Fighting Cancer With Technology and Compassion
A few years ago, personal trainer and group fitness supervisor at the Avera McKennan Fitness Center, Karri Stearns, was in excellent health. At least that's what everyone thought. Until a routine, annual mammogram turned up something suspicious. Karri's physician wanted to get a better look, so she had a diagnostic mammogram.
Even the possibility of having breast cancer creates an emotional state of shock. Karri and her mother were distraught and on edge. When the radiologist recommended a biopsy, Karri still felt that is couldn't be happening to her.
However, when the biopsy revealed that Karri did indeed have breast cancer, in its early state, she was ready for the fight. After watching her father's eight-year battle with multiple myeloma, Karri knew that nobody was exempt from cancer. "Anything like this can happen to anyone at any time," she says.
Karri wanted to begin treatment immediately. First, a sentinel node biopsy was performed to learn whether her cancer was spreading. Luckily, her cancer was stage I, and had not gone into the lymph nodes.
It was a tense and agonizing time for Karri. But Karri remembered how her father had battled multiple myeloma. "He was a very positive man. He never gave up hope and he kept his sense of humor."
As it turned out, Karri inherited her father's positive attitude. "Crying is OK, to get it all out. Then I tried not to think about those negative things anymore and focused on the positive."
What Karri dreaded most was chemotherapy, because she'd seen what it did to her father. Fortunately, she was treated with radiation only, for a period of six weeks.
Although Karri was tired, she continued working and teaching. "I didn't take any time off work. It was good to keep busy, to be around my co-workers in a positive atmosphere," she says.
"At that point I didn't care who knew," Karri says. "I wanted everyone to know so I could have more support."
In her position at Avera McKennan, Karri served as a role model of fitness and health. And as she showed up every day and proceeded with business as usual, she became an inspiration to those who knew her. "So many women say to me, 'I haven't had a mammogram in several years, and because of you, I'm going to get one.'"
Karri's mother, who she's very close to, provided tremendous support and assistance. "She is a totally amazing woman," Karri says. "She had to go through it all with my dad, and was a widow at 55. And she was so positive and encouraging and supportive with me."
Another bright spot was the Avera Cancer Institute and her physicians, Dr. Tolentino, and Dr. Griffin, her radiation oncologist. "My physicians were just incredibly awesome," she says. "I just felt so fortunate to have such fine doctors here, and that I didn't have to travel."
She also appreciated the positive, optimistic and caring manner of her physicians. "You need all of that positive reinforcement coming from everywhere. They were always willing to sit and listen and give me the positive feedback I needed."
Now in remission, Karri feels changed by her experience. "It puts a whole new perspective on life. It's like a wake-up call in your life. You don't sweat the small stuff anymore. I like to spend my energy making people happy."
After Karri finished treatment and was declared cancer-free, her entire family rand and walked in the Avera Race Against Breast Cancer. "For years I'd volunteered at the Race - and now to be on the receiving end..." Tears come to her eyes.
Focusing on health and fitness helped Karri. Today, cancer-free, she teaches others that staying active helps the body heal. As part of the fitness program for cancer patients at the Avera McKennan Fitness Center, Karri has become a certified Cancer Exercise Specialist. "Cancer treatment is not a permission slip to stay home and mope."
Looking back on her diagnosis and treatment, Karri credits her physicians and the Avera Cancer Institute for helping her stay strong and positive. "They knew exactly what I needed and were ready to help give me the confidence, the hope and the medical care I needed to heal."