October 21, 2020
Author: Heather Lowery
SURVIVING TO THRIVING
“Hope is a pilot light. It must be protected and fueled in order to survive.”
40 years old, teenage twin daughters, firefighter husband, living, full-time career, side family CPR business, thriving, normalcy. 2016 Cari was a picture of living and thriving.
And then confusion. The discovery no one ever wants to make. A grape sized lump under the armpit. More confusion. Even more scared.
“I don’t have a family history of breast cancer.” Newsflash, 80% do not.
Re-playing the voicemail over and over to try to hear what the doctor didn’t say. Waiting. A brutal one hour wait.
The words no one ever wants to hear a doctor say, “There is never an easy to say it. You have breast cancer.”
Surgery. Chemo. Radiation. The cancer battle begins.
We could visualize and feel the battle as Cari shared her story of discovery to diagnosis. Stage 2 Invasive Ductal Carcinoma in the right breast and DCIS of the left breast. “I do things big,” she chuckled, giving a head nod to having twins and then being diagnosed with not one, but two forms of cancer.
MULLETS AND STEAKHOUSES
A large part of Cari’s identity has been her long hair. Losing her hair from the chemo treatments was harder than she could imagine.
She was sitting at work (yes, she worked full time through all treatments, but this is what we’ll call foreshadowing) when a large chunk of hair came out. She called a friend with the request of helping to shave her head. In typical tribe fashion, her friend gave her a mullet first.
“I wish we would have gone to a steakhouse with the mullet! Can you imagine the looks and the judgement at a steakhouse??? With a mullet!!”
No steakhouse though. Just chemo which at first was very nerve-racking, but soon became a mundane exercise to her routine. To help with the boredom, friends often came with her to entertain.
Additionally, Cari found comfort in the newest addition to the Hahn family, Monkey, the chemo cat. She lied to her husband and told him the oncologist said it was fine to have the kitten as long as she didn’t have to do the kitty litter.
(Well played Cari… well played!)
STRENGTH IN DOUBT
Cari found comfort in being told how brave and strong she was by others. However, this soon became her own high expectations of how she should be. Always brave. Always strong. This was not always the case though. It’s not sustainable to always be brave and strong.
There were often times behind the scenes she did not feel strength. She was tired. Scared. Fighting cancer, working full-time, continuing the best she could to have a normal life with her family… meals, carpool coordination, etc.
From her April diagnosis, she finished all chemo and radiation treatments the end of December. Please note, this does not mean the cancer fight is over. Once the cancer fighting treatments are done, a new lifestyle of anti-cancer regiment begins. And fear. Fear of the return. In fact, Cari refers to cancer as a life-long disease.
Through the tired, Cari finally admitted to the oncologist she needed a break. “Give me permission to cut back.” Her doctor obliged and required a 30-hour work week regiment for Cari.
In her third week of the new routine of 30 hours at work, Cari was approached by HR and told they would either need to add to her duties, putting her back at 40 hours, or she would be required to take an unpaid leave. This unbelievable statement coupled with the reality of still having over 6-months of donated sick time from her amazing co-workers during her cancer battle in the bank. The HR team would not honor this donated time. “You don’t have cancer anymore.”
Let’s pause. There was a lot of anger in hearing this statement. Even virtually, you could feel this anger from the participants and read it in the chat. Rightfully so! Her co-worker’s selfless act not being honored because Cari, “didn’t have cancer anymore,” was a terrible blow. Additionally, she shared 50% of cancer patients face discrimination in the workplace and 30% are terminated.
Cari lost hope that day as she packed up her things for an FMLA she knew she would never return from.
After days and even weeks of going through the motions at home and spending a lot of time in her bed, Cari’s husband, Matt, said to her, “You’re either going to be a victim of this or a victor. I don’t know what to do to help you, but I know you aren’t a victim.”
This wakeup call and some self-therapy YouTube watching of candle making brought about a change of purpose within Cari. As an Art Therapy major in college, she went back to her roots.
“Creating became my highest form of hope.”
From this was born Karma Candles and Kinds. Candle making and creating fueled her hope every day. In addition to her candle making business, she worked part-time for a hospital foundation raising funds for an Infusion Center. And while she loved the work, it put her back in a hospital environment all day. Hospitals not topping the list of happy memories for Cari.
In May of 2019, Matt agreed her well-being stood over her need for the part-time role of being in a hospital all day. From his question, “what do you need?” they took a leap of faith as a family and Cari went full-time with Karma Candles & Kinds.
“I’m lighting up the darkness one candle at a time.”
By the fall of 2019, she was also designing her own jewelry line created from the 4 words most meaningful to her:
She designs the jewelry and works with an Atlanta based woman-owned business to bring her creations to life. This is of course on top of the AMAZING candles she makes. (for real, order some NOW.)
The weight of cancer is scary and overwhelming. Even when the initial battle is over. One in three women after beating cancer have a terminal diagnosis within a decade. This fear is a reality for all cancer survivors.
With this always in the back of a cancer survivor’s mind, we asked how to best support someone else in this continuous fight place. “The best you can do is listen. Allow them to speak and share their fear and frustration.” She also suggested the book There Is No Place Like Hope for those in a battle, those post battle, and friends.
Cari also spoke about her family. It was evident the support and love from her husband Matt. Additionally, her daughters continue to give her hope from their amazing resiliency to their empathy for others.
Therapy, Yoga, her tribe, and lifestyle changes were also some keys to keeping herself mentally and physically ready for continuing the fight. I’m sure we’re all going adopt the “safety nap” concept too, Cari!
She also supports many causes both personally and through her small business. Currently, she is fundraising for the IWIN foundation supporting men and women in their cancer battles across the state of Indiana.
In conclusion, Cari left us with this:
“When they tell my story, I want them to say – she just kept going.”