'Born to save my life': How a Bartlett woman's breast cancer diagnosis helped save her mom

Dima Amro
Memphis Commercial Appeal
Karen Boyd was diagnosed with breast cancer in April, about a year and a half after her daughter Allison Robertson was diagnosed. Now the duo share tips, facts and struggles in a Facebook group for people affected by the disease. The mother and daughter are seen here in matching  hair from The Pink Wig Project at Boyd's Bartlett home on Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2021.

Karen Boyd says her daughter Allison Robertson was "born to save my life."

"Thank God (Robertson) slept in her bra," Boyd said. If she hadn't, a lineage of breast cancer genes may never have unraveled, and Boyd, 50, to this day might not have known about a cancerous tumor in her breast. 

The mother and daughter's breast cancer journey started in 2019. 

"I never sleep in my bra, like ever, ever," said Robertson, a Bartlett resident.

But "...by the grace of God," Robertson said she fell asleep wearing her bra one summer night only to wake up the next morning to discover blood spots splattered across the fabric.

Robertson called her mother who urged her to see her doctor, although Robertson did not think it was a "big deal" because she had a history of cysts. 

After an obstetrician-gynecologist check, a mammogram and a biopsy, the doctors diagnosed Robertson with Stage 1A ductal carcinoma on Sept. 9, 2019 — nine days before her 28th birthday.

"I found out while I was at work," said Robertson, now 29. "I was in very much shock, I was almost in denial. Happy birthday to me, I guess."

Robertson's diagnosis began a search for the cancer gene in her family members — Boyd had the gene, which wove through generations of her family including her grandfather, father and son. 

Boyd, retired vice president of Old Republic Title insurance, now worries her grandkids also have the gene, but they will not know until getting tested at 18. 

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Testing for the breast cancer gene

Karen Boyd was diagnosed with breast cancer in April, about a year and a half after her daughter Allison Robertson was diagnosed. Now the duo share tips, facts and struggles in a Facebook group for people affected by the disease. The mother and daughter are seen here in matching  hair from The Pink Wig Project at Boyd's Bartlett home on Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2021.

Dr. Gregory Vidal, director of breast cancer research at West Cancer Center and Research Institute, said testing for the breast cancer gene is paramount if it shows up in another family member. 

"Family knowing then allows us to screen those family members much more closely," Vidal said. "With all breast cancers it's highly curable, but it's highly curable because we find it early."

Vidal said finding blood in bras happens "significantly enough" for it to be one sign of breast cancer in the milk ducts and, if it happens, immediately notify a doctor. 

"Despite the pandemic, breast cancer and other cancers don't wait," Vidal said. "If you have any concerns, bring it to your doctor as soon as possible."

Once Boyd, a Bartlett resident, discovered she had the gene, she underwent breast checks every three months, and a Baptist Memorial Healthcare doctor monitored her health. 

Boyd's doctor saw something "odd" during a routine breast check in March and conducted a mammogram, which came back clear.

Her doctor's suspicions led to an MRI to double-check she was in the clear, but images showed an early-stage malignant tumor hiding in her breast tissues.

Boyd's doctor diagnosed her with the same cancer as her daughter: Stage 1A ductal carcinoma. 

Robertson completed chemotherapy in 2020 and watched her mother begin treatment this past June. Boyd received chemo once every three weeks with her last session Sept. 7. She will begin radiation treatment in October.

"There's so much I know now that I wish I would've known when my daughter was going through it," Boyd said.

'My story can be someone else's survival' 

Karen Boyd was diagnosed with breast cancer in April, about a year and a half after her daughter Allison Robertson was diagnosed. Now the duo share tips, facts and struggles in a Facebook group for people affected by the disease. The mother and daughter are seen here in matching  hair from The Pink Wig Project at Boyd's Bartlett home on Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2021.

Going through the treatments now, Boyd speaks up to her doctors or insurance company about issues, pain and assistance — something she wished her daughter did more of.

Although the treatments tire out Boyd, the emotional and mental effects overwhelm her more.

Some days Boyd said she cannot get out of bed but she tries to keep an upbeat attitude, which she finds the most helpful going through treatments.

Although Boyd's thoughts on her disease "consume" her, she takes it day-by-day and is hopeful of the future.

During her breast cancer journey, Boyd has taken to Facebook to inform at-risk women. 

She created Pink Ribbons Facebook group to share her struggles and insights on breast cancer. "My story can be someone else's survival." 

Boyd is one of 281,550 women in America diagnosed with breast cancer in 2021, according to the American Cancer Society.

She posts daily chemo updates, breast cancer statistics, alternate treatment options and uplifting quotes with pink-wig selfies for more than 200 members.

Dozens of women and men reached out to Boyd inquiring about her tips on everything from cranial prosthesis prescriptions (wigs) to Neulasta shots, an injection to help regenerate white blood cells. 

"When you start doing stuff like this and you start hearing from so many women, men too, it makes you feel like you have a purpose," Boyd said.

She began the Facebook group in July to "find relief" from chemotherapy treatments and track days she felt bad. Then over time, Boyd shared facts she learned from doctors, insurance companies and online sources. 

"You're not fine, this sucks," she said. "You've got to deal with it as best you can."

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The costs of battling breast cancer

Two small pink ribbon tattoos can be seen on the wrists of Karen Boyd and her daughter Allison Robertson. The duo decided to get the symbols done one month after Boyd's diagnosis with breast cancer, about a year and a half after her daughter's diagnosis.

Boyd's main concerns now are "outrageous" medical bills for not only her but also her daughter. Checkups, shots and treatments rack up thousands of dollars even with insurance, she said.  

"They (the government) can provide a COVID shot for everybody, for people that don't want it, yet you have to pay for chemo," Boyd said. "We don't choose this."

Boyd said she and her daughter did not "budget in" their breast cancer diagnoses and struggled with payments.

Robertson, a dental assistant at Bellano Dental, said she focused on getting better rather than the bills piled on her kitchen table.

At one point, Robertson's friends started a now closed-GoFundMe that raised $7,000, which helped her pay some bills but not all of them. She also received a grant to help financially, but it went out fast.

"It breaks my heart," said Boyd, who advises breast cancer patients to call their insurance companies with all financial questions. "I wish I could just take all her medical expenses and rip them up."

Dima Amro covers the suburbs for The Commercial Appeal and can be reached at Dima.Amro@commercialappeal.com.