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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Going Public with a Private Struggle
Now cancer-free and with six gold medals to show for what she calls “the most extraordinary racing season of my life,” Karen is taking a break from competing, in part to spend more time with her husband and three boys, and in part to fulfill a dream of becoming an inspirational speaker. Having been through the wringer and back, she is eager to share her story with others, to help them know they are not alone. “It’s been such an amazing journey learning to love myself, and through that to really pour love into the world,” she says.
Even before her cancer diagnosis, Karen had been searching for ways to strengthen her spiritual life. She began attending a weekly Bible study offered through her church and then four years ago, she and her husband were moved to start a monthly prayer and support group called “Getting Over Disease (G.O.D.) for Good.” “We create a safe place for people to share their struggles, supporting one another through difficult times,” says Karen. “We’re like a family. I’ve seen miracles happen in that group.” At the same time, she has had opportunities to tell her story at community Bible studies throughout Fairfield County, with several more speaking engagements in the pipeline. Last July, she had the honor of giving the keynote address at the Frogs for the Cure luncheon benefitting the Susan G. Komen Cancer Foundation at Texas Christian University in Dallas. In May she will be the guest speaker at a wellness retreat for top executives at luxury skincare company La Mer and she was recently named an ambassador for the Huntsman World Senior Games. But the thing that she’s most excited about is the book she’s been working on since last summer, a memoir chronicling her experiences with cancer, Just Three Words.
Karen says she never planned to write a book; that she was encouraged by the thousands of people who follow her blog on her website, thekarennewman.com. “I’m no writer. So I asked God for a sign.” The next day she got a call from a cousin, inviting her to attend a writer’s conference in Los Angeles. It was there that she happened to meet one of the biggest agents in the business. He asked her what she was working on. When she finished telling him her story, he told her to hurry up and get started.
For Karen, writing her memoir has been an opportunity to come clean about a secret she’d been living with for years: Throughout her adult life she struggled with an eating disorder that first appeared when she was a teenager growing up outside of Syracuse. “People would see me and think, here is a cancer survivor. Isn’t she amazing? But the truth is, I was a broken woman.”
A perfectionist from a young age, Karen suffered from anorexia as a teenager; by the time she was fifteen she weighed 74 pounds. “I was quite literally starving myself to death,” she says. “I hated myself so much.” It wasn’t until the day she flipped open the pages of her high school yearbook that she really saw herself for the first time. “I was a skeleton. I realized if I didn’t stop I was going to die.” It was a moment of clarity, she says, a gift from God. She ran downstairs where her mother was in the kitchen making Rice Krispies treats. “I asked her if I could have one, and she started crying.”
Karen believes she was miraculously healed that day, and with a renewed commitment to her faith, she eventually went on to the University of Vermont where she studied nutrition. She started an eating disorder clinic. She joined the track team, whose membership included future Olympians. She met the man who would become her husband. Life got busy and full. Too busy, too full. At some point during her sophomore year she realized many of her friends were using bulimia (a cycle of binging and purging) to manage their weight. “I stepped off the ledge,” she said. “And invited the demon back into my life.”
Over the next twenty-odd years, Karen struggled to keep her disease under control. Running helped. So did raising a family. She launched a business, started competing again. She dabbled in races around town, but it wasn’t until the birth of her son Trent that she made a commitment to see how far she could go. In 2001, against all odds, Karen qualified for the Triathlon World Championships in Edmonton, Canada. It was the beginning of an incredible upward trajectory.
At the end of 2007, she was—on the surface at least—in the best shape of her life. Inside, though, she was a mess. “For some reason I started to feed all these old thoughts about my self-worth being tied to my weight.” She fell back into her eating disorder and it had her in a choke hold. “I didn’t want to tell anyone. I was too ashamed.” And then cancer stepped in.
“Believe it or not the cancer diagnosis was not the worst thing going on in my life,” she says. “It was the thing that saved me. It was a wake-up call. Just like when I was a little girl. I knew if I didn’t stop, I could die.”
Today, with cancer vanquished, her eating disorder under control, an enviable slate of medals and new career prospects unfolding in front of her, Karen finally feels like she’s found her way. “I had a goal this year of doing amazing,” she says. “But more important than all the medals is this extraordinary gift of getting to do my life’s passion, to help other people. And not because I’m this perfect person, thank goodness. I feel healed, and happy, and loved.”