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IVF gave me breast cancer; Mum Karen Wallis tells ANNA POINTER how she contracted a breast tumour after fertility treatment.

Byline: ANNA POINTER

WHEN mother-of-two Karen Wallis heard of Sarah Parkinson's recent death, her first thought was: "That could've been me."

Both women underwent IVF treatment and both later developed deadly forms of breast cancer.

In 41-year-old Sarah's case, the illness proved fatal and she died with comedian husband Paul Merton at her bedside after a 19-month battle.

Karen was the lucky one. She had a breast removed two weeks after a tumour was discovered and she is now cancer-free.

But like Sarah, who wrote a moving account of her illness, Karen believes IVF treatment may have been to blame.

"I was pumped full of drugs and I feel they must have contributed to my cancer," she says. "Breast cancer is related to hormonal balance and that link can't be ignored."

With breast cancer killing 13,000 women every year, Karen, 40, is now echoing Sarah's plea for all those having fertility treatment to be screened regularly.

Increasing fears of a link between IVF and breast cancer are partly because fertility treatment stimulates the ovaries to produce oestregen. Although no research has proved this link.

"Doctors should be looking for breast cancer, rather than waiting for it to happen," she says.

Karen was 29 when Paget's Disease was diagnosed. It's a form of breast cancer which moves up and down the milk ducts, rather than forming a lump.

It followed intensive IVF which produced her son Henry, who was created from an embryo frozen for six months.

But she has no regrets, and says: "If someone had told me there was a risk of cancer with IVF I'd still have done it. If you have a desperate urge for a baby, you do all you can to make it happen."

Karen conceived at the first IVF attempt and though doctors told her it could never happen, she then fell pregnant again naturally just five months after giving birth to Henry.

"I was gobsmacked. I must have over-reacted to the IVF, which also makes me think it contributed to my cancer," she says.

Clara MacKay, of Breast Cancer Care, isn't sure there's a link and believes there must be research into the health implications of IVF.

"It's important that women considering fertility treatment can be confident it is safe.

"Until then, our advice to women is to get to know your own breasts so that you can spot anything out of the ordinary."

It was during Karen's second pregnancy, with daughter Claudia, that the first signs of cancer emerged. Her breast leaked a clear fluid and she had a painful nipple.

"It got worse but the midwives and doctors weren't concerned." Nothing was done until Karen had Claudia. After a home visit from her doctor, she was prescribed steroid cream. But when that failed to work, she had a biopsy and, five days later, received the results.

"When told I had a malignant tumour it was like the world stopped. I feared I'd never see the kids grow up.

Karen, from Bedford, says she had no qualms about a mastectomy. "With Paget's, there isn't a lump, so I had no choice but to have the whole thing removed."

And while Karen had planned to have breast reconstruction, she changed her mind. "After a few months, I'd got used to my flat chest and thought a reconstruction would just be an artificial lump - like an extension on a house."

Although Karen divorced her husband shortly after her ordeal, she says she never feared her missing breast would put other men off. "I'm in a new relationship now and he has been incredibly supportive."

THE mastectomy has not stopped Karen wearing what she wants either. "I'm happy in bikinis and strapless dresses."

She was so determined not to let the operation change her life, she even started modelling swimwear and sexy lingerie in fashion shows for Breast Cancer Care. "It was great fun and I made some close friends."

Sadly, several have since died and, understandably, it caused Henry, now 12, and Claudia, 10, to panic. "The kids were terrified that I'd die like my friends."

But now Karen, who works part-time in a tanning salon, is confident of a healthy life. "I still have regular check-ups and I know I've been fortunate. Cancer is all about luck.

"But like Sarah said, women know their own bodies. We should not be fobbed off but insist on being seen having our questions answered.

"This alone could help save so many lives."

Get advice:

Breast Cancer Care's helpline is 0808 800 6000.

CAPTION(S):

DETERMINED: Karen with children Claudia and Henry; FUN: Model Karen; Picture: NICHOLAS BOWMAN
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Title Annotation:M Health
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Oct 16, 2003
Words:772
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