Breast cancer - Karen Hockney

Breast cancer - Karen Hockney

Karen Hockney – Driving her own Cote d’Azur Cancer Journey by Madeleine Kingsley

Karen Hockney, showbusiness journalist and marathon runner, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2011. She was 44. Whilst acknowledging how frightening the diagnosis can be, (‘I felt as if I’d been kidnapped and thrown on to a runaway train’) Karen insisted on keeping her dynamic life as full and normal as possible throughout surgery, chemo and radiotherapy. Karen’s book, Breathing Out, (Urbane , £7.99, special rates for CANCERACTIVE readers ) tells how she maximised ‘fantastic’ medical treatment at the Tzanck Clinic close to her home in Mougins, Cote’d’Azur, by upping her nutritional game (she already followed a good Mediterranean diet), keeping active and staying fiercely positive. A friend, who is a liver cancer specialist, commended Karen’s attitude, wishing she could bottle it for his own newly-diagnosed patients, for whom she says, she generally has to prescribe anti-depressants. There was never any question of Karen sinking into a downwards ‘Woe is Me’ spiral. Her response was ‘I’ve got cancer. I just have to get on with it, but I am also going to make changes that will benefit me way into the future.’

Three years after her cancer treatment, Karen Hockney was back in hospital – for a remarkable reason. So struck were her doctors by Karen’s radiant recovery, that they invited her to address 300 cancer professionals to explain – in French - how she’d achieved it. Karen, they said, was a wonder patient, who’d approached her difficult journey very differently from others. ‘One of the chemo doctors who hadn’t met me since treatment, didn’t even recognise me’ Karen recalls. ‘He said I looked amazing and he couldn’t hide his surprise. That was really gratifying – it must be nice for doctors to see someone come through and look in really good health again.’


