The first half of 2009 was wonderful for Karen Baker, a fifth grade special education teacher at Hurffville Elementary School in Washington Township, Gloucester County.
The Gloucester Township resident and mother of five had just turned 50 and found herself in a whirlwind of celebrations. There was her 25th wedding anniversary, where she renewed her vows in front of her bridal party, and the trip to Jamaica with her old college friends.
“It was great, January, March, May…Life was going so great,” said Baker. “Then the school year ended and I just went in for that routine mammogram,” she said, throwing her hands up, “and boom, my whole world fell apart. The second half of that year was so different. But here I am, sitting here all these years later talking about it.”
That was seven years ago. After experiencing a year of chemotherapy, radiation, a double mastectomy and reconstructive surgery, there are five things she’d like you to know about surviving breast cancer.
1. Your family’s history may not be yours
In June 2009, Baker noticed a lump on her breast when scheduling her routine mammogram. “I wasn’t worried,” she said with a shrug, “I had no history of breast cancer in my family.” She should have been worried— the mammogram revealed aggressive cancer in her breast that began to spread to her lymph nodes.
“I was floored,” said Baker, “I thought I was safe because of my family history.” As Baker learned, no one is safe.
“I think the biggest misconception about breast cancer is that it’s familial,” said Baker. Women may still find themselves at risk despite their family history. She urged all women to schedule yearly mammograms and do self-check breast exams routinely. “It saves lives,” she said.
2. Don’t obsess over positivity
When living with cancer, Baker said staying positive can be difficult.
“Everyone always says that your positivity is half the battle, but I hesitate with that,” she said. She worries that putting too much emphasis on keeping positive can be detrimental.
Sometimes “you tend to punish yourself” for not being upbeat enough, she said, causing patients to feel like, “You didn’t pray enough, or hard enough, or you weren’t positive enough, and that’s why you didn’t make out good.” That kind of pressure is unfair to patients who are already facing so much, she said.
“Everyone is different. There is no right or wrong way” to have cancer, she said, reminding patients that it’s OK to have a bad day, a bad thought or to be afraid because cancer is scary. “Don’t punish yourself for it,” she continued, “it doesn’t make you a bad person.”
“It’s hard. I wouldn’t want you to go through it, but you can. You can make it to the other side,” and believing that is helpful, said Baker.
3. Show your support
With the initial diagnoses, patients are often flooded with well wishes and phone calls, but as treatment progresses, the phone may ring a little less.
“Life goes on for everyone else after the initial shock of the diagnosis, but for the patient it’s a long haul and it’s nice to know people are thinking of you still.”
Baker encourages friends and family to extend their support throughout treatment because “it’s a long, scary journey and it’s nice when people drop a note, stop by, or send a little something months into your treatment. It makes you feel like you’re not forgotten.”
At times, reaching out can be difficult. “Sometimes you don’t know what to say,” but “people are just happy for the connection.”
4. Be inclusive
It can be easy to make assumptions about how someone with cancer feels, said Baker.
When it comes to social events or invites out “don’t assume they don’t want to come because they’re bald,” or not feeling their best. She urged friends and family to extend the invite instead of making the decision for them.
“There’s a part of you that wants to feel normal” while having cancer, Baker said. Simply sharing time with friends can provide that slice of normalcy. “Sometimes a night out with friends works miracles that medications can’t.”
5. I can still have fun without my hair
“When the hair started coming out…I could feel it dropping down my back,” said Baker. That moment, she realized, “Today’s the day— I need to shave my head.”
For many cancer patients, losing their hair can be traumatic, but not for Baker, who used the time for experimentation.
“I had a ball with wigs,” she said with a smile. “My husband never knew who he was coming home to. Sometimes I was a redhead, sometimes I had long blonde hair,” she laughed. “That was the silver lining I could find with the fact that I had no hair. I kind of made it fun.”
Baker’s experience serves as a reminder that women with cancer are still beautiful without their hair. Baker wrapped her head in lovely scarves, not as a way of hiding, but as a form of expression. She joked, “What other time can you try all different styles and hair colors without the commitment?”
“I am not my hair,” Baker said, reminding us that women with cancer don’t have to hide under a hat, unless it’s a fabulous one.