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Karen and Erick Mathisen relax in the backyard of their Bannockburn home.

Making a comeback: Part 1 — Karen's story

Local cancer survivors reflect on their emotional journey from diagnosis through recovery, and life after their illness.
Tracy Hernandez
Senior Staff Writer
Karen and Erick Mathisen relax in the backyard of their Bannockburn home.

Surprise, devastation and worry. These are all emotions that can touch us when we hear a cancer diagnosis. And yet, the process of regaining health can bring about overwhelming feelings of empowerment, gratitude and thankfulness.

This week, will bring you the first-hand stories of three local survivors who have felt this wide range of emotions while being treated in Swedish Covenant Hospital’s Cancer Center.

Karen Mathisen, 66
Breast cancer/lymph node cancer survivor
Diagnosed November 4, 2008

This Lincoln Square native turned suburbanite and snow bird would not let a cancer diagnosis keep her from her annual retreat to Jamaica or from her active lifestyle.

The diagnosis
“I knew it was in my family, but I just didn’t think I would get cancer. I never smoked in my life, I never did any drugs and I never drank. But when my gynecologist felt a lump in my breast during my annual exam, I had a mammogram and a biopsy that day.

I was at home when I got the call that it was a very aggressive cancer. I’m usually pretty calm about things, so I guess I figured that whatever they told me to do was what I was going to do. But I didn’t waste one day and had the operation the next week with my surgeon, Dr. Cecylia Mizera.

I had three operations in November; one to remove the tumors in my breast and two more to remove cancer that had spread to my lymph nodes.”

The recovery
“Every winter for the last 16 years, my husband and I have lived in Kingston, Jamaica to ease my arthritis, and I was determined to do that in 2009 and 2010, despite my diagnosis. I knew they had excellent doctors down there, so I got recommendations for a good oncologist and went there for intense radiation therapy. Dr. Gary Schreiber and Dr. Joseph Philip, my physicians at Swedish Covenant Hospital, worked with my oncologist in Jamaica over the phone throughout my treatment.

By the time I got back to Chicago in the spring, my blood work was coming back very good. I was feeling great and my hopes of beating this thing were high, and they still are. I wasn’t cancer-free then, but I was receiving regular treatments. It takes a while to get your strength back after any treatment, so I was feeling better every day.”


Today, nearly three years after her initial diagnosis, Karen is finally cancer-free. Although she still receives weekly treatments for a blood condition and regular checkups with her hematologist and oncologist Dr. Javed Imam, she feels good – and not just about her health:

“For the first time in 16 years, we are not going to Jamaica for the winter — but for good reason. My 42-year-old daughter just had a baby in July. This is my one and only grandchild, and we plan to spend the holidays in Florida with them.”

For Part 2 — Kathy's story, click here.

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