All photos courtesy of Karen Lavery, Lavery's family two months after surgery
My cancer story began on a beautiful September day. It was the first day of school for teachers, and I was out to lunch with my friends when I got “the call.” The voice on the phone said,“Your mammogram doesn’t look good. You need to come in for another one.” I was concerned, but more annoyed by the inconvenience. I had things to do to prepare for my fourth graders.
Nevertheless, I went that afternoon for another mammogram. The mammographer was positive: What he had seen was small, which meant they caught the cancer early.
Luckily, I have a friend, Michele Kiernan, who is a breast cancer nurse, so I called her immediately. She calmed me down and explained what would happen if the second mammogram also looked suspicious. She referred me to the Breast Health and Management Team at RWJBarnabas Health, where I was lucky to find a surgeon who was perfect for me. I called and made an appointment with Dr. Sarah Schaeffer. Even though I felt certain that it was nothing, I wanted to be prepared in case I was wrong.
I was wrong. It was something that had to be investigated. I called to make the appointment for the biopsy. It was just a few days later that I got a call as I was walking my class to lunch. There had been a cancellation, so if I could get there, my biopsy could be done that day.
I left after calling my husband who would meet me there and calling a friend who would drive me. I took a valium to calm down. As I got to the room for the procedure, I asked the doctor a question and she, anticipating the question, told me she was 99 percent sure it was cancer. I felt shell-shocked because that was not the question I was going to ask. I went back to talk to Dr. Schaefer after the biopsy. She took the time to explain everything to my husband and I. I went home thinking about how I wasn’t going to tell my children, who were ages 14 and 16 at the time. Why worry them unless we were 100 percent sure there was something to worry about? I went back to work to wait for the official results. I went back to my classroom feeling that despite the radiologist’s certainty about it being cancer, I was fine. After all, I felt great, took care of myself, and was sure I would know if there was something wrong with my body
I don’t remember getting the “official” word but it was cancer. I do remember going to my friend’s house and crying on her couch. I do remember telling my children and my son being stoic; my daughter crying. I remember holding her face in my hands and looking directly into her eyes as I told her that people would hear the word cancer and that they would think it was bad. But for us, it was good because they found it so early and I was going to be fine.
Next came the work of tackling cancer. After you’re diagnosed, there are a lot of decisions to make and a lot of doctors to see. Knowing where to start can be overwhelming. I called Holly Denton, a woman I knew who had battled breast cancer. Holly shared her story with me. She spent time with me and gave me names of doctors and practical advice about what my journey would be like. She told me to take someone with me when interviewing cosmetic surgeons because there’s a lot of information and details about what’s going to be done that’s tough to hear. She gave me books to read to help me learn and cope with the diagnosis. My favorite is Courage Muscle: A Chicken’s Guide to Living with Breast Cancer by Monique Doyle Spencer.
The work continued with calling insurance companies and trying to make sure that everything would be covered. I then had to be tested for the BRACCA gene. The results would help me to decide whether to have a single or double mastectomy. I also had to interview cosmetic surgeons and find the one that was right for me. Then I had to choose the kind of reconstruction that was right for me. The final decision: Choosing a surgery date.
As you’re going through this, you worry. For me the worry was first and foremost about my children. I always knew how my daughter was feeling because she is a talker and asks questions. My son kept things inside. His worry manifested in stomach pains that eventually took us to the ER the day before my surgery. I worried about the impact that this would have on my parents. I worried about how my absence from work would affect my fourth graders. I worried (and still do worry) about that the breast cancer legacy I am leaving to my daughter.
The one person I didn’t have to worry about was my husband. He was my rock, always there for me and building me up when I was down. He was always telling me to take care of myself first and everything else would be fine.
Thankful and Lucky
What word would I choose to describe my cancer journey? Lucky. Lucky because despite knowing better, and despite having a mother who had breast cancer I had skipped my mammogram for a couple of years. Lucky because my cancer was found early. Lucky because I had people to walk with me through my journey. Lucky because Michele Kiernan, my friend and breast cancer nurse, was able to give me advice so that I could find the doctor that was right for me. Lucky because Holly Denton was willing to share her journey and show me the “cancer” ropes. Lucky because I didn’t have to wait too long before I had my biopsy. Lucky because I had a principal who was understanding and let me leave early for doctor’s appointments. Lucky because the teachers on my fourth grade team were always willing to cover my class. Lucky because I had family and friends willing to go with me to doctor’s appointments, stay with me, cook dinner for my family, drive me where I needed to go, take me shopping for clothes to wear after surgery and offer support. Lucky because my son was willing to drain my drains. Lucky because people were there for my children. A friend had shirts made for my son’s soccer team to wear on the day of my surgery that said "Positive Attitude" on them. My sister-in-law picked my daughter up early from school that day and kept her busy and her mind occupied. Lucky because my family and I were blessed with an outpouring of love and support. Lucky because I have good insurance. Lucky because having a mastectomy was the only treatment that I needed.
After my diagnosis and surgery, I wanted to find a way to be help others. When I hear of another person being diagnosed with breast cancer, my heart breaks. I’m always willing to share my story in the same way that Holly shared her story with me. The most important lesson I share with people is that everybody’s journey and story is different. Each individual patient is the author of his or her own story and must make the decisions that are right for them.
Lavery's family today
Joining the board of Minette’s Angels Foundation, based in Verona, was a way for me to be actively involved in helping others. The foundation was created to honor the memory of Minette Grosso McKenna, who valiantly fought breast cancer for ten years. While she was fighting her own battle, Minette, a nurse, continually helped others engaged in the same battle.
Like Minette, the foundation helps people battling breast cancer. This is done in many ways. One thing that they do is provide gift cards for local restaurants and grocery stores. When someone receives gift cards for meals, it doesn’t just nourish the body, but also the soul. It's a comfort to know that there are people in the community, whom you might not know personally, that care about you and will do whatever they can to help you through your journey.
The foundation treats each patient as an individual and tailors assistance based on the needs of the patient. Gas cards and cleaning services have been provided to those that need it. The foundation feeds the spirit of patients by giving the patient and her family movie passes, gift certificates for manicures and pedicures and by sending her flowers.
The foundation also provides support to patients undergoing treatment. From giving patients robes to wear during treatment to providing compression garments for lymphedema patients, the foundation helps give patients what they need to fight cancer. Being part of Minette’s Angels is a way for me to provide support to other patients. It’s a great feeling to walk into a local restaurant and after identifying myself as a member of Minette’s Angels being told, “I know who you are. You helped my mom.”
As I’m writing this, it’s almost exactly seven years to the day of that fateful phone call. How am I feeling? Blessed because I’ve passed the five-year mark. Hopeful that one day there will be a cure for breast cancer. Thankful that I am part of Minette’s Angels and its mission of spreading awareness about breast cancer and helping people who are writing their own breast cancer stories. May they all have happy endings.
The writer is a trustee of Minette’s Angel Foundation, a Verona-based non-profit organization that provides assistance to those in treatment, supports research and promotes breast health awareness. The foundation also offers scholarships to current and prospective nursing students.
Go to minettesangels.org to learn more about the foundation’s work.