Kari's Crusade: Local woman pulls back the curtain for breast cancer patients

Like many of you, when I was growing up you whispered the word cancer, not daring to say the "c" word out loud.

A young Goshen mother, who recently overcame Cancer is taking her fight one step further.

She did not want to live the next 40 or 50 years of life in fear, so she decided to have both breasts removed.

She allowed me and photojournalist Don Schoenfeld to document her surgery, which involved a double mastectomy and breast reconstructive surgery in the same operation.

This is part one of a three part series called Inside Reconstructive Surgery, and we will warn you some of the video is graphic, so we will limit what we show you on the air.

Kari, the young woman you're about to meet, and her doctors, however, feel it is important that other women making crucial life-changing decisions about their bodies are finally able to see what the surgery entails.

And for that reason, after our series concludes on Thursday, we will put the full surgery up on our website so that other women can make informed decisions.

In this special Medical Moment, here is Kari's Crusade.

Kari Hazelbaker was diagnosed at with Breast Cancer at the age of 35. She said, "There is no family history. My grandmother had breast cancer when she was 76 and here is a picture of her when she was younger."

Because of her grandmother's age and the fact that she was just 35, Kari Hazelbaker was not concerned when a lump was found in her breast.

Kari said, "When I'd seen a nurse practitioner she found a cyst, she didn't think it was anything, but to be very cautious she decided to send me for a mammogram so it wasn't anything I worried about."

With a five-year-old daughter, Madeline and 13-year-old son, Nick, Kari and her husband Matt were not ready for the results of the biopsy.

Kari said, "I went in for my first surgery and when they received the results from my first surgery, they found more cancer which put me at stage one. So with stage one cancer I was then going to have to have chemo and radiation treatment."

"It was very devastating."

Kari went through chemo and then had a lumpectomy and radiation.

"When you don't feel well it's a lonely place to be," she said.

It was made a bit easier because her mother in law was also battling cancer at the time and the two were able to schedule their chemo treatments together.

And when she lost her hair, Matt shaved his head in support.

And during that time, when Kari was feeling pretty poorly she got a special surprise from country singer Tim McGraw when she and Matt went to one of his concerts.

"He got done with one of his songs and then came over and grabbed my bald head and walked up on stage and blew me a kiss and started singing, live like you are dying," Kari said.

Kari has McGraw's drumsticks framed, along with the concert tickets and decided while she planned on living, like the song said, she would always live like she was dying.

And that is part of the reason she made the dramatic decision, in spite of now being cancer free, to have her breasts removed and reconstructed.

Kari decided worrying for the next forty or fifty years with the fear of her cancer returning would not be living.

She says she is excited for the surgery that will also spare her nipples, but she is mostly looking for peace of mind.

Kari said, "I had a mammogram, I had an MRI and a PETSCAN that did not detect the invasive cancer. So after I got through all my treatment I've had time to think about it. We discussed a double mastectomy and I thought for me that was the best route to go."

Her surgeon, Dr. Michael Rotkis, M.D., a general and vascular surgeon who has performed 20 combined mastectomies and reconstructive surgeries alongside plastic surgeon Ronald Downs, agreed with Kari's decision.

Dr. Rotkis said, "But because she's so young we would consider surveillance about the next 50 years of her life and he decided that for safety and anxiety and sleepless nights she wanted to consider doing a mastectomy to reduce her risk of ever having a recurrence."

And by combining two surgeries at once, they can also preserve Kari's nipples.

"Historically, when we've done this surgery we've felt we had to remove all the breast tissue, including the nipple and areola," explained Dr. Rotkis. "But the feeling on that has changed, we have enough experience with it to say that it's safe to preserve the nipple and areola and produce a better cosmetic outcome."

And he believes women who beat a deadly disease should not have to be maimed with scars that will remind them for a lifetime.

"They feel good about the way they look, they're not at all embarrassed when they get out of the shadow and walk in front of the mirror," said Dr. Rotkis.

Which he says means more to women than most could imagine.

So, Kari is picking her kids up from school, something she hopes her surgery will guarantee for years to come.

Her next stop? Surgery, which she admits is a bit scary, but important.

"Just to reach other women, if this is something that can help other women out there that are helping other women with the same thing that I am going through that's important to me," said Kari.

"God gave me this body and I'm here to show people not to be afraid," said Kari.

Kari's gift is giving other women the chance to see what this new surgery is all about.

Wednesday, Just Before Six, we will take you to St. Joseph Regional Medical Center and go inside the operating room as Dr. Rotkis and Dr. Down's perform Kari's double mastectomy and reconstruction.

They have done about 20 such surgeries in the last two years and think many women facing breast cancer can benefit from this newer procedure.

They are the only doctor's in town doing this, which they say is becoming common in large cities like New York, Chicago and Indianapolis.

Then on Thursday, Just Before Six, we will show you Kari's outcome and will put the entire surgery up on our website.


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