Chasing her gorgeous daughters along an idyllic North Shore beach, Karin Horen wears a brilliant smile. But behind the happy facade, the brave mum is dealing with a bombshell diagnosis. She has breast cancer – again.
‘I was 26 the first time,’ says Karin, the partner of Spartacus actor Manu Bennett. ‘I thought it was gone forever, then in January I got a call from my doctor asking me to come in. I knew it wasn’t good news, but I said, “Listen, it’s 4pm, I have three children here and I’m on my own, I don’t have time to come in – tell me now.”’
Karin, now 39, admits the diagnosis knocked her for six.
‘When you get it the second time you feel like you’re losing control. I was in control for 13 years, I knew my body and I knew breast cancer. I said goodbye to it, and now it’s come back again. What a betrayal.’
Karin, who is mum to Huia, six, Mokoia, two, and Pania, one, was desperate to tell the father of her children. Unfortunately, Manu was 11,000km away filming new series Arrow in Canada.
‘I wanted to yell. I kept thinking, “Couldn’t the cancer have come back at a different time, when the kids are older?” I felt like I had just settled down after giving birth to Pania and having Huia in school.’
Karin, an Israeli former socialite, largely raises the couple’s daughters alone while Manu is overseas on set.
‘We talk once or twice a week and he gets sent all my records from the hospital. It’s not an easy situation, but we’re coping,’ says Karin, who flew to the US to walk the red carpet for the premiere of Spartacus: War of the Damned with Manu just days after her shocking diagnosis. Despite her ordeal, she dazzled at the event in a stunning Liz Mitchell gown.
‘It was the first time in seven years we had been together without the kids around,’ she recalls. ‘We partied until 7am – things we’ve never done before. Sometimes I think breast cancer is a blessing in disguise. It has forced me to get myself together and just enjoy the moment.’
While she is the one battling cancer, Karin insists it’s just as hard for Manu. The actor lost his close friend and Spartacus co-star Andy Whitfield to non-Hodgkin lymphoma cancer in September 2011, and his mother died in a car crash when he was just 15.
‘I’ve promised him I’m not going to let him lose another mother in his lifetime, and I really mean it,’ she says.
‘Over the last few weeks, I’ve been looking at the girls and I can’t even comprehend the word ‘death’, or think about what would happen if… I don’t let myself think that way. I look at my daughters and I just want to be with them. I want to see Huia get married one day.’
The pint-sized former fitness instructor is doing everything she can to beat the cancer – she has already had a skin-sparing mastectomy, where doctors fully remove the breast tissue inside but leave the skin, and is about to start four months of aggressive chemotherapy followed by five weeks of daily radiotherapy.
‘This time, my diagnosis is a lot worse,’ says Karin, who is the founder of cancer charity Paddle For Hope. The annual paddle boarding fundraiser has so far raised almost $100,000.
‘The first time I only had one lump, but this time they found more than 10 lumps and one lymph node was touched too.’
But Karin refuses to be knocked down, and even took to the beach with her girlfriends in a bikini just 10 days after her mastectomy surgery.
She is already planning the next Paddle for Hope event and can’t wait to get back out on the water herself. She is involved in this year’s New Zealand Breast Cancer Foundation Pink Ribbon Breakfast, to be held at Auckland University on Mother’s Day.
And her latest battle with cancer has inspired Karin’s biggest project yet, a recovery centre for breast cancer patients.
‘My biggest vision when I stepped out of my mastectomy was a place where women with breast cancer can just relax, recuperate and share the journey for a few days with other women – like a birthing centre.’
During her own recovery from surgery, Karin spent seven days at a friend’s house.
‘It was so remarkably relaxing that when I came home I actually had the energy to deal with everything else. It was the best thing I could have done for myself, and I want other women to have the same opportunity.’
She knows it’s an ambitious plan, but is determined to see her vision come to fruition. After her photo shoot with New Idea, she even shaved her head during a glamorous cocktail party to raise money for the planned recovery centre.
‘It sounds crazy [to do it before the chemo], but the hair was going to fall off anyway. I thought, “What better way to do it than throw a party and raise some money?”’
While the cancer has been a struggle for Karin, she sees it as an opportunity to help others. She is urging women to be vigilant with breast health so they have the best chance of early detection.
‘We’ve got to educate our children. I have a responsibility to my three daughters – I don’t want to hide [the cancer]; I want them to know about it. Everyone has their own journey and I feel like this is my destiny.’