Survivor Stories 2015:
Karen L. Garst


1. How did you first find out you had cancer?

I discovered a lump in my breast right before I left on a week’s vacation. I spent the week trying to convince myself that it was not cancer. When I returned home, I made an appointment with the doctor. I had a mammogram with a quick response from my doctor.

2. How did you react when you heard the news?

I was sad. My mother had had breast cancer after menopause but I was only 46. However, the doctors’ appointments were scheduled in such quick succession that I didn’t have much time to worry about it.

3. What course of treatment were you prescribed?

I had a lumpectomy. After that procedure while I was recuperating in the hospital, an intern or resident came and told me that the margins were positive. She did not have the best bedside manner. I learned that I would have to have a mastectomy. After that procedure I had seven months of chemotherapy. I then took tamoxifen for five years.

4. What most surprised you about your treatment?

Every doctor that I saw was excellent – from my regular physician to the surgeon who did the two procedures to the plastic surgeon who started reconstruction right after the breast had been removed. I ended up have a long relationship with both the oncologist – in fact I just stopped seeing him – and the plastic surgeon – hey, once you’ve got a plastic surgeon, might as well do some other nips and tucks! I am writing a book and my plastic surgeon told me she wanted to be first in line at the book signing. It is now 19 years since my first diagnosis.

5. What would your advice be to anyone who’s just received a cancer diagnosis?

Call your family, mourn a bit, then plan out your attack. Get support from friends and family and tough it out. Do everything you can to fight it. As my oncologist told me, “I can cure you now, but I can’t cure you if you don’t have chemo and it comes back.”

My older sister sent me seven boxes corresponding to each chemo treatment. In each one there were ten little gifts – day one, day two, etc. I can’t tell you how much I looked forward to opening those gifts each evening. She and my husband were my rocks. I once asked my husband how he was doing and he responded, “You have enough courage for both of us.”

6. How long have you been cancer free?

18 years

7. What lessons did you learn from the experience?

I have always been a pretty up beat person. My surgeon said, “Gee, I wish my mother who was just diagnosed had your attitude. She is always saying ‘poor me’.” I had an incredibly supportive husband and a six-year old son to live for. I also had just started a new job as executive director of the Oregon State Bar so I worked through the chemotherapy. I call them my seven lost weekends. Our son had just received a Playstation and was playing Super Mario Brothers. Please don’t play the theme song from that for me today.

8. If you could send one message to all the Good Enough Mothers out there – what would it be?

You are a lot stronger than you think. You can do it. It was a lot less painful than the delivery before I got my epidural!


Karen L. Garst obtained a BA in French from Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota, a Masters in French and a PhD in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Wisconsin in 1982. She worked as a field representative for the American Federation of Teachers – Oregon from 1980 to 1988. From 1988 to 1995 she served as executive director of the Oregon Community College Association. From 1996 to her retirement in 2008 she was the executive director of the Oregon State Bar.

She lives on five acres on Coffee Creek south of Tualatin with her husband, Ron. They have three adult children and two grandchildren.