Prior to diagnosis, the previously healthy and happily-married mother was known to friends as ‘perfect Karen.’ With husband Iain and their two daughters Olivia, now 20 and Isabella, 15, she was indeed living a dream: in 2008 the couple had sold up in England, bought a derelict house to renovate, and embarked on a mediterranean adventure. Karen’s glamorous, globetrotting career expanded to take in the Cannes Film Festival and the Monte Carlo tv festival. All seemed rosy. The family was holidaying in Florence in August 2011, when Karen noticed a hard, painless lump in her right breast ‘As luck would have it, it was our last day away. We spent an awful 24 hours just wandering around in a daze. I had a manmmogram within three or four days of coming home, followed by a biopsy and the life-threatening verdict: “I’m sorry to tell you it’s bad. You have breast cancer”. Karen’s 1.2 cm tumour was stage 11 hormone receptive. ‘My doctors said they were going to throw the book at this for me, because I’d never smoked, never been overweight. I’d looked after myself. They said it was really unfair that I had cancer, but that I was in a good place to fight it as I was already doing so many things right.’
Of all that now lay ahead, Karen’s greatest dread was the prospect of chemo. The only family member who had previously contracted cancer was her Dad – also a fit non-smoker - who had suffered terribly during treatment for soft tissue cancer, and died aged 52. ‘That was 20 years ago’ says Karen, ‘ I knew that chemo had come on in leaps and bounds, but I still had vivid memories of how my Dad was unable to keep anything down and virtually withered away before my eyes.’ Following surgery to remove the lump and three lymph nodes for testing, Karen was at first relieved to hear that the nodes looked clear and that, given confirmation from the lab, she would only need six weeks of radiotherapy. But the lab results (which she’d blithely gone alone to collect) showed a tiny carninoma in one of the lymph nodes. The cancer had started to spread. ‘Words can not do justice to how distraught I was’ says Karen. Five more nodes, removed in a second surgery were mercifully clear, but six sessions of FEC-T chemo drugs were prescribed, putting Karen in ‘a tailspin of fear and anxiety.’
But Karen was far from paralysed by fright. From the start she had been researching what she could possibly do to keep up her energy levels and reduce the collateral damage of chemo. A lot of people say “The doctors know what they are doing. I’ll leave it to them to make me well again.”They don’t realise how much you can do to help yourself though, to tip the balance in your favour and make you feel you are making a difference to your own future.‘ You look at your own mortality and think “Is this happening to me – me who has run marathons and played tennis, swum, surfed and skied? Me who’s done everything to have a sporty active life and is still stricken with this critical illness?” It is then a great wake up call to ask – well how can I help myself here? How can I put myself in the best possible condition not just to fight the disease but also to feel well during this dark period”?
Karen set up a Skype consultation with Dr Simone Laubscher of the Rejuv clinic in Harley Street. The Nutritional Doctor had been recommended by a journalist friend of Karen’s whose 30 year old brother-in-law had come through a very bleak cancer – acute myeloid leukaemia ‘Not only did he survive after being told he was unlikely to pull through, - but on recovering, he started competing in Iron Man. I figured that if Simone – who has become a friend - got him through, I was going to put my money on her’ says Karen. ‘I found her a down-to-earth Aussie who is so positive that she charged me up with enthusiasm. She is passionate about alkalising your system to fight disease. I learned from her that my mainly plant-based Mediterranean diet was pretty healthy, but there were a few bad quirks that I needed to give up. Although I didn’t eat red meat, I loved crisps and wine – mainly white Chablis, rose and champagne which are more acid than red. Throughout treatment I needed to give up wine, refined sugars, cows’ dairy and gluten. The only oils I could have were olive and nut. Gallons of green tea replaced coffee. Goat’s cheese, halloumi or feta replaced the full fat cows’ cheese. I stopped eating free-range chicken which was the only meat I used to have, because even this was full of hormones.’
What made the Rejuv eating plan so palatable to Karen, was that it allowed for treats – one free, two course meal a week which could be anything she fancied, even fish and chips -washed down with a glass of champagne. This latitude – and the wellbeing her eating plan brings – makes it easy for Karen to maintain even four years into recovery. Twice a week now I have fish or seafood, but my diet is stil mainly vegetarian,’ she says. ‘Simone says that I’m a model patient because I am a perfectionist about sticking to the nutrition plan – except when I’m allowed treats, when I really go for it which,Simone stresses, is so good for the soul and for positivity. I follow an 80/20 regime, figuring that if I eat well 80 per cent of the time. I can have my coffee if the milk is goat’s or almond, and I don’t forbid myself the occasional almond croissant or chocolate brownie made with spelt.
‘Whereas the old me would have a glass of Chablis every day as a wind-down, I now get really excited about the prospect of having a glass only when going out for dinner. My doctors say that the links between cancer and alcohol are firmly proven - they believe that alcohol is a major factor, especially for breast cancer. Recognising this, I’m now much more measured about my intake, and I’m just as happy with a lemon mint cooler. A bit of me thinks that I miss the wine, but really I don’t: It’s more the act of pouring the glass that I miss! I figure that as I’m making all these other changes, I might as well do this right as well.’
