For someone living with a terminal illness, 41-year-old Karen McLaren does not give the slightest hint she is in pain.
Looking cheerful and poised with her bright green eyes, long auburn hair and fashionable maxi dress, the Langley woman jokes about buying a bikini for the first time in years, and getting asked for ID at the liquor store.
“You know, chemo has it’s advantages … I think it’s the fountain of youth, in a warped way,” she said sarcastically.
“Really, no wrinkles. I bought a bikini last week. I’m 41 and I just bought a bikini — I haven’t had a bikini since my 20’s. But I just bought one because I’m going to rock it, because I don’t care.”
She laughs, but inside McLaren is fighting for her life.
Last December — just four days before her 10-year anniversary of surviving her first battle with cancer — McLaren was re-diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer in the pleural lining of her right lung.
Considered a terminal illness, her cancer is incurable, inoperable, but treatable. Doctors are handling it as a chronic illness that can be managed, similar to diabetes, AIDS or high blood pressure, and have prescribed McLaren with chemotherapy in an oral form, among many other medications.
“I have cancer, but cancer doesn’t define me,” McLaren said.
“I just feel the second you let it get to you, it will get to you. So, I try to be positive. I try to live each day to the fullest. I try to have a positive impact on other people.
“This is terminal cancer. This is the face of cancer, and you fight like hell.”
‘I AM FIERCE’
Turning 30 was a big deal for McLaren. Working as a runway and magazine model, it was the “turning point of acceptance for me,” she said.
“This is what I look like, this is who I look like, this is how big I am, this is my body image.”
But after coming to terms with the way her body looked, while working in an industry that scrutinized it, this was also the year she underwent the most physical changes.
In December of 2005, she was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer, and because she was so young, McLaren was immediately rushed into surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation. For a year she went through the treatment process, having to recover from mastectomies, third-degree burns from the radiation, and various reconstructions, which forced her to abandon her modeling career.
“Body image was, I mean, it was pretty brutal. I couldn’t even look at myself in the mirror,” she admitted.
“With chemo and the surgeries, you get fat, you lose your hair, you lose your eyebrows — it’s pretty devastating.”
Through the treatments, McLaren was able to beat the cancer, but the battle left her with many scars. She developed chronic fatigue syndrome, chemotherapy-induced cognitive brain trauma, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, anxiety, panic attacks and depression.
“There’s a saying that the day you’re diagnosed with cancer, your old self dies and you’re reborn again,” McLaren said.
‘I went through a time after my surgeries. I was afraid … Now, I am fierce. And that’s the way I think you have to be. To survive that, living with this. I think I’m a much stronger person.”
ATTITUDE IS EVERYTHING
With the help of her husband, two horses, two cats and Great Dane dogs, McLaren was able to recover from her illnesses to a point that she was able to give back to the community.
For many years, she operated a dog therapy program, where she would take her Great Danes into cancer agencies to help the patients take their minds off their own battles, even if only for a few minutes.
“My goal was to give the people in treatment hope that you can survive. Because, look at me, I survived,” McLaren said.
“I was there to give hope, I was there to give whatever inspiration they needed to feed off of me. I would be in there fist bumping people and cheering them on, or if they needed to cry, they could.”
The dogs not only offered therapy to the cancer patients, they also played a major role in McLaren’s recovery.
“Without my dog I honestly don’t know where I would have been, because she pushed me to get out of the house. She pushed me to deal with people. She pushed me through my social anxieties. She travelled everywhere with me because I would have panic attacks in my vehicle. So I could reach behind and pet her. So, she changed my world,” McLaren said.
Unable to have children of her own, McLaren’s pets became her immediate family, and her inspiration to survive. She began to show the dogs in competitions and recently adopted a puppy, with the theory that “he can live 15 years, so by golly I’m going to live those 15 years, too.”
On top of training and showing Great Danes, McLaren also does extreme trail horseback riding and competitive cutting, despite doctors telling her to avoid physically demanding activities.
“Cancer is not taking away my passions,” she said.
“I have a really play hard or go home attitude. Live your life, live it great and live it big.
“Cancer wont kill me. If anythings going to kill me, it will be the day that I get in the most massive horse wreck … It won’t be cancer, it won’t be hospice, it won’t be dying some slow painful death.
“Not riding horses, not having my dogs, that’s what would kill me.”
After beating cancer the first time, McLaren took proactive steps to help prevent future cancer from forming, and to help researches determine why she developed the disease at such a young age.
She had preventative surgeries, and did DNA testing in both Canada and the United States to try and find a hereditary link, just to be told that medical technologies aren’t advanced enough to determine that yet.
“I don’t want anyone else in this whole wide world to go through what I had to go through,” she said.
“And if I can be the last young person, I will do whatever they need. Genetic testing, sign me up. Because I would like to be the last. (When) doctors said, ‘I don’t know because you’re so young, we don’t know what the treatment is going to do to you’ — I don’t want anyone else to hear that. I don’t want anyone else to have to live this.”
Through her battle and recovery, McLaren has found peace in her situation, and an incredible drive to help others achieve the same.
“You tell people you have metastatic terminal cancer, and they’re like, ‘Oh my god how many more months do you have?’ I’m like ‘No, no, no we’re not talking months here. I’m going to have the best perkiest boobs when I’m 95 years old, right? I’m going to be rocking that bikini.’ Breast cancer is so new for young people, it’s always been an old woman’s disease. I think we need so much more awareness for the younger generations. We need so much more, not just on a woman-to-woman basis, but we need more for the doctors.”
This will be the second year McLaren takes part in the run — which is happening Sunday, Sept. 18 at Douglas Park.
Although McLaren was too young to remember Fox’s 1980 Marathon of Hope, as a graduate of Terry Fox Secondary in Port Coquitlam, she is very familiar with his story.
“What I’d do to sit down for coffee with him,” she said.
“I think what he started and what the Terry Fox Foundation is about is part of the reason I’m staying alive. It’s part of the reason why no one has said, ‘You have six months, you have six years,’ that now we manage the cancer. Cancer isn’t always a death sentence. I look at where he would be if he was here today, it would be a different story. His story would be completely different.”
Participants in the run can find McLaren sporting a bright red Terry’s Team T-shirt, reserved for those who have, or are currently battling the illness, as inspiration to others.
“Terry Fox started the change. I want to be — it’s hard — I want to be able to change people. Whatever they need, whether it’s a push, help, motivation. I can’t cure cancer, but if they need the kick in the ass to fight harder, I’ll kick it,” McLaren said.
“Fight like you’ve never fought before, live like you’ve never lived before, and just be. Be your best self at the same time. It’s not just about you and your own personal battle, but how can you change someone else’s today, and change someone else’s outlook. So I think Terry and I would have some things in common and some things to talk about. I think he was one feisty dude, I think he had a lot of fight and a lot of courage.”
JOIN THE FIGHT
Registration for the Langley City Terry Fox Run begins at 9 a.m., with the run at 10 a.m.
Teams can walk, run, or ride a 1 km, 5 km or 10 km route.
Participants can register in advance online, or the morning of. There is no cost to participate, however donations are encouraged.
There are also runs taking place in Walnut Grove at the Walnut Grove Community Centre front parking lot (8889 Walnut Grove Dr.) at 9 a.m., and in Aldergrove at the Aldergrove Kinsman Community Centre (26770 29 Ave.) at 10 a.m.
For more information on all three Langley runs, visit www.terryfox.org.
Submitted photo by Janice Reiter.