She has beaten invasive cancer, broken world records and overcome emotional and physical challenges. Karen Newman doesn’t just chase her dreams, she catches them
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The Other Side of Darkness
Fit and lean in black running pants and a long-sleeved T-shirt, with a full head of thick, wavy hair cascading down her back, it’s hard to believe this is the same woman who appeared as part of a Today Show segment for its Breast Cancer Awareness Month in August of 2008. At the time, Karen—by then a five-time world triathlete competitor—was bald and weakened by chemo and radiation treatments she was receiving for her Stage 3 invasive ductal carcinoma. She had first discovered a small lump in her left breast in 2004, but every mammogram, ultrasound and biopsy had come back clean. It wasn’t until she experienced swollen lymph glands and lost feeling in the fingers of her left hand, that she underwent an MRI. When she got the results of five separate biopsies—all positive—the prognosis was grim.
“I still didn’t believe them,” she says. “It had been three years of saying everything is fine to all of sudden it doesn’t look good?”
Karen had already qualified for the World Triathlon Championships in Vancouver, B.C., and she was determined to go. When none of her doctors would support her decision, she found a doctor who would. “It was the hardest race; it was freezing. I couldn’t feel my fingers or my toes because of the chemo,” she says. As she entered the stadium, the coach handed her an American flag and she crossed the finish line with the world cheering her on. She finished next to last. “I was really racing for my children and anyone battling any disease,” she says.
A devout Christian and active member of her church, Karen’s faith was tested many times over the next three years. She endured four surgeries, including a mastectomy and a breast reconstruction gone awry. She developed lymphedema, as a result of her damaged lymph glands. To this day, her rib cage is permanently twisted as a result of the cording caused by the radiation treatments. There were days when she could barely force herself out of bed, much less into her running shoes. “One night I was so mad at God, I was so angry, ‘I can’t stand it anymore,’ I cried. I yelled at God. That was a transformative moment for me,” she says.
When Greenwich magazine first profiled Karen as part of its 2009 cover story, “The Ultimate Athletes,” about four local female triathletes, Karen had temporarily pulled back from the international racing scene and was focused on her recovery. She was named the DetermiNation Champion for the American Cancer Society, an experience that enabled her to put medals around cancer patients as they finished their chemo. She swam for the Alliance for Cancer Gene Therapy in the Swim Across America event. She modeled for the Breast Cancer Alliance just days after her mastectomy (“I still had drain tubes coming out of my arms,” she says). She was featured in the Faces of Light tour, shot by photographer Ben Larrabee. “It’s a big part of my life, trying to save others from what I went through,” Karen says. “The importance of getting second opinions, following your gut, pushing for answers. All the things I didn’t do.”
In 2011 Karen qualified for the Triathlon World Championship in Beijing, China, where she placed eleventh. The following year she placed third at the U.S. National Championships in Burlington, Vermont, once again qualifying for a World Championship event, this time in Auckland, New Zealand. She knew her chances of medaling were slim. But it had long been her dream to stand on a podium at the Worlds and she believed she owed it to herself and her family to try. “The stars aligned that day,” Karen recalls. She won the silver medal and was the top American in her division. “Every miracle that could happen to get me there got me there,” she says. “I was fifty-one years old and I had just set a new American world record.”