As the daughter of a U.S. Naval Commander, Karen Nielsen’s childhood was always an adventure.

“Every time her had an international tour, the whole family went with him,” she remembered fondly. “My grandfather who was living with us, mom, my younger brother…even the dog!”

The closest thing she could ever call “home” would have been Jacksonville. It was here that she began a career managing large-scale apartment complexes and would eventually allow her to move farther south to Miami to be near her parents.

In the early 80s, they had purchased a quaint Conch cottage in Little Venice where they planned to retire and Karen still resides today. The doting daughter had transferred within the company to a complex in Miami, but a nearly fatal accident that forced her to go on disability turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

Her father had been diagnosed with lung cancer and had to return frequently to the mainland for treatments. During a drive back up to Jacksonville, the commander passed away on the passenger seat while Karen was driving.

So seven years later, after Karen lost her mother to lung cancer, she really had no idea what to expect when she received her diagnosis of breast cancer and endured scarring radiation treatments.

“I’d never had that first hand experience with cancer treatments because even though I took Dad, I was never in the room during his treatments,” she lamented.

After she moved permanently to Marathon, Karen was seeing a neurologist every six months for check-ups on her frequent migraines that resulted from her accident in Miami. She admitted that her breast self exams were infrequent at best when explaining that one night, while sitting on the couch watching television, her three Yorkies simultaneously dug their noses in her left breast.

“I didn’t know what they were doing, and I reached down and felt the lump in my breast,” she explained.

So on her next visit to Dr. Al Avery’s office, she casually asked him about the lump. He immediately referred her to Dr. Stephen Smith in Marathon who sent her to Fisherman’s Hospital for an ultrasound.

“They told me, ‘Well, we can’t say it’s not benign’,” she recalled of what began an extremely frustrating round of treatment for breast cancer.

Diagnosed only two months after her mother’s death, Karen’s comfortable existence had been shattered. Her family had been her solid foundation her entire life, and without her parents, she was forced to get herself to Key West five days a week for radiation treatment.

“It was so cold and impersonal when I got there every morning,” she recalled.

Her radiation sessions only lasted 60 seconds, but her breast was burned so badly, she and her boyfriend at the time tried to fashion a sling of duct tape to cradle her breast and relieve some of the pain.

Five days a week for eight weeks, she drove to Key West. Though her doctor told her chemotherapy would be the recommended course of treatment, he opted against it because after just turning 50, Karen was considered post-menopausal. She became so aggravated with the whole experience that she refused the last three radiation treatments.

Karen’s diagnosis and treatment demonstrate just how far things have come in just over a decade. The extreme depression that set in after her treatment was complete was not something for which she was prepared. Combined with the fact that she lost her appetite altogether, her weight dropped to barely 100 pounds.

“I didn’t almost die from cancer, but I almost died form starvation!” she explained dryly.

When her friends visited and saw her physical state, they immediately sprang into action bringing her meals and spending spare time with her. She also eventually found solace in returning when she felt able for morning fishing trips aboard The Marathon Lady.

Though a scar across her back will forever remind her of skin graft Dr. John Verghese was forced to take as part of her breast reconstructive surgery, Karen said she’s eternally grateful to Drs. Smith and Goldschlager for helping to save her life.


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