April 1, 2023
Ithaca, NY | 70°F


Commentary: Breast cancer diagnosis fails to diminish spirit

After I heard the words, “I’m so sorry to tell you, but you have breast cancer,” I decided to accept the things that cannot be changed and to change the things I could. I took the bull by the horns and found all the good there is to find when faced with a cancer diagnosis. Don’t get me wrong, a cancer diagnosis totally sucks, and it took me awhile to find my way and move into a more positive state of mind.

On this detour in my life, I decided to see the glass as half full, to surround myself with those who love me, to disengage myself from negative energy and to look for and find the best things life has to offer. What other choice is there than being positive and keeping an optimistic outlook when life throws curveballs at you? Being sad and curling up in a ball was not an option for me. Negative thoughts take more energy, and there is no productivity in them. Every situation has something good and positive. You just need to open your eyes to that possibility and then find it, hiding there in the chaos.

The first thing I did to regain control of my life was to cut my hair and donate it. That way I was helping someone else and preparing myself for the complete loss of my hair. Amazingly, that happened fairly quickly after starting chemotherapy. The day after I had my husband shave my head, I began my list of pros of cancer. Over the long months of treatment my list grew, and I was very surprised at all the pros.  How could there be good in having cancer? The answer was right in front of me.

To start, I didn’t have to shave my legs for months. My girlfriends were actually jealous! I could get ready to go anywhere in 15 minutes or less. No hair to shampoo, dry, style and fuss with, let alone the shampoos, conditioners and styling products I didn’t need to buy. I could show my individuality with different hats, scarves and bandanas. There was always something to wear on my head that matched every outfit I wanted to wear. I could now wear many different styles of earrings, and they weren’t hidden by my long hair. I had the clearest skin I had ever had in my life. Who knew that could be a benefit to chemotherapy? I had a great excuse to take naps in the afternoon, and I received some wonderful gifts from friends and family.

Cancer has introduced me to a number of amazing nurses, doctors, survivors, fellow cancer patients, caregivers and volunteers. I have seen the immense generosity of complete strangers and the power of a smile. I learned to say “I love you” a little more often and hug a little bit tighter. Cancer has taught me forgiveness, patience, kindness and acceptance. Cancer has renewed my faith in God and my fellow man. Cancer has made me stronger, braver and more courageous. Cancer has made me cry with great emotion. Cancer can do many things, but I didn’t allow it to crush my spirit or defeat me.

I have learned that there is always someone out there who is worse off than I am. I have learned that laughter really is the best medicine, and it is OK to laugh when I have cancer. Cancer does not have to control my life. I have learned that it is OK to talk about my cancer. Cancer still sucks, and the fear of the unknown can grip and paralyze. How I decide to overcome that fear is what is important. Love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear.  Optimism is better than despair. Cancer has changed my life forever. But most of all, cancer has turned me into a survivor.

To learn more about National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, visit

Karen M. Horn-Fries  ’91 was diagnosed with cancer in January. Email her at