took them for granted."

As Karen recovers, she has turned her attention to raising breast cancer awareness. She has teamed up with best friend Vicky Lant, whose mother Jackie was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 57 in April 2004, to campaign for earlier screenings. After Jackie was diagnosed, solicitor Vicky, then 32, was refused a mammogram four times.

At the moment, the NHS programme provides free breast screening every three years for all women in the UK aged 50 and over. Around 1.5 million women are screened in the UK each year and all females aged between 50 and 70 are now routinely invited.

But despite the fact that around 8,000 women under the age of 50 are diagnosed with breast cancer each year - a quarter of these in their 20s and 30s - those under 50 are not offered routine screening. According to the experts, mammograms seem not to be as effective in pre-menopausal women, possibly because the density of the breast tissue makes it more difficult to detect problems.

Nevertheless, both Karen and Vicky, now 33, are convinced more lives could be saved if the Government lowered the age of the first routine screening to 40.

"My mum's diagnosis came completely out of the blue from a routine mammogram," explains Vicky, who lives in Killingworth. "The cancer was so deep that there was no lump. It's terrifying to think that if she hadn't gone for the screening then she might not be here now.

"Obviously I was worried for my mum but I was concerned for myself as well because now I was at an increased risk." For her own peace of mind, Vicky repeatedly asked her GP for a referral screening, but was told it was unlikely she needed one. On the fourth occasion, the doctor reluctantly agreed.

The Centre For Life asked her to fill in a family tree to research the history of cancer among her relatives.

But when Vicky finally went for her appointment at the RVI, expecting to have a mammogram, she was again turned away without being screened. By this time Karen had also been diagnosed.

"The whole process from the first request to the appointment had taken over a year." she says, "The same day I was having my appointment, Karen was having her lumpectomy.

"The genetic nurse at the RVI said I wasn't going to be screened because they didn't think I was a high enough risk. I was told that a mammogram would give me low dose of radiation which carries a risk. But surely that was my choice? I'm responsible enough to weigh that up on my own. I went home feeling very let down. I still do.

"But it's convinced me that we need a change in policy. In other countries such as Sweden and Australia they have routine screening from the age of 40 and America from 35. I know the British Government is considering lowering the age to 40 and we want to urge them forward."

Vicky and Karen have enlisted the help of pal Jenny Westgarth to launch their CheckMate campaign with a lavish breast cancer ball at Newcastle's Assembly Rooms in May.

"As it happens, everyone has been brilliant and very thorough with me," says Karen. "Wansbeck Hospital especially has been wonderful. But what if I'd been turned away?

"The more Vicky and I talked about it, the more we became committed to do something about it. We've done a fair bit of research and sometimes, by the time you reach 50, the cancer has been there for 10 years.

"Surely if the option for breast screening was there for women in their 30s and 40s we could catch cases earlier and save more lives.

"As things stand, the NHS screening programme saves 1,400 lives every year. We could save even more if they reduced the age where women had the option to go for it.

"I really want to make a difference and get things changed."

NKaren's website www.lifes-balance.com with a section dedicated to surviving breast cancer goes live at the end of next week.

Karen's fight for a brighter future

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