Right around her 40th birthday, Karen Walsh found herself at the doctor’s office, suffering from stomach cramping.
She’d just had surgery a few months back, so had been attributing her pain to that experience.
But now, something felt really off, and unfortunately, it was. Walsh’s doctor diagnosed her with Stage IV colon cancer.
With tumors in her liver, lymph nodes, and colon, Walsh told the Huffington Post, “I’m unfortunately inoperable because of the location of the tumors in my liver, so chemo right now is the only option for me.”
Walsh told LittleThings of learning about her diagnosis, “It was such a shock and I truly didn’t have any significant symptoms… but I was also recovering from an unrelated cervical spine fusion, so I wasn’t quite in tune with my body the summer prior to my diagnosis.
“However, in retrospect, maybe there were small hints over the year or two prior. It’s hard to know… I had a baby, did a couple of shows. I had so much going on and could always attribute things to something else.”
Initially, Walsh — a successful Broadway actress, wife, and mother of two — wasn’t planning to speak publicly about her heath situation.
However, after speaking with a friend who’d survived breast cancer, she soon changed her mind — in a big way.
Walsh decided not only would she showcase her chemotherapy on social media, but, as a performer, she would do so in the way she knew best — in costume.
Since initially opening up about her cancer diagnosis online, she and her friends have dressed up in all sorts of different themed costumes.
They always chose costumes honoring a strong, female figure — fictional or real.
She told LittleThings, “I was originally inspired to get more creative photos after NYC director, Sam Pinkleton and I created the Aerial shoot. We got a great response on Facebook, and I had so much fun… costumes seemed like a logical next step! I am an actress after all.”
Walsh told the Huffington Post, “I really view this as a coping mechanism for myself.”
She continued: “It’s really strange to live, you know, just sort of maintaining your cancer.
“Without being able to have an operation, I have to just rely on [chemotherapy] until medicine hopefully catches up with cancer a little more.”
She’s hoping, though, to stick around long enough for researchers to develop new treatment methods for her to try instead.
In the meantime, though, she heads to chemo every week in a new getup to keep things exciting, fresh, and fun.
She said: “[There are times] when I’m like, ‘Oh god, I have cancer. And I have two young kids, my husband’s company’s closing, we don’t know what we’re going to do about insurance.
“You know, we have a lot going on in our home that’s really stressful.
“I think it’s really important to let that out, but I don’t feel the need to sit in it longer than I need to sit in it.”
While every themed costume set she and her friends choose is different, they all share that one, same common trope.
They are all homages to strong women.
When asked what her favorite costume has been thus far, she told LittleThings, “Oh it’s hard to choose! Next week’s should prove to be interesting… I have an ambitious group of girls joining me and they have put together my costume (a first!).
“I loved the Breakfast Club one because it was the first time we tried to recreate something with precision. We had a lot of fun with that.
“Golden Girls was also quite silly. And when my friend Ben Kahre showed up for the Willy Wonka shoot with a giant lollipop, I loved that surprise and detail.
“Oh, and my cat scan for Saint Patricks Day, when they let us throw a mock party on a machine… that was very, very fun. [It] made the anxiety of CT scan day a lot easier for me.
“But honestly, there isn’t one I haven’t enjoyed… I have a terrific network of very fun and creative friends.”
Of choosing each photo’s theme, Walsh told the Huffington Post: “The thing I say to everyone when they get a text message is I want it to be empowering, I want there to be forward motion, I want there to be joy or strength.
“I also want this to be something my daughter and son can see.”
This mom is keeping up with her cancer as best she can, and raising awareness in the process.
Since choosing to vocalize her diagnosis, her brothers went in for testing and had polyps removed.
She’s also connected with all sorts of different people through social media, and became a volunteer for the American Cancer Society.
When asked what lessons she’s learned since embarking on this journey, Walsh told LittleThings, “I think I’m still learning lessons, every day. No shortage of lessons! But the ones I keep returning to are to listen to my body, say yes to generosity (a real challenge for me), and as cliche as it sounds… appreciate the little things.
“I have not quite slowed down enough for my parents liking, but I appreciate their encouragement to take time to chill out, slow down, and smell the flowers (which is especially important when your dad is a horticulturist).
“My approach has been to try and take an hour a day for just me and my healing… whether it’s acupuncture, a walk in Central Park, meditation, yoga… and deep, deep breaths.
“Oh! And keep away from cancer blogs. My goodness that can lead to some dark places!”
While she may be getting lots of attention for her photoshoots, in her eyes, there is nothing shocking about her actions.
She’s doing all she can to cope with this reality in the hopes of sticking around long enough to see new treatment opportunities unfold.
As Walsh told the Huffington Post, “When people are like, ‘Oh, you’re so brave, you’re so inspiring,’ sometimes I don’t understand that because I just don’t see how else I would handle this.
“I have to get through this for my kids… I just don’t have any choice if I want to be around to see my kids graduate from college, or get married or whatever they end up doing.
“I want to be around for that, so I need to try everything that I can.”
Walsh welcomes this distraction, if it means she’ll get to spend more time with her loved ones.
She told LittleThings, “I think it’s important to really listen to your body and if you have ANY family history whatsoever please, please get screened!
“I’m really lucky because it isn’t so bad for me. I mean, day three is tiring, but I’m able to continue working, hanging out with the kids and my husband, traveling…. I am continuing to live my life just as I have been, and that feels very satisfying to me.
“I am going to start the Xeloda pill instead of the ‘take home’ part of my infusions very soon, to allow for more flexibility in my life. I’m looking forward to that!”
This woman is doing all she can to brave her chemotherapy regimen, and raise awareness in the process.
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