Karin Horen remembers the time a car tooted at her when she was in the depths of breast cancer for the second time at 40.

"I was pushing the pram, not feeling good, totally bald, feeling a bit sorry for myself, as you do — you can't put on a brave face all the time. I had a tear on my cheek. Then suddenly this car tooted, a guy waved. I thought, 'heck, well all is not lost'."

She bursts into fits of laughter that makes others turn around in Sidetrack cafe. They are having a quiet coffee, and Horen is not your quiet type of girl.

Petite and toned, now with her long brunette locks back, she's been up since dawn paddleboarding and, in her lululemon munching on an organic slice, looks like a sporty surfer mum with not a care in the world.

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Forty-five-year-old Horen's waiting for further surgery on her breast. She has had eight procedures already. She survived breast cancer twice. She was first diagnosed with cancer at 26, only to see it return in her 40s in her other breast. She has lost both breasts, and her ovaries.

Her tiny frame belies her steely grit — she says it is from years in the Israeli army. Israeli-born Horen first experienced breast cancer as a young woman in Israel just a year after her mother had died of a heart attack. The diagnosis came as a total surprise.

"I was not expecting breast cancer at such young age. I was sitting on the beach and felt a lump. It was pulling inside and it was quite noticeable."

She had a partial mastectomy, 12 sessions of chemotherapy and a month of daily radiotherapy. While her girlfriends were partying and their biggest breast worry was what bikini to wear, Horen lost half her breast and was violently ill from treatment.

Horen is involved with the Paddle On programme with the local Te Ngai physiotherapists team in Rotorua and hopes to organise a Paddle For Hope in Tauranga and the Mount. Photo / John Borren
Horen is involved with the Paddle On programme with the local Te Ngai physiotherapists team in Rotorua and hopes to organise a Paddle For Hope in Tauranga and the Mount. Photo / John Borren

"It was not easy back in 1999. Medication was quite harsh and so many side effects. They wanted to make sure it wouldn't come back."

She remembers going for a job interview mid treatment in a wig. When she got called back for a second interview she wondered why they were looking at her, then remembers she forgot to put the wig on.

When she got the all clear she had a breast reconstruction and gave her wig to a friend, Shirly, who was also undergoing treatment. Shirly died and it was a stark reminder to Horen that this was a battle for survival that not everyone wins.

Told the chemotherapy could cause fertility problems, even though she did not have a partner at the time, she froze her eggs.

She never had to use them. On holiday in Australia she met actor Manu Bennett, who hails from Pukehina in the Bay of Plenty.

The couple went on to have three girls, Pania, 6, Mokoia, 7, and Huia, 10.

When Pania was just 1, Horen was horrified to see her cancer return in her other breast.

"I turned 40 when I had my first chemo sessions and I shaved my head. I have an amazing photo that shows me standing at the party wearing a beautiful dress, no hair and a crown."

Before her breast cancer returned, she and Victoria Stuart founded Paddle For Hope. Photo / John Borren
Before her breast cancer returned, she and Victoria Stuart founded Paddle For Hope. Photo / John Borren

Not just was the cancer back, but doctors discovered Horen carried the Brca 1 gene, related to ovarian cancer.

She had further surgeries, including the removal of her ovaries.

With Bennett away acting, and her own family in Israel, Horen went through treatment mostly alone, juggling it with bringing up three young children.

"It was hard. It was a lonely battle. I was positive and tried to see the positive but there were days were I was feeling so sick, tired, in pain or just had no patience and you have a little girl to feed, and two others who are running around, and all you want is a break but these are actually the reasons why I am still here. Because I had to. I had to keep the house going, not complain too much and just focus on getting better."

It was her children who encouraged her even at her lowest times.

"Seeing them every day was a gift. Seeing them grow and go through this cancer journey with me was probably one of the toughest times of my life but the most rewarding. This is where I found the strength I didn't know I had in me and this is where I got the hugs and cuddles I was longing for at the time."

Before her breast cancer returned, she and Victoria Stuart founded Paddle For Hope, a charity that gives women with breast cancer opportunities to learn paddleboarding.

"I always said I want to give from my experience. What's the point in keeping your story to yourself when there are so many affected by this horrible disease and so much to learn? I wanted to let everyone know how SUP helped me with my range of movement and confidence, stability and strength.

"I had a passion for sports and fitness and I am a fitness instructor. I also love helping people and communicating. When I came to New Zealand following Manu's career, I hardly knew anyone but I knew breast cancer and I fell in love with SUP. I was at a charity event on the water and thought to myself, 'wouldn't it be great to have a pink parade on boards'?"

Paddle For Hope started in 2011 initially to raise money for breast cancer awareness and to support the New Zealand Breast Cancer Foundation rehabilitation programmes.

Now all the money raised goes to the Paddle On cancer rehabilitation SUP programme which helps rehabilitate women emotionally and physically using paddle boarding.

Horen says the women benefit from improving physical fitness and the sense of camaraderie with others, and they have fun learning something new.

"I don't stop living because there will be another procedure. I want to send this message. To enjoy life. To make sure we do the best we can to live a healthy life and carry a positive attitude."

The organisation has had two events in Israel and a couple in Europe, and is planning one Thailand.

In New Zealand events have run in Auckland, Rotorua and Napier.

Horen is involved with the Paddle On programme with the local Te Ngai physiotherapists team in Rotorua and hopes to organise a Paddle For Hope in Tauranga and the Mount, where she says there is a strong SUP community.

When her cancer returned, Horen was more determined than ever to use her board as therapy.

Straight after her last chemo and one of her reconstruction surgeries she completed a SUP International Instructor course and teaches paddleboarding. Keeping fit helps Auckland but regularly comes to Rotorua and the Mount. "I visit Rotorua quite often. There are so many magical spots."

Horen is a regular on the Auckland scene. She has been a host for Red Carpet TV at fashion events, worked with Fashion TV NZ, and MCs events.

"As well as the water I love events, dressing up, and people."

She is never shy about her cancer journey, sharing it to help others.

I also wanted to inspire women and send the message that we can overcome obstacles by having the right tools and self belief.

"I tried my best to walk proud while I was unwell and even while not having hair, I was wearing wig and lipstick. A huge part of this journey is my nutrition and alkalising diet. It helped me maintain positivity, strength and energy. This is why using social media has been a huge part of telling the story. I started receiving so many messages of support from around the world and of course people sharing their own stories."

She is writing a book about her journey and hopes to produce her own documentary.

Horen's strength is alluring. But she is not afraid to be vulnerable.

"I have my breaking points. When people kept telling me you are such a strong woman I used to get upset. I learned to accept that as a compliment. I started learning more about strength and what that means. I wanted to understand it so I could manifest it and teach others.

"SUP has given me so much. It clears my head in a split of a second. It changed my life. I started waking up with a purpose. I learned that our mind is stronger than anything. What we think becomes our reality and we have to work on our beliefs. We can change the way we think and feel if we pay attention to what we say to ourselves at times of crisis."

She has the struggles of any working mum, now parenting solo.

"My kids can drive me mad at times, like any mum it can be so full on and when working and trying to do what you love as a mum, sometimes you have to compromise.

"My grandmother taught me to smile in front of the mirror and put on the lipstick. It was a good advice. Music is something that helps us all at home to feel good and so we often have loud music in the lounge. I think the question is not how do I do it, it's about the belief that you can. We all have issues, moments of grief, sadness. The idea is to bounce back and not get stuck in your story."

Stripping off to change on the edge of Pilot Bay, she is body confident, baring all briefly to the walkers embarking up the Mount. She asks if her prosthetic is straight and then bursts into fits of laughter again.

"I am not shy because hundreds of doctors have looked at these boobs. I am proud of my body for what it has survived. I am proud of how I look. My daughters kiss my scars at night."

She busies herself packing away the board, deflating it and packing it away. "I am a practical woman, it is that army thing again. It is attitude that makes you survive. When life throws so many challenges at you and you are on the edge, you might even not make it. I am one of the lucky ones. I have to show life a million reasons to smile. It's about survival, living, loving."

Forty-five-year-old Horen's waiting for further surgery on her breast. Photo / John Borren
Forty-five-year-old Horen's waiting for further surgery on her breast. Photo / John Borren

Events

Since 2011 Paddle For Hope events have raised more than $300,000 for cancer rehabilitation.

Some of this money funds Paddle On, a clinically-endorsed stand up paddleboarding rehabilitation programme to help men and women recovering from all types of cancer.

Delivered over five weeks by certified Pinc or Steel physiotherapists, Paddle On has been specifically designed to introduce the components of stand up paddling in a safe, fun small group environment.

Paddle On programmes run in locations around New Zealand. Participants need to have completed primary cancer treatment (surgery/chemotherapy/radiotherapy) before starting the programme.

For more information, contact Paddle For Hope on 0800 224 376; Karin Horen, 02102604470 or karin.horen@gmail.com; or Victoria Suart, 021644129 or victoria@supsnz.com

Upcoming event: March 31 in Eastbourne Wellington. See here