For these women, a new path after breast cancer

Jun 12, 2012, 5:59 AM | Updