She was studying to become a registered nurse, which involved going on rounds with a nurse practitioner.
“Every room she went into, she said, ‘Have you done a breast exam?’” Parham recalled. “She kept saying it over and over. I knew as a nurse I was supposed to be doing it, but I wasn’t.”
She conducted a self-exam on a Friday.
“I found something, and I kind of forgot about it, as crazy as that sounds,” she said. “Sunday, I was sitting at the computer doing school work, and it hit me out of the blue. I said, ‘Maybe I should get that checked out tomorrow.’”
After a mammogram and an ultrasound, early indications suggested much ado about nothing. A precautionary lumpectomy was performed, and Parham figured her concerns had been unwarranted.
“They weren’t really suspicious of it,” she said.
Then the lab results came back.
“They called and I thought, how cool, they’re calling to make sure I’m OK,” she said. “They said, ‘Karla, I’m calling to tell you it’s breast cancer.’ I said, ‘What?’”
The diagnosis caught Parham and her husband, Greg, by surprise.
“I don’t know if I was overly optimistic or naive,” Greg Parham said. “It never entered my mind it was cancer.”
Parham’s thoughts immediately went to her children, Madison and Max.
“The first thing you think about is your kids,” she said. “You want to be there to raise them, be there for them. That was always on my mind.”
She had an aggressive cancer, and the self-exam probably saved her life. Dr. Buddy Williamson met Parham and her husband in his office and discussed possible treatment plans.
One option was surgery to target the tissue around the lump followed by radiation. Another was a full mastectomy with no need for other cancer treatments.
They talked to friends and searched the Internet. On one site, Greg Parham found a letter his wife could’ve written. He realized his wife’s decision came down to whether she was more concerned about her self-image or more worried the cancer would come back.
“When she told me she wanted to have a mastectomy, that settled it for me,” he said, “because she would’ve had no quality of life. She would’ve worried about the cancer returning.”
She had a double mastectomy, and a plastic surgeon began the reconstruction on the same day. She awoke wrapped in bandages.
“When they took those off, it wasn’t a body image shock because I had something there,” she said. “There were scars and it was ugly, but it wasn’t like I had nothing.”
Dr. Robert Buckley had installed tissue expanders. Saline was injected once a week to make room for permanent implants.
The day arrived for the implants, and Parham was ready to get the surgery behind her.
That’s when a medical test provided a dose of good news, though it didn’t sound like it at the time.
“They said, ‘Karla, we can’t do your surgery today,” she said. “In my brain, I thought, I’m eat up with cancer. They can’t do anything for me.
“Then they said, ‘You’re pregnant.’”
“I’m glad I was sitting in the corner when they told us,” Greg Parham said.
“He about fell out of his chair,” she said.
“In retrospect, it was funny,” he said. “At the time, it was hard to be excited. I was shocked.”
When she was first diagnosed with breast cancer, Parham was told to go off birth control, and one thing led to another.
Parham had to wear the tissue expanders for a year. On the plus side, there’s Molly, who’s now an 8-year-old bundle of energy.
“I say Molly is a gift,” Parham, 46, said. “She’s the gift I got from breast cancer.”
“We know how old Molly is. That’s how long Karla’s been cancer-free,” Greg Parham, 48, said.
During her hardest days, Parham bent down in prayer numerous times. She promised she’d help others if she survived, and she’s made good on that promise by raising money each year for breast cancer awareness programs. In that way, other people have benefited from Parham’s troubles.
And there’s another lasting benefit breast cancer gave to Parham and her family.
“You realize all you have to be thankful for,” she said. “I don’t think there is a day that goes by that I take for granted.”