Like many survivors, Karima Zizoune remembers the moment she learned she had breast cancer all too clearly. Though it happened seven years ago, she can still recall how her doctor’s hands shook as he held the results of her mammogram and biopsy in front of him.
“I knew it was bad news before he said anything,” she says.
It was a scenario Zizoune never could have imagined. At the time, she was an otherwise healthy 45-year-old with no family history of breast cancer.
“I didn’t even know anyone who had had cancer,” she recalls. “I didn’t know much about the disease at all.”
But there was one thing Zizoune did know: She didn’t want to take any chances when it came to treatment. When she met with her breast surgeon just two hours after she was diagnosed, Zizoune informed her that she wanted a double mastectomy.
“The surgeon started to list treatment options, but I told her to skip to the end,” she recalls. “I didn’t want to go through multiple surgeries.” When the pathology report later revealed Zizoune had HER2-positive breast cancer, a particularly aggressive form of the disease, she knew she’d made the right decision.
Though it was a terrible choice to have to make, the time she spent in the hospital recovering from surgery provided with her a unique and empowering opportunity that still inspires her today: the chance to use her experience to help researchers and patients alike.
It happened just a couple of days following surgery. A young oncologist she didn’t know appeared at her bedside with a surprising request: She wanted to know if she could take a sample of the lymph and blood draining from Zizoune’s incisions to examine as part of a study she was conducting.
“I laughed and said she could take it all,” says Zizoune. “I certainly didn’t need it.”
It was a humorous start to what became a heartfelt conversation between the two. “I told her that I admired her for the work she was doing,” she says. “Without researchers like her, there would be no progress in understanding and treating breast cancer. I would have let her do anything she wanted to me if it could help someone else.”
Though she’d understood little about breast cancer just two weeks earlier, Zizoune had quickly developed an enormous sense of gratitude for the scientists who study the disease. She had spent many hours since her diagnosis reading books about breast cancer recommended by her surgeon and a friend whose mother is a survivor.
“I finished one researcher’s book in a night!” she says. “Just learning that there are people out there who have dedicated themselves to finding ways to fight breast cancer and save lives was inspiring.”
Using the knowledge she gained, Zizoune set about creating a plan to stay as physically and emotionally healthy as possible during treatment.
“When you have cancer, it feels like you’re losing control of yourself,” she says. “But only part of you is sick. I made it my mission to keep the healthy part of myself strong so I could get through this experience.”
That included everything from meeting with a doctor to come up with a nutrient-packed meal plan to developing coping skills for dealing with chemotherapy.
“Chemo was the part that scared me the most,” Zizoune recalls. “After every treatment, I would go to the park to walk or just watch children play. I didn’t want to go straight home and dwell on the fact that I’d just had chemo.”
Fortunately, the treatment plan was successful. Today, Zizoune is thankful to be in good health, and she takes every opportunity to pay it forward by meeting with women who were recently diagnosed with breast cancer to share what she learned about managing the disease. Now, the comfort and determination she gained years ago from immersing herself in research—and contributing to that young oncologist’s study—has inspired her to champion the importance of science.
“I value and appreciate the work BCRF is doing to support research,” Zizoune says.
Though she only learned about it recently, the work of BCRF researchers had a deeply personal and positive effect on her journey: Following surgery, Zizoune was successfully treated with Herceptin, a medication developed thanks to early clinical trials funded by BCRF. “I wasn’t surprised to find out that BCRF had made that kind of impact,” she says.
“I’m so grateful for everything these researchers have done to save people like me.”