Survivor an example of how cancer touches everyone

Published 7:17 pm Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Kenyon Easterling, left, went to all of Karen's cancer treatments with her two years ago. They will celebrate their 12th wedding anniversary on Aug. 25.

Kenyon Easterling, left, went to all of Karen’s cancer treatments with her two years ago. They will celebrate their 12th wedding anniversary on Aug. 25.

Two years ago, Clanton resident Karen Easterling, 37, was the picture of health and happiness.

She ate well, worked out every day and enjoyed all of the normal activities a content wife and mother of two young children would.

But Karen became an example of why hundreds of people in Chilton County converge at Relay For Life every spring to honor lives changed, lives saved and lives lost to cancer.

Karen and her husband, Kenyon, could be spotted on the sidelines of their 9-year-old son Crawford’s football games; at cheer practice with Campbell, their 7-year-old daughter; working at their business, Home Printing Company; and teaching their Sunday School class at West End Baptist Church.

As Karen was decorating for Campbell’s birthday party in April two years ago, she found a knot on her collarbone that prompted her to go to the doctor and have it checked.

“I went through a series of antibiotics, hoping that it was allergies or an infection somewhere,” Karen said. “Even after the series of antibiotics, it just never went away.”

She sought a second opinion and eventually went in for more testing.

“That’s when they discovered that I had [masses] throughout my sternum and my chest,” she said. “I went for two different scans, and they realized that I had it further down. It stopped totally before it went into the diaphragm.”

Her doctor referred her to Shelby Baptist Medical Center to have the knot surgically removed and biopsied.

At noon on the Friday before Memorial Day weekend, Karen received a phone call from her doctor telling her she had Hodgkin’s lymphoma Stage 2, a cancer of the lymphatic system (part of the immune system) in which cells grow abnormally and may spread to other parts of the body.

If not detected or treated immediately, Hodgkin’s lymphoma gradually compromises the body’s ability to fight infection.

“That fateful day changed our lives forever,” Karen said.

She had a PET scan done and began chemotherapy the next week at Shelby Cancer Center.

“They moved very quickly to get it started,” Kenyon said.

Tackling treatments

Looking back on the months prior to her diagnosis, Karen and her husband didn’t notice any severe symptoms such as persistent fatigue, swelling, fever and night sweats that could have pointed to cancer as the cause.

The only telltale symptom they can remember was her shortness of breath.

“I honestly thought I was developing exercise asthma, because when I would work out, I would have shortness of breath,” she said. “I would laugh about it. I thought, ‘I must be getting older.’”

Kenyon said they grew impatient with finding a definitive solution and diagnosis as Karen was referred from one doctor to the next.

“They would say something like, ‘This doesn’t make sense,’” Kenyon said. “We just felt like we were waiting for [the problem] to present itself in a certain way.”

The “way” ended up being the lifesaving knot Karen found on her collarbone.

Her radiation oncologist also discovered that the cancer had changed the shape of her chest by pushing it out.

After a series of 32 treatments over the course of nearly two months, her chest reclaimed its former shape and her body tested cancer free.

Karen is in remission and has check-ups every six months now.

Even through the grueling chemo and radiation treatments, Karen never missed one of her children’s activities. She and Kenyon made an effort to keep daily life in their household the same as it was before her diagnosis.

“We didn’t want to scare them with ‘cancer,’” she said. “We more or less said, ‘Mommy’s going to have to have some medicine. She’s sick and we’re going to get her better.’”

Karen wore a hat at all times and rarely gave in to the draining effects of chemo she feared would rob her of time with her children.

“They never saw me sickly,” she said. “They never saw me laying on the couch or in the bed. God gave me that physical ability to not scare my children to death. I didn’t want them to have memories of Mommy sick and laying around.”

Kenyon went to every treatment with Karen, and her mother stayed with her for several weeks.

“Kenyon and I got closer than we ever have,” she said. “I needed him. He was amazing that he took me to every treatment.”

Along with losing her hair, Karen said the shock of her diagnosis at her age was sometimes the most difficult part of her treatment process.

“I struggled with that for a while, that I kind of felt alone,” she said. “I kind of thought, ‘Well, gosh, I’m too young for this.’ I was one of those that felt like I could fix whatever, but it’s when you hear that word cancer (that) you have all these feelings come through you.”

Karen said she leaned on her faith in God, her relationship with her husband and the love of her children to bring her through the rough patches.

“Until cancer came into our lives, I never had to surrender myself to faith as much,” Karen said. “I had to give it all over to God, and he had to heal me. I feel like he strengthened our whole family through this experience. My entire family fought for me.”

Karen stood on the stage at last year’s Relay For Life and shared her story with hundreds of people as dozens of her fellow cancer survivors prepared to take their celebratory lap around the track.

Campbell recited Jeremiah 29:11, the verse she picked up at preschool and started saying to Karen every night before bed.

“That’s our thing,” Karen said. “Most nights she will say that to me.”

Other side

Karen’s role in Relay will be behind-the-scenes this year as she helps in the survivors’ tent and at an information booth for a new cancer recovery wellness program, Living Strong, at YMCA of Chilton County.

She will also help with the program, which is a free, six-week series of two 60-minute classes per week offered to local cancer survivors to help them move beyond cancer in spirit, mind and body.

“This program is very important to me, and I feel it will be a tremendous service to cancer survivors in this county,” Karen said. “Living Strong’s table will be set up at the survivors’ tent.”

Those interested in the program may go by the Living Strong booth or call YMCA of Chilton County at (205) 755-2382.

“It’s not about cancer; it’s about surviving, and it’s about the fight,” Karen said. “It’s about how important it is for people to know that there is hope for all this. It doesn’t have to be a death sentence.

“Before cancer, so many things were not in perspective,” she said. “I think I’ve changed. I think it’s been for the better. I feel like it was something that had to happen in my life.”