South Auckland mum’s journey from terminal cancer to powerlifter

Powerlifter Angela Wilkinson clearly remembers the moment Karen Daniels came to her for training late last year. The pair knew each other through the gym where Angela was a personal trainer and Karen was into bodybuilding, but Angela hadn’t seen her for years.

“She was wearing a beanie when she arrived and she struggled to walk,” recalls Angela. “She was tired. She’d put on weight and had burn marks on her arms. She was shy – not the Karen I knew. She was totally different and there was a darkness there.”

Little did Angela know that the mum-of-two had been battling stage-four breast cancer and a year of gruelling chemo had taken its toll – those marks on her arms were a side effect.

But Karen, from South Auckland, was determined to get her life back, enlisting Angela to help her start the long, slow process of getting her match-fit for competitions. “I wanted to prove to myself that there was life after treatment – that I can be strong,” Karen, 47, explains to Woman’s Day.

Today, you wouldn’t know she was the same person. Still beaming from completing her first powerlifting competition as part of Valkyrie, New Zealand’s only all-women powerlifting team, Karen’s in an empowering new phase of her life.

Not only is she back training at the gym, feeling stronger and more energetic by the day, but she also has a newfound determination to have a crack at all her big goals. “I’m really excited,” she says. “I wasn’t able to do any lifting last year, so this is a big step for me.”

Weight-training had always been Karen’s passion, but the desire to take it to the next level by taking on one of the world’s toughest sports shows her tenacity, says powerlifting coach Angela. “It’s a strength sport, but it’s also hugely mental. It’s not for someone who doesn’t like hard work.”

Karen kept her goals firmly in mind as she prepared her post-treatment body to take on three-point lifts, bench squats and deadlifts. She’s now achieving 90kg deadlifts and, at the competition last month, was “rapt” to bench-press her target of 40kg. She’s now working towards 45kg and has three more competitions planned this year.

It’s been six years since health and safety professional Karen first discovered a lump in her armpit, which her GP reassured her was nothing to worry about. And Karen felt fine – after all, she ate healthily and was physically fit, going to the gym five to six times a week to prep for her second body-building competition.

Within three years, though, the lump had grown and Karen returned to the doctor. This time, the news was not good.

“I was devastated,” she says of her 2018 diagnosis of incurable breast cancer, an advanced form that meant the disease had metastasised, spreading to her lung and liver.

“I remember crying, ‘How can this be happening? I’m so young!’ I thought I was doing all the right things. It was a big shock. What was going to happen with my children? Who was going to look after my parents? You think about all of that as if you’re going to die at that very moment.”

She decided not to tell anyone other than those in her household – son Moimoi, 19, daughter Daniella, 11, mum Gingia, 74, dad Kare (who passed away in 2019 aged 75), brother Iphai, 48, and nephew, Karemoana, 18, plus a small circle of friends.

Her doctor talked about palliative care, but an appalled Karen pushed for treatment.
Just before the first lockdown, Karen had two weeks of radiotherapy and a single mastectomy – her increased vulnerability to Covid-19 never far from her mind. The treatment left her exhausted, with no energy to walk up the driveway, let alone cook a meal.

Worried how she’d take care of her family, it came as a relief to learn about charity Sweet Louise while in hospital. It gave Karen the support she desperately needed, connecting her with other women going through the same experience, giving her food vouchers and supporting her emotionally with home visits.

People in the community showed Karen kindness too. An elderly friend took her to treatment each week, and church pals provided meals, encouragement and prayers. One couple even delivered regular fresh vegetable juices to Karen, who has adopted a plant-based diet.

“I’m so grateful to my friends and family – they really helped me think positively and stay calm, even when I wasn’t sure I was going to make it,” shares Karen.

During her hospital stay, Karen was connected with METS, a University of Auckland programme that helps women with incurable breast cancer improve their quality of life through exercise. With a customised rehab plan, Karen was able to return to the thing she loves the most. “My goal was to be able to do anything in the gym – the machines, the leg press, whatever,” she says.

From her early gentle walks around the block, Karen soon progressed to higher-intensity cardio and light weights, before eventually feeling strong enough to consider powerlifting.

The day Karen was cleared to do chest exercises was a day Angela recalls as a turning point. “She was able to bench the bar confidently. A lot of people who haven’t been through what Karen has can’t do a 20kg bar. When she did that, I said, ‘You’re gonna be the boss!'”

Today, Karen still bears the skin discolouration that’s one of the side effects of her treatment. It has also thrown her sleep patterns into disarray and her body into early menopause.

“Every day, I face the risk of my cancer coming back worse,” she tells. “But I don’t dwell on that – I’ve got to think positive and be around people who inspire me.”

Although scans still show spots on her liver and lung, Karen’s doctor is confident they’re not cancer-related and that her treatment has been successful, which Karen says is a miracle that’s given her a new lease on life.

“It’s forced me to think about my priorities,” she explains. “I almost died. What’s important to me is my family, my faith, my connections with people and doing the things I want to do.”

One of those goals is to complete a master’s degree in sport, exercise and health at AUT. She’s also keeping busy with her role on a Pacific advisory group, as well as a community group that encourages others to put their health first.

When she’s not spending time with her family, she trains with Angela, one of her biggest supporters, and regularly hits the gym with her brother and mum Gingia.

“Karen has done a whole 360 – she’s got so much energy,” enthuses Angela. “I’m very proud of her. She’s a determined person. I really love to see her happy, motivated and excited. It’s given her lots of life.”

“Because I’m a go-getter and always have been, I don’t like sitting around,” concludes Karen with a grin. “There’s only so much Netflix you can watch! So as soon as I had the energy to go out and do things, that was it. There was no looking back.”

Sweet support

Sweet Louise provides practical and emotional assistance for Kiwis living with incurable breast cancer. Karen says, “Sweet Louise offers the kind of support no one else can. They are there for me when I need to talk. At any time, I can reach out to Sweet Louise and know I am not alone.” To help Sweet Louise support women like Karen, visit sweetlouise.co.nz or call 0800 793 385.

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