Running a 14-year marathon is not for the faint hearted, just ask Karee Van Runkle.
Since 2000, Karee’s 5′ tall body has been through so much, just trying to stay alive for her family and to live life to the fullest. At the age of 40, during a routine mammogram, doctors discovered a tumor the size of her pinky finger and several spots on her lungs. She was diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer. That’s when the marathon of her survival began.
This is Karee’s story in her own words…
“After hearing the diagnosis, I went to the park to cry – because I am so close to nature – and to figure out how I was going to tell my boys, my husband and my mother. My mom was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 58 and was doing fine, but I knew she was going to take this news very hard.”
Karee’s sons were 13, 11 and 5 years old at the time of her diagnosis.
“It crossed my mind that I would not live through this disease since my diagnosis was Stage 4, I was 40 years old and it was aggressive. My husband, Pete, and I just celebrated our 16th wedding anniversary and I didn’t know how I was going to tell the love of my life that I had breast cancer.
In 2002, I had a recurrence of breast cancer and had a mastectomy on my left side. I was put on Herceptin and more chemo.
In 2004, doctors found spots on my bones, initially in my hips, leading to radiation and then more Taxol plus Aridia. As the years went by, cancer was found in my ribs and spine as well.
In 2006, doctors found small spots in my liver; I also developed a blood clot from the port (used for my chemo treatments). By this time, I had nearly 200-300 chemo treatments, encompassing Herceptin, Taxol, Adriamycin, and Aridia.
Things stayed pretty stable until 2009 when my doctor found the spots in my liver had grown significantly and my tumor markers increased. After nine years of treatment, my bones were getting very brittle, leading to multiple fractures. I also developed circulatory problems that manifested themselves in blockages that required several angioplasties. I was reaching my limit with how much radiation I could have. I seriously thought I might start to glow in the dark!
This was also the time when some of the drugs I was taking stopped working. I was buying time with one drug then with another. I went through Navalbene and Gemzar. This was a scary time because you start to realize that you’re running out of options.
I was tired and worn out; my quality of life was minimal. I didn’t have many good days after chemo. It was hard. I didn’t want to be here just to mark the minutes, I wanted to live. I wanted to enjoy my family and I wasn’t.
This is when Dr. Thomas Sweeney reminded me that I needed to approach this battle like a marathon and I have to learn when to push through and also when to slow down. He encouraged me to take small breaks from treatment to let my body rest and heal. We have a cottage by Lake Erie and I would go there with Poppy the Pup (my standard Poodle) and walk, be around nature and think. It’s my refuge.
I was at the point where I wanted to give up, but Dr. Sweeney told me about this new chemo drug that would be approved in February (2013) called Kadcyla. I’m the type of person if you give me a tiny shred of hope I will run with it. So now, I told myself, I had to get through to February, I had hope again. I prayed daily the new drug would be approved.
On February 23, Pete was the first to see that Kadcyla was approved by the FDA and he called me. He just said, ‘it’s been approved.’ We were in the process of getting our home refinanced so I thought he was talking about that… then I realized what he meant. I cried happy tears and was overwhelmed with praise for God.”
TMD1 (Kadcyla) was developed by Komen Scholar Dr. Kimberly Blackwell of Duke University. Kadcyla is a new type of targeted therapy for metastatic HER2 breast cancer. This drug extends lives of patients while reducing serious side effects more than the standard course of treatment.
“Pete and I had a trip planned to San Diego so we enjoyed our time there and when I returned I started on Kadcyla. The quality of my life has improved so much – about 85% better than it was before. I’ve had the best six months I’ve experienced in a long time. I’m having a riot!”
“The thought that I may lose her crosses my mind all the time,” said Pete. “For the last 13 ½ years it’s something that sits in the back of my mind…. This is why research is so important. It extends life, or God willing, will one day find a cure.”
“After a few rounds with Kadcyla, I asked Dr. Sweeney if I should dare to think of the future, my son’s wedding, maybe seeing my future grandchildren. I never really allowed myself to think that far ahead, but he told me that once this drugs stops working, there will be another one right behind it and we must keep going.
If not for Kadcyla and Komen’s breast cancer research, I would not be here today. I’m sure of it. I’ve been blessed by modern medicine.
Sometimes I can’t believe that I am still here. I really didn’t think I would see my sons graduate high school but I have seen all three of my boys graduate, go on to college and the military, and become young men.”
Drew, Karee’s oldest son, is engaged. Alan, is a manager at a local restaurant, and Brian, the youngest, will head off to Army basic training in mid-September.
“What Karee has gone through these 13 ½ years is torture,” said Pete, “Throughout all of this, I have learned that Karee is an unbelievably strong person. I’ve loved this woman for 30 years and she is sweet and caring but she’s tough as nails.”
Join Karee to celebrate the advances in breast cancer research and her survivorship at the Pink Tie Ball on September 7th. Ticket and event information is available online.