Karen’s ready compliance to clinical advice and holistic knowhow has always been offset by a feisty measure of ‘won’t-take-orders’ defiance: only two days after her first operation, her breast still stitched and heavily bandaged, Karen insisted on keeping her scheduled arrangement to do five interviews and a screening for Disney in Cannes. My husband was annoyed. “Don’t be ridiculous” he said. “There’s no way! You can’t even drive.” But I said “No, don’t YOU be ridiculous. “ I put on the only vaguely summery dress that covered my bandages; I did the day’s work and then went for a drink with a contact at the Martinez Hotel. I remember finishing and walking to the car – at this point, I was actually still reeling from the diagnosis, but you know what – though surreal, this was also a brilliant experience. I got back home exhausted with the wound quite sore. But I said to Iain “You have no idea how important today was to me. I won’t do anything quite like this again, but I had to prove to myself that I can carry on. It’s really important for me to know that right now”
Says Karen, ‘In retrospect it was probably too much too soon, but I wasn’t going to be beaten. If you ask a patient what is the worst thing about cancer treatment, she will probably agree that it is the droning daily awfulness of waking up feeling dreadful, then having to fill yourself with drugs on a drip in hospital. That grind is so boring and so emotionally debilitating that to combat it by putting yourself back in control and saying “No, I will live as normal a life as possible” makes a massive difference.
Karen stresses that, for all the holistic support she harnessed, it never occurred to her not to do what her doctors were telling her ‘I was extremely fortunate in my medical team: when I was diagnosed my husband said that maybe we were meant to move to France because, if this cancer had to happen, then I was in the best possible place for treatment. My lumpectomy left only a tiny scar that you can hardly see. There were no treatment delays: two operations, four and half months of chemo, and six and half weeks of radiotherapy were over in seven months. I say that in the knowledge that friends who, sadly had breast cancer, and, in England, spent a year of their lives on a similar treatment plan.’ For Karen there was also always the sense of being thoroughly cared for as a human being, a wife and mother still in her early forties:
‘My doctors discussed every step with me, and when I explained why I didn’t want chemo and how fearful I was because of my Dad they didn’t stand on their professional dignity and pronounce “You must.” They showed me a balance of probability chart on an amazing medical site called Adjuvant. They input all the relevant factors – disease, grade of disease, my age - and showed me what the relative outcomes looked like with surgery alone, with surgery and radiotherapy and then with chemo as well. They recommended all three based on the fact that the lump had already spread to a lymph gland and that the odds were that chemo would stop it travelling elsewhere. ‘ Karen still takes tamoxifen, but for a while doctors recommended a change to Letrozole, which they thought a more effective drug for her. ‘But it made me feel sick and dizzy. I had muscle and joint pain. They listened and said “Well, you’re obviously one of the 10 per cent this doesn’t suit. So fine, we’ll put you back on Tamoxifen which will still be very good for preventing a relapse.
” Even in the midst of the medical maelstrom Karen actually found it quite easy to make the simple, health-giving changes that supported her through chemo. ‘People hear the words “diet” or “food plan” and and they go into meltdown, thinking “I’m never going to manage that and why should I! I am ill, so I should be able to do what I like!” But the pay off, says Karen, was that in four and half months of chemo she was not sick once. ‘And I don’t know anyone else who can say that- I have friends who were violently sick and bedbound between sessions. My weight did go down from 54 – 47 kgs, but I was still able to keep some food down. Of course there were days after the three-weekly chemo cycles when I felt exhausted and down, and I’d lie on the sofa. But I did maintain an exercise regime throughout: even half an hour’s walk every day keeps your heart rate up, and I did that even at my lowest, when it was hard to get out of bed.
‘At other times, even on chemo, I played tennis and went to yoga. When I went skiing in the mountains, everyone was amazed and said “What the hell are you doing?” But just getting out there gave me so much vibrancy and positive energy that I couldn’t help feeling good. Exercise takes you away from the depressing nature of what you are going through. It releases those endorphins and the feeling of’ “YES! I can still go for a walk with my dog. I can still jog - I might only do three kilometres instead of eight, but I’m doing them! I’m not just sitting there waiting for someone to deign to say I can continue my life again”.
When, in recovery, Karen was writing her book, she learned that it had possibly been harder for the family to emulate her upbeat attitude than she had realised. More English than Gallic, Iain and the girls had kept a stiff upper lip to protect her. ‘They admitted that they’d kept a lot from me, to save me worry and stress. But if the girls came home and found me lying on the sofa they’d think “Oh God! Is she going to wake up?” If I suggested we went out for lunch together, they anticipated I had bad news to break. So they had all these horrible fears running round in their heads which they dealt with very singularly. They didn’t discuss this between themselves, or have family pow wows where they’d all sit down and say “What can we do about Mum?” They soldiered on trying to be as strong as possible for me, as obviously I was trying to be for them. So they were very stoic – and perhaps a little bit in denial, because it was sometimes easier to pretend this wasn’t happening and to go to school acting as if everything was fine, when it clearly wasn’t. At the time, I did say to Olivia and Isabella “Please don’t talk to your schoolfriends about this as they will probably scare the life out of you with what they’ve heard. Don’t go on the internet. Don’t google – just talk to me. I will absolutely tell you the truth. I’ll always give you an honest answer – and if I don’t know, I will tell you so.’

