A COURAGEOUS CHOICE
by Kelsey Harper
After receiving a diagnosis that forever changed the trajectory of her life, Karolina Krauze had the opportunity to take control. She seized it, and now focuses on positive outcomes for an even better story.
“I’ve been a New Yorker all my life, and it has been a dream of mine to run the New York City marathon,” she says.
As an avid runner, cross-fitter, all-around athlete, and self-described wanderluster, Karolina’s dream to take on the world’s largest marathon seemed inevitable. Life events, however, would put a pause on everything.
“My mom was diagnosed with stage four ovarian cancer, and we found out that she carried the BRCA1 gene mutation,” she shares. “I then found out that I carried the mutation as well.”
For women who are diagnosed with BRCA1, BRCA2, or other known gene mutations that significantly increase the risk of breast and ovarian cancer, it’s a life-altering experience.
Karolina shares her journey openly on social media.
“I’ve been living in fear, constantly worrying that this is going to be the day when I get a cancer diagnosis,” she shared on Instagram two years after being made aware of her gene mutation. “I have appointments every 4-6 months to do endless amounts of exams, scans, and blood work as a screening procedure. It’s exhausting and sucks the life out of you.”
“It was time to be proactive,” Karolina says. “I decided to get a prophylactic double mastectomy (PDM) to drastically decrease my chances of ever getting breast cancer.”
The decision was empowering, courageous, and only hers to make. If you're on the outside looking in it may seem radical, but to her, it was a no-brainer.
“I had two choices, I can either shuffle my way from appointment to appointment, wait in the windowless waiting room and drive myself crazy; or I can kick cancer’s ass before it gets a chance to kick mine. I don’t think there was an option.”
While the surgery, which took place in December of 2017 when Karolina was 26 years old, placed her life on hold, it wasn’t for long.
“One random day when I was just laying around watching TV and still recovering, not being able to do anything, I was like ‘I’m going to sign up for a marathon, I’m going to start training when I’m cleared,’” she says.
By the end of January, Karolina was snowboarding in the Pocono Mountains, and in February she signed up for the Pittsburg marathon.
“Although it may have been quite the irrational move, I was being completely realistic with myself,” she shares. “I knew I wasn’t going to PR and that’s okay. I was going to complete it. Whether it took me 4 hours or 6 hours, I was going to cross that finish line.”
And she did.
Then she did it again at the Miami marathon a few months later.
It takes a special kind of badass to command such control of their life, and Karolina is cut from warrior cloth.
“There have been so many highs and lows that my family and I overcame that I'm convinced we can get through anything,” she says. “After constantly reflecting on my life and asking myself ‘why us,’ I can't help but think that God gives the toughest battles to the strongest soldiers.”
This year has brought the toughest yet.
When Karolina’s mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and later with Myelodysplastic Syndrome (MDS), a form of bone cancer that can lead to leukemia, her chances of surviving one year were slim.
In April, after six years of heroic fighting, Karolina lost the most important person in her life, but not to cancer.
“My mom didn’t die from ovarian cancer,” she cried out at the time. “My mom didn’t die from MDS. My mom didn’t die from leukemia. She died from COVID.”
Their final moments together were restricted to conversations over the phone.
“A huge piece of my heart got ripped apart and I don’t think the feeling will ever go away.”
Strength comes in many different forms, and Karolina’s shines through the bravery of her choices; choosing to saver her own life, choosing to openly share her ever-evolving story, choosing her perspective, and choosing to face adversity with a positive mindset.
“There's a reason why I'm meeting the people that are crossing my path now,” she explains. “There's a reason why I have the best group of friends that support and care for me that a girl could ever ask for. There's a reason why we were given these obstacles to conquer and get past.”
They way Karolina endures, keeps moving forward, and empowers herself would be inspiring enough. However, she is determined to help others find their way around, over, and through the obstacles in their life.
“I can’t help but feel so blessed to have been able to save my own life and to have received so much love,” she says. “I share my story to help other women out that are going through similar journeys and if that means it was only one person, that’s well worth it.”
As a 5th grade teacher at PS 158 in the Upper East Side of Manhattan, Karolina is also helping to shape the next generation. Her approach is more calling than career, and she receives at least as much from her students as she gives.
“One of my students happened to have minor surgery,” she shares. “[The student] began by saying that although having the surgery was a hassle, painful, and unfortunate, she was lucky enough to have doctors that could make her feel better and better her situation.”
“I couldn’t help but think of how right and brave she is. Life is all about perspective. You can dwell on all of the things you don’t have or won’t ever have. Or, you can thank your lucky stars and reflect on all of the good things you have in your life that we often take for granted.”
Karolina’s capacity for love extends to her desire for children in the future. With that desire, however, comes a weighted decision.
“I’ve been struggling with deciding whether or not I want to go through the egg freezing process for quite some time,” she says. “There is no right answer.”
“I could have kids naturally, but there is a 50/50 chance of passing the BRCA1+ gene mutation whereas if I went through this process, they would test the eggs and freeze only the eggs that don’t carry the mutation.”
“If my mom lived during a time where this was available to her and she could afford it, my egg would have been donated to science,” Karolina continues. “I wouldn’t be here right now. My egg would have not been frozen because I carry the genetic mutation.”
Her decision to go ahead with the process came down to a notion that every parent can relate to; you simply want better for your children.
“Although medicine is advancing and there’s always some new insight or trial out there, it brings me some comfort knowing that my future kids won’t have to worry about being labeled as ‘high risk,’” she says. “Knowing that makes this whole process worth it.”
The New York City Marathon, in addition to being the world's largest, is also one of the most difficult to get into.
“Every year I would apply through the lottery, and every year I would get denied,” Karolina explains.
She finally won entry last year after submitting her story to the event sponsor who was looking for 50 teachers from across the country to honor with, what she calls 'the golden ticket.’ After being selected out of thousands of applicants, and realizing a dream that she’s had since she was a little girl, Karolina was renewed.
“What a rewarding feeling to have this surgery, and then to be able to cross the finish line. I finally felt normal again.”
Reflecting on the past few years, Karolina’s perspective inspires hope.
“There are some things that we have control over and some things that we don’t have control over. We can control how we take care of our bodies, who we choose to share our time with, or what our careers are. However, we don’t have control over what genes we inherit.”
“It’s taken a whole lot of time to accept and fully understand what cards I was dealt, but if I had the choice, I’m not sure I would change anything about it.”
“The people that I’ve met through this process, the women that I’ve been so fortunate to help, and the strength and resilience I’ve gained is something that I would never trade.”
“I’m pretty friggen proud of my journey.”
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