Karen Hockney, like anyone else was in shock when her doctors told her that she had cancer, especially since she was a healthy woman, ran marathons and had never even tried a cigarette. However, cancer doesn’t discriminate and as much as we all like to think, ‘it will never happen to me,’ it could.
Karen’s story is slightly different to others, when she found out the shocking news she was living in the south of France. This naturally complicated the situation given language barriers and a health system that was foreign to her. Karen also worried about her job, as a writer featured in some of the biggest publications around, such as The Times and Hello, she spent much of her time hopping around the globe interviewing some of the most well known people n the world. She worried about the effects of chemotherapy – hair loss, sickness and exhaustion, to name a few of the side effects.
Breathing Out is Karen’s story, she offers to the reader what she has learned and her personal experience in a voice that is hopeful, humourous and positive. It is unimaginable the emotions that one must feel when face with a cancer diagnosis, but Karen tries to walk us through how she dealt with it, how you can deal with it if you find yourself in that situation, with an honesty that is inspirational.
Karen graciously spent some time with us recently to tell us more about her journey and her incredible book, Breathing Out.
Karen, tell me about your diagnosis.
I found a lump in my right breast while on holiday in Italy in August 2011. I booked a mammogram for when I got home, was called back for a biopsy and within three weeks, I was told I had breast cancer and needed surgery. Once I started down the testing route, I knew it was not going to be good news, I don’t know how, I just had a strong sense of foreboding. My husband and I decided to keep my tests secret from our family and friends until we knew for sure. Waiting to hear during those three weeks and hiding my worries was very tough. Every waking moment was dominated by the thought ‘do I have cancer?’ and trying to second guess what was going to happen to me. Meanwhile, all around me, life continued as normal.
Living in France it must have been daunting facing your treatment in a foreign country. Did you consider coming home?
Yes. Once I was told I needed surgery, I thought about having my operation and follow up treatment in London. Dealing with a serious illness in a foreign language was a big concern but I knew that France had a very good record for treating cancer and for survival rates. I also didn’t want to be on a plane back and forth at a time when I was very weak, in pain and unable to have my immediate family around me for support. Things started moving very quickly, my operation was booked and I decided that I would have to swot up on medical terms and get on with it. In hindsight, I am very pleased that I decided to have my treatment in France.
What support did you have?
My family and friends were amazing. I was overwhelmed with kind words, books, flowers, phone calls, cards and emails of support from so many people. I think most people were quite shocked that this was happening to me. My husband Iain was a real rock, there was never any other attitude than ‘we are going to beat this together.’ It was very hard for my daughters, who were 16 and 12 at the time, but they too were amazing.
An accomplished journalist with an extremely busy life, you managed to eat healthy and stay fit. How much of that changed once you were diagnosed?
Surprisingly little. I quickly realised through researching cancer and diet that my best option was to completely overhaul my diet (which was already Med based and mainly vegetarian), keep as active as possible and give my body all the help it could possibly need to get through the operations and chemotherapy. I went on an alkalising food plan devised for me by a nutritionist, cutting out gluten, cow dairy, alcohol, bad fats and refined sugar and continued to play tennis, run, swim and walk as often as I could. I also skied a couple of times during chemotherapy. Taking such an active role gave me back a little bit of control at a time when I really needed to feel like I was doing something constructive.
How did you cope with a diagnosis of breast cancer?
If I’m honest, although I was expecting bad news, I was totally shocked when my GP broke the news that I had cancer. I did feel it was a little unfair but I didn’t dwell on the injustice of it as it is now affecting one in two people. I have always led a healthy active lifestyle and had a very positive outlook and I think that put me in a strong position to fight back. But I think my friends felt ‘if it can happen to Karen, what hope is there for the rest of us?’
How was coping with your diagnosis different to dealing with the reality of treatment?
I have always felt invincible and refuse to consider defeat, ever, but cancer made me realise that I wasn’t superwoman. I had all sorts of plans about how I would do things, but sometimes I had to just lie on the sofa and give into the immense fatigue and nagging pain that accompanies treatment. I am very proud of the fact that I never once got sick on chemotherapy. I felt nauseous after treatment but I truly believe that my clean natural diet gave my body the tools to process the drugs efficiently and help minimize collateral damage to my system.
Why did you decide to write Breathing Out?
After diagnosis, I spent weeks researching cancer, diet, alternative therapy…anything that might arm me with knowledge and help me get through it. I interviewed my nutritionist (in the same way I would interview celebrities in my job) about her views on treating cancer patients as I desperately wanted to stay as fit and healthy as possible throughout treatment. I learned so much useful, practical information that was not easily or readily available, and I felt it would be very helpful to anyone in a similar situation. I couldn’t work much through treatment so I had plenty of time to keep a diary about how I was feeling and what was happening to me. Breathing Out came from that. I’ve had a phenomenal response from people who have read it, many of whom have had cancer. My aim is to see it in hospital libraries and cancer clinics all over the world.
What advice do you have for people who are faced with similar situations to you?
Never lose hope. There is so much you can do to help yourself and arm your body to fight back. Being the driver rather than the passenger on this journey creates positive energy which in itself is a huge plus. Read up on nutrition, alkalise your diet, cut out the bad stuff (but have a treat or a glass of champagne occasionally). Plan one good thing a day, even when you are at your lowest, even if it’s just cleaning your teeth on a day you don’t want to get out of bed or walking around the block. Don’t give up.
Founder of Eclectic Enchantments blog, Erika has also been a beauty writer, fashion writer and Beauty & Accessories Editor for a large online magazine before starting Erisea.
Erika lives with her dog, Hendrix and beautiful baby girl. She suffers with Fibromyalgia and CFS, among other illnesses which leaves her housebound much of the time. Her passion is writing.