Kara Guerrero hiked the Grand Canyon alone in 2018. Miles of solitude, surrounded by nature — that had been Kara’s style for years. Every chance she got, the Philippines-born nurse would travel somewhere new to hike — Canada, Arizona, Oregon, Washington, Utah — to experience the joy and power of nature.
But in February 2019, her joy turned to despair. “I try to do monthly breast exams even though my breasts are small,” Kara explains. “In November 2018, I felt a lump, but my primary care doctor said I was too young, that we should just wait. Still, I felt vulnerable and scared — I didn’t want to hear I had cancer.”
Kara’s angst turned to action. She sought a second opinion from Onouwen Nseyo, M.D., her Sutter East Bay Medical Foundation OB-GYN. Unfortunately, Kara’s fear was confirmed: At 31 years old, she was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer.
Having no children but wanting to keep her options open, Kara froze her eggs before receiving her chemotherapy port. She endured six rounds of chemotherapy, five weeks of daily radiation and a double mastectomy for the best odds of avoiding recurrence. Incredibly, she continued to work through much of her treatment.
“My world turned upside down,” Kara says. “I was in shock, and I think I wanted some kind of normalcy by working part-time when I could.”
Kara also found comfort in her care team. “My care was excellent,” she says. “Everybody was so nice and friendly and didn’t make me feel like something was wrong with me.”
A Community of Support
Kara moved to the Bay Area from the Central Valley about nine years ago. Facing such as serious disease without her family nearby was challenging, so she took advantage of all the resources available from the Carol Ann Read Breast Health Center and Alta Bates Summit Medical Center Herrick Campus. Once she joined the Young Women’s Breast Cancer Support Group at CARBHC, she began to find her footing.
Launched in the early 1990s, this support group helps women in their 20s, 30s and 40s share experiences throughout their cancer journeys. Because having the disease young, these women face unique challenges: fertility questions, delaying childbirth, freezing eggs, balancing treatment and hair loss with caring for young children who might not understand.
“For many of us, it can be easier to get support from people we’re not related to, as family members don’t have the same objectivity,” explains Gale Uchiyama, LCSW, oncology social worker and breast health navigator at CARBHC. “I see young people lose their friends because of fear they will also get cancer. Some friends don’t know how to be supportive while others come out of the woodwork and know how to listen and be present.”
Kara cherishes the friendships she has made and lessons she has learned from the group. “With so many others having gone through cancer, I’m just one little speck,” she says. “But I’ve learned from other young women how strong we are and how many resources are available to empower us to do more and be more as women with cancer. We still keep in touch — these women are my little family; they understand what I’ve gone through.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has introduced new challenges to the Young Women’s Breast Cancer Support Group, which has migrated online. In some cases, it has been easier for the women to hop on their computer or phone to join a session than to drive to CARBHC when they may not feel well. On the other hand, schedules can be tricky with school and work also taking place at home.
Gale assumes that once the pandemic ends, she will continue running both in-person and virtual support groups. “Thank god we live in a time and place that we can offer our services through Skype and these women can continue to receive support from others who understand,” she says.
Beyond the support group, Kara is grateful for all of the resources offered to cancer patients at ABSMC. She participated in art classes, yoga, tai chi and counseling groups and wants to make sure others know how much is available.
“Without these resources, I would be struggling, feeling isolated and alone,” Kara says. “I am motivated to be a mentor and help others like they helped me. I want women to advocate for their own health and to continue to speaking up if they feel something might be wrong.”
Hiking Away Despair
The effects of chemotherapy are cumulative, and by her sixth and final infusion, Kara was really starting to struggle. She knew exercise would help her feel better, but she lacked the motivation to go to the gym. Because the outdoors had always provided a refuge for Kara, she decided to start running instead.
“I had been through hell and back with all the poison of the chemo,” she says. “I needed that little spark of motivation to get outside and run, and this year I’ve run 5K and 10K races.”
Just as Kara was hitting her stride, however, it was time for reconstructive surgery. Six months after radiation ended, she went in for her implants. Her doctor told her that running would be out of the question for five weeks following the surgery to ensure proper healing. Two weeks after the procedure, she suffered an infection.
Unable to run, Kara returned to hiking as soon as she could, exploring many of the nearby East Bay trails she’d overlooked before. “I used to shop to feel better, but now I hike,” she laughs. “Hiking not only makes my body stronger — it clears my mind and heals my body and soul.”
In June, Kara completed a 15-mile hike in Yosemite
with her boyfriend. To her, this felt like a triumphant return.