Breast cancer patient grateful for navigator who was at her side

Karen Adams is thankful for the empowerment she gained from having cancer. 

“I think the mission of my life has just been opened up to me,” she said, “and that is to let others know that there is hope. A cancer diagnosis is not always a death threat.” 

The Charlotte mother of two is living proof. 

Adams survived breast cancer in 2017 and was treated three years later for an aggressive stage 3 tumor in her colon. Today, she is NED — meaning she has no evidence of disease — and has embarked on a new career as a patient support manager with a national nonprofit that helps women with cancer. 

Adams said she wouldn’t be where she is today without support from her family, faith community and friends — especially her Novant Health cancer navigator Vicki Davidson. Cancer navigators are specially trained registered nurses who guide patients through their cancer journey.

From the day she gave Adams her breast cancer diagnosis, Davidson has been a ready resource with answers to questions about treatment and support services. She coordinates the care team and helps breast cancer patients cope with everything from transportation for appointments to overdue utility bills, depression and hair loss stemming from their treatment. Novant Health has navigators for all types of cancer. 

“I loved her from that first day,” Adams recalled. “I know she has a million patients, but I couldn’t tell. She treated me as if I was her only one.” 

Over the past six years, the two have forged something of a mutual admiration society. 

Davidson often shares Adams’ tale of resilience with other patients who are embarking on their own cancer journeys. 

Adams often turns to Davidson in search of other cancer patients to encourage. She distributes baskets with donated self-care products to give patients at Novant Health Presbyterian Hospital in Charlotte a boost. 

“It’s important for breast health patients to talk about it and be that support for one another,” said Adams, who is in her 50s. 

Deer in the headlights’

Adams’ cancer journey couldn’t have been more unexpected. 

She was in a supervised weight-loss program, preparing for breast reduction surgery, when she discovered a lump in her left breast. A mammogram, ultrasound and needle biopsy quickly followed and then, that life-changing meeting with her new cancer navigator. 

Both recall it as a “deer in the headlights” kind of encounter. Adams heard little after Davidson told her she had invasive ductal carcinoma (ER positive, HER2 positive). She would undergo six weeks of chemotherapy, a double mastectomy, breast reconstruction and removal of her ovaries. 

The treatment was manageable, but it meant she had to stop working to concentrate on her recovery. And suddenly, the family of four had one breadwinner, not two. “But,” Adams said, “the bills don’t stop just because you have cancer.” 

Help from several sources

Fortunately, Davidson was at the ready with help for the whole family. 

Often, when patients are diagnosed with cancer, they are already dealing with other challenging life circumstances, Davidson said. 

She connected Adams to resources that help cancer patients surmount financial hurdles — among them, the Novant Health Cancer Institute Buddy Kemp Support Center, and a pair of North Carolina-based nonprofits, Go Jen Go and the Pretty in Pink Foundation. Her mortgage, utility bills and more were paid, easing the pressure on Adams’ husband, Daniel. 

Davidson even had a boost for the Adams’ daughters, Kierstin and Kimora, who were then 7 and 11. She pointed Adams to Camp Kasem, a summer camp for kids coping with a parent’s cancer. 

“That really, really touched my heart because my children are my No. 1 priority,” Adams said. 

When her hair fell out and her skin tone changed, Davidson steered her to classes where women with cancer were shown stylish ways to tie a head wrap and apply makeup. Her church family at Kingdom Harvest BibleWay Church in Charlotte pitched in with meals, household help and encouragement. 

It all helped ease worries and let healing begin. 

Adams made it through the treatment and began advocating for other cancer patients — singing the national anthem at a Major League Soccer game in Charlotte during a breast cancer awareness event. She also launched a podcast to share encouraging stories of faith, family, health and more. 

And from time to time, Adams checked in with Davidson, who recognized she was looking for a way to give back. 

“Having cancer can certainly change a person’s priorities and how they live moving forward,” Davidson said. “I could tell that Karen was trying to figure out what her purpose was and what would be her next path.”

Support For cancer patients

Some organizations that figured in Karen Adams’ cancer journey: 

Novant Health Cancer Institute Buddy Kemp Support Center in Charlotte has individual and family counseling, support groups and educational programs, financial advice and a lending boutique with wigs for cancer patients who have lost their hair. Phone: 704-384-5223 

Share Cancer Support, the nonprofit where Adams now works, offers online educational programs and support groups for women with breast, ovarian, uterine, cervical or metastatic breast cancer. National help line: 844-275-7427 

Go Jen Go provides more than $135,000 a year in financial support to women and men fighting breast cancer in the greater Charlotte area. The aid can be used for housing, utilities, transportation, food and necessities. Phone: 704-774-6700 

Pretty in Pink Foundation helps uninsured and under-insured breast cancer patients in North Carolina with financial aid for medical treatment. Phone: 919-532-0532

Carolina Breast Friends runs the “Pink House,” a Charlotte respite center for breast cancer patients and survivors. It has fitness, nutrition, yoga and mindfulness classes, support groups and one-on-one-mentoring, among other services. Phone: 704-370-7773 

I try to find the good’

But cancer wasn’t done with Adams yet. One day, she found blood in her stool. 

Adams was frightened — and furious. And because of COVID-19 restrictions, she had to wait months for a colonoscopy to find out what was happening. When it was finally done, the news wasn’t good, and this time it came from her husband. 

‘He said they found a cluster of tumors, and it was stage 3,” Adams recalled. “But I try to find the good in everything. There had to be a reason why it happened that way.” 

Her oncologist ordered four rounds of chemo. But the side effects — severe stomach pain and loss of blood from lesions up and down her digestive tract — were so unbearable Adams decided to stop after two and leave the rest to God. 

Since then, she gets checked several times a year. Every time, she has received that sought-after result: NED, no evidence of disease. 

“I give all the credit for that to God, because I was supposed to have four rounds of chemo and He healed me in two,” she said. 

Paying it forward

With no detectable traces of cancer, Adams’ mission now is to provide the kind of support for other patients that she received throughout her journey. 

She’s manager of early-stage breast cancer support for the national nonprofit Share Cancer Support, which offers support and resources for women with breast, ovarian, uterine, cervical cancers. It’s her way of giving thanks.

“I am grateful that I had a very strong group of people that supported me, encouraged me and pushed me, even when I didn’t feel like going on, because everybody does not have that,” Adams said. “I know what a difference it’ll make if you have somebody rooting for you, and pushing you. That is why I always want to be the one to help the other person get through what I have been through.”