Seeing her mum lose weight, hair, eyelashes and eyebrows was particularly distressing for 12 year old Isabella. ‘Her older sister said “Stop going on about it. It’s only hair. It will grow back”. But Isabella said “I know you’re still my mum, but you don’t look like Mum anymore. I want you to look like your old self”. When my hair started growing back Karen recalls ‘I did everything I could to make it look as funky as possible. I dyed it blonde, so I looked like Annie Lennox for a while. I had fun wearing it in a very boyish crop that my husband wanted me to keep. But Isabella saw short hair as a reminder of me being ill. So growing it out was an easy decision to make: she’d been through enough and needed the outwards sign that I was strong and healthy again.’
As the last bag of drugs emptied at Karen’s final chemo session, a bottle of Moet was gleefully cracked open. Less than two months later, just three days after finishing her seven week course of daily radiotherapy , Karen flew to interview Elle Macpherson in Toronto. Four months after treatment she undertook a charity cycle ride for Help the Heroes. She has since run the Nice marathon.
Karen still starts her day with a healthful drink of hot water and lemon juice with a pinch of cayenne. She still takes the supplements that so supported her system through the toxic time of chemo and the rigours of radiotherapy. She takes flaxseed and linseed capsules, magnesium citrate, and the B6 that really helped her through ‘chemo brain’ – the memory loss and fuzzy eyesight that beset her. ‘I take one milk thistle tablet a day, and I’m on probiotics to keep the good bacteria going in my gut. I take a 75 ml enteric-coated aspirin daily because as well as protecting you from heart attack and stroke’ says Karen ‘aspirin is also proven against developing cancer and relapse. I also take supergreens -spirulina, chlorella and barley grass in very highly concentrated powder form. Supergreens are proven to alkalise your system. They are very energising and anti-carcinogenic. I have a spoonfiul every day in one of various juices or smoothies I make myself’.
Karen continues to expand her repertoire of vegetarian cuisine. I might fancy lasagne, but obviously Im not going to have meat. So I’ll make one with mushrooms and pine nuts or use lentils with sun dried tomatoes instead. I also make a regular one with meat for friends. Invariably they’ll want to taste mine, and say they prefer it! I made a great chilli the other day, using puy lentils instead of meat, with onions, tomatoes, red chillies, kidney beans, tomato puree and a bit of balsamic vinegar.’
This summer, after the election, Karen plans to contact the new Minister of Health: ‘Of course I’m wary about standing up to say I’ve come through breast cancer and that I’m now the epitomy of good health again. I take nothing for granted, and I go for all the tests I’m told to and take them very seriously. But I’m also prepared to dig deep here, and to do anything I can to make the politicians see that making simple changes can make so much difference when you have breast cancer. Unfortunately, when you’re given a diagnosis, the doctor doesn’t say ‘Give up gluten. Drink green tea; eat more pomegranates and broccoli. As doctors don’t, you have to do it for yourself. I want everyone to know how much it helps to feel back in control and recognise that you are doing something very good for yourself. Taking back that control is in itself a very powerful tool for getting well. Moreover - and I know how mad I sound now’ warns Karen (though she does not) …’when you’ve finished having chemo and being zapped by radiotherapy you suddenly come out this chrysalis and you are literally reborn. I see that my hair and my skin, and vitality are all better now than they were in my early forties, before breast cancer. That’s not luck: there has to be a reason for it, and the only thing I have done that is dramatically different is to change what I put into my system.  It’s got to be that.’ 

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