Tanned and radiant, Karin Horen is the picture of health. It's not yet noon, but already the pint-sized mum-of-three – the former fiancée of Spartacus and The Hobbit star Manu Bennett – has done the school run and been out paddle boarding near her Auckland home.
But Karin, who battled breast cancer at 26 and again at 40, reveals the past couple of years have been among the most difficult of her life. A shock split from Manu, her partner of 10 years, came in December 2016, soon after she was hospitalised when her breasts became infected following reconstructive surgery.
"I woke up one morning and my whole upper body was red, sore and infected," she recalls. "I had to be admitted as an emergency."
Karin says Manu, 48, left for work in the US on the first of her eight days in hospital, during which she lost her right breast. Weeks later, while the devastated mum sought a second opinion in her native Israel, she says Manu moved out of the family home.
The couple's break-up came 15 months after the Arrow actor was charged with assault for a punch-up at a fan convention in Texas, where a guest reportedly made a cruel jibe about his wife's cancer battle.
The split was a surprise to her, says Karin. "I returned from Israel and he was gone, but I wasn't devastated. I just felt calm, like that's the way it should be, so I started my new journey."
That included gruelling treatments at a hyperbaric oxygen chamber, with her three daughters – Huia, 10, Mokoia, seven, and Pania, six – in tow, as well as finding a job to support them. But this is no sob story. Rather, it's the tale of a woman who, a year and a half on, is stronger than ever, rediscovering herself – "tits or no tits" – and embracing a new direction.
Manu, who co-parents their daughters, now lives three-and-a-half hours away when he's not working in the States. Karin tells, "In many ways, it's not very different, but I'm driven to be an example to my children, to show them that even when things are tough, you get up and keep going. You don't give up and feel sorry for yourself because nothing is permanent."
Karin – who carries the same potentially fatal BRCA1 gene as Angelina Jolie – is at pains not to criticise anyone. Rather, she's sharing her experience for other couples affected by breast cancer.
"Having BRCA1 means you need to be more vigilant about checking for breast and ovarian cancer," she says. "But just as importantly, men need to be educated on how to step up, to be there for their partners. There's a reason why marriage vows say 'in sickness and in health'."
The fact Karin was newly single added to her vulnerability and battered body image. At her lowest, she even applied to E! plastic surgery series Botched, but she never heard back from the show.
Instead, her friends gave her a much-needed self-esteem boost. The words of her late bosom buddy Helena McAlpine, who died of breast cancer at 37 in September 2015, especially resonated. The TV personality used to tell her, "Be true to yourself, live your life to the full and don't worry about people. You deserve respect. You deserve the best. You are amazing."
It's a sure bet that Helena would be proud of the super-busy mum. As well as working for a company that makes environmentally friendly feminine hygiene products, Karin is a public speaker and runs cancer charity Paddle for Hope, which has raised more than $350,000 since she started it in 2011. Her most recent fundraising event was in Wellington on March 31.
"There is no ACC for cancer patients," tells Karin, "so the funds help those who need time out to recover, to get out on the water and to experience paddle boarding, where everything feels OK."
Despite regaining much of her confidence, the solo mum is on a waiting list to have her botched breasts reconstructed with a complex procedure that uses fat from her own body and could take months to recover from.
"I know some people might think I live a glamorous life because I was with an actor – I get called a fashionista and a socialite," says Karin. "But I have to work and I can't afford private healthcare. In the meantime, I will be out on the water as much as I can, rocking a sexy bikini, no matter what my boobs look like, and living life to the full.
"I feel healthy again. It's been over a year since the split and I've got myself back. I gave my body time to heal, I gave it respect and I feel strong.
"Who knows what the future holds? I don't know what's going to happen tomorrow, so for today, I reach for the stars."
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