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Optimistic attitude a vital element on cancer journey, says local woman

Connolly jumped at the opportunity to encourage other women to pay attention to their bodies, take charge of their health, and learn the signs and symptoms.
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Karen McGale Connolly says that keeping a positive attitude is half the battle. KAREN MCGALE CONNOLLY/Supplied


The main risk factor for developing cervical cancer is the sexually transmitted human papilloma virus (HPV) that infects the cervix.

Other risk factors for developing cervical cancer include:

  • becoming sexually active at a young age; having many sexual partners; or having a sexual partner that has had many sexual partners;
  • smoking;
  • an immune system weakened from taking drugs following a transplant, or having a disease such as AIDS;
  • the use of birth control pills for a long period of time;
  • giving birth to many children;
  • having taken diethylstilbestrol (DES), or being the daughter of a mother who took DES.

Courtesy of Public Health Agency of Canada


  • abnormal vaginal bleeding, including between periods, after menopause, and after sexual intercourse;
  • abnormal or increased amount of vaginal discharge;
  • foul-smelling vaginal discharge;
  • unusually long or heavy periods;
  • bleeding after a pelvic exam or vaginal douching;
  • pain during sexual intercourse;
  • difficulty urinating;
  • difficulty having a bowel movement;
  • leaking of urine or feces;
  • pain in the pelvic area or lower back that may go down one or both legs;
  • leg swelling, often in one leg;
  • loss of appetite;
  • weight loss;
  • shortness of breath;
  • coughing up blood;
  • chest or bone pain;
  • fatigue.

Courtesy of Canadian Cancer Society

Karen McGale Connolly has a big, toothy smile and bright open eyes framed by her ruby red glasses. Her voice is animated, and she has lively, engaging expressions when she talks. Though she has lost a lot of hair from her chemotherapy treatments, last week on her social media she demonstrated how to replace her lost eyebrows with eyebrow transfers, and she laughed heartily several times throughout the 20-minute video. The transfers seem very much like the temporary tattoos that would be familiar to many children. The process was relatively quick and joyful. The results, she explained, were much more to her liking than the stencil and stamp kit she tried, and definitely better than when she attempted to freehand draw them back on. "I'm not an artist," she quipped, inflecting on the French for added joie de vivre.

In any other context, the scene is only a woman putting on makeup and having a great time. Connolly later explained that keeping a positive attitude about her cancer prognosis is her strategy for success.

"I think that's the most important thing to me. I really believe that your mindset and your attitude are more than half the battle," she said.

"I actually don't consider myself in a battle. I use the word ‘journey’ more than I use the word ‘battle,’ because battle implies that someone's going to win in the end. The more I've gone through my journey, and I've made friends with other people who are on their own journey with cancer, some of them don't make it, but it doesn't mean they didn't win."

It has been a few years since she was diagnosed with cervical cancer, which came as a shock to her despite losing both parents to different cancers. A large part of the shock was that she felt fine: never had a complaint. Cervical cancer can have many signs and symptoms, she offered, such as abnormal vaginal bleeding or periods, pain during sexual intercourse, pain in the pelvic area or lower back, and experiencing swelling in the legs, often in just one leg.

She didn't have any of that. She actually felt great, and it was in large part due to how she responded to losing both of her parents.

"After a long grieving period, I decided I've got to take control of my health. I started making better food choices. I started eating low carb, and I started taking pure therapeutic ketones, which put you into ketosis without having to do that crazy keto diet," she continued, remarking that she even started a business for which she calls herself 'Keto Karen.'

"I ended up losing 100 pounds and keeping it off for five years now. I'm very proud of myself for that. I honestly believe that if I hadn't taken control of my health when I was 45, that when I got diagnosed with cancer when I was 48, I wouldn't have had such success in my first round of treatment. I don't believe that I would still be here to tell you my story."

That diet wasn't the only change she made. She also started going to the doctor for regular checkups and annual pap tests.

"I had missed it for many years. I had moved around the world as an adult and that just was not on my radar as something that was important, which now I realize holy crap, it is super important."

One such test revealed an abnormal result but not enough to warrant further intervention. The doctor said that it was just something to keep an eye on. Upon returning from a trip to B.C. a few years ago, however, she began experiencing heavy bleeding.

"I have a good friend. She's a nurse. I literally texted her and said, ‘This is what's happening'. She said, ‘Pull up your pants and get to the emergency room,'” she laughed.

After a few weeks of ultrasounds, biopsies, an MRI, and a PET scan, it was determined she had Stage 3 cervical cancer.

"It was a shock. I didn't even know that I was sick. ‘How do I have stage three cancer? I feel fine.’ This was blowing my mind," she recounted.

"Apparently, that is quite common. It's not super common to have zero symptoms, but now the more I talk to women, there's so many symptoms that they just write off, that they just didn't realize. I never would have realized, but I didn't experience any of them."

Radiation therapy pushed the cancer away, but an MRI last November revealed that the cancer had returned and it had spread and is now considered Stage 4B — metastatic cervical cancer. That means chemotherapy. Even with the bad news, she said her optimism is her lifeline.

"I don't want to say the terminal cancer diagnosis, but that is what will take me out eventually. But I plan on living with it for as long as possible as a chronic disease," she continued, reaffirming the importance of her positive attitude.

"I think mindset is very, very important, and surrounding yourself with people who support you and love you. They don't have to do anything. One of the biggest things for me is just the positivity that people send my way, and the prayers. I appreciate that so much. I'm not like 'New Age-y granola' or anything but I soak that in. I soak it in, and it helps me to keep my mindset positive, especially on days where I'm not feeling so positive, which I'm thankful doesn't happen very often."

Accentuating the positives

Some good and important things have come into Connolly's life because of her cancer experience, she said, and developing a support network is a big one. She joined a cervical cancer support group on Facebook.

"I cannot tell you how valuable that has been in my journey, not only to meet other people who are going through the same things that I'm going through and to be able to go and vent to people who understand what's going on, but also just education-wise. I've learned so much from other women's experiences, and reading about something in that group and then going on to Google," she laughed that same big laugh she has, "and do some research about it and finding out more and just being able to raise awareness even further, because I'm learning about other things that people are experiencing."

Through that, she also learned that she wants to pay it forward, too. She said anyone can reach out to her through her personal Facebook page or her Keto Karen Facebook page.

She also expressed a goal: her daughter is due to deliver a child.

"My goal at this point is that I would like to walk my granddaughter into her first day of school. So that's what I'm going to make it for. And then I'll set another goal."

Scott Hayes, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

About the Author: Scott Hayes, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Ecology and Environment Reporter at the Fitzhugh Newspaper since July 2022 under Local Journalism Initiative funding provided by News Media Canada.
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