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Culver residents Karen Easterday and Sue Roth wanted breast cancer to get some attention during the month -- October -- dedicated to its awareness, and it seems fair to say they succeeded handily. It's hard to miss two women decked out in bright pink, adorned with pink feather boas, and wearing t-shirts with the text, "Yes they're fake -- my real ones tried to kill me!" as they walk through the business districts of Culver.
That visibility, of course, was the whole point, say Easterday and Roth, both of whom have battled the disease and won.
"It started as a joke," says Roth.
"We want to raise awareness," adds Easterday, who also came up with the idea for the boas, "and to encourage early detection -- to get breast exams and do self-checks. We encourage younger women...more and more are being diagnosed. We encourage people to talk to their daughters, sisters, and granddaughters."
"Far too many find themselves in stage three or four because they're been ignored," Roth notes. "Their doctors think it must be something else, though they don't think twice with older people (in diagnosing cancer).
"Women are great at taking care of others and forgetting about themselves. Mammograms are easy to put off. No one wants to have them done, and no one wants bad news."
The women started on Lake Shore Drive at the Culver Coffee Company, walking as far south as Studio Hair Design and Bottom Line Training Company on South Main, before turning around and heading back to the Coffee Company, stopping off for lunch at Cafe Max ("We scared their people," Roth adds with a laugh) along the way. They made stops at the town hall and post office as well.
Several people expected them to ask for donations, Roth says, but "mainly we went in with a very brief message: get tested and get preventative. Early detection is everything...we had several that said, 'Oh I need to do that -- I'm going to go home and make that appointment.'"
Sue Roth, who works in the Alumni department at Culver Academies, was diagnosed with breast cancer about a year ago. Easterday, who is nine years free from stage three breast cancer -- the highest risk form -- called her last winter, though up to then the women only knew each other casually.
"I knew I had a kindred spirit," smiles Roth, recalling their first conversation, which wound up lasting three hours. "She got me through more than she knows."
Roth acknowledges she's "very lucky" to have been told by her oncologist to "go home and have a good life" after her last checkup, though she will continue to see him every six months.
Both women say they've learned the importance of support, as in the case of a group of women at the Academy Roth says support and encourage one another.
"(Support) makes a big difference when you've had a cancer diagnosis," explains Easterday. "Lots of people say they're thinking about you and love you, but when you know they have been there, it's a different level of support. You know they get it...that's the value of support groups no matter what (the ailment or difficulty)."
"You don't see (cancer) coming," says Roth. "It's a scary diagnosis. Everything changes forever, but it's not always the end of everything. There's life after this, and good life."
Both Easterday and Roth say they struggled with the label of "survivor."
"They had a (cancer awareness) walk several years ago (in Culver),â recalls Easterday. âIt was a week after my diagnosis. They handed me a 'Survivor' cap to wear. I said, 'I don't even know if I'm a survivor!' (Husband) Greg said, 'Put it on.' But I said, 'That's too much like saying I've got cancer.' But from the moment you're diagnosed, you are a survivor."
Roth admits putting on a "Survivor" t-shirt for the first time at last spring's Relay for Life in Culver was difficult.
"I'm not a victim....but it was very meaningful. You are in a different category now, whether you like it or not."
Some months ago, Roth's husband Bill found the t-shirts the women wore for their walk, on the internet, eventually leading to the idea of the walk. Now they say they plan to do it every year, hopefully with others joining them.
Hand in hand with awareness, Easterday and Roth also laud another Culver community effort, the annual Relay for Life, and its tangible benefit of funds raised to fight cancer. They hope to dispel the mindset which seems to have developed among some here that Relay funds -- which go to the American Cancer Society -- leave the Culver area and have little benefit in the local community itself.
"People in the community are benefiting from the results of the money," Roth insists. "The research is being used -- the detection, the tests they can run, the treatments: that's all available right here. We used to hear chemotherapy, and they threw the kitchen sink at you and hoped it helped. If the cancer didn't get you, the chemo did! Now that's all changed."
"South Bend has incredible research and treatment programs going on. We get the results (of Relay funds) here. We are the recipients of this."
Roth points out she waited for her son Tim, an urologist in Elkhart who performs prostate cancer surgery, to take her to Mayo Clinic for a second opinion.
"He said, 'I didn't, because the care you're getting here is so good.' He would have had me there in a minute (if he felt it necessary).
"So participate in Relay," she adds. "Every nickel raised is helping a lot of us in the community."
She also notes Relay has brought the community together.
"That's a very heartwarming thing to see. The luminaries (candle-lit paper bags with names of cancer victims or survivors) all lined up. The Academy, town, the country -- all our tribes are represented, all coming together. (Relay is) healthy for the community and the money really does do some good."
Easterday notes many people in the Culver area have had, and continue to have cancer, and Northern Indiana in general has a "very, very high cancer rate," though no one is entirely certain why.
Meantime, Karen Easterday and Sue Roth are living each day to the fullest.
Easterday says her cancer experience keeps things in perspective.
"When I was diagnosed, I had no grandchildren. I wanted so much to be a grandma (and) now I have five grandsons and a brand new granddaughter, and I feel like every single day is a gift.
"My kids hug me different, and I treasure that."
"It's nice to be here and share experiences and laugh," concurs Roth, who is especially grateful to have found a "soul mate" in Easterday's friendship.
"We connect on a different level. Iâd say, âI had the craziest thought (about my cancer) the other day,â and she'd go, 'Oh, that's so normal. This will pass.' Either I'm not crazy or there's two of us and we can enjoy the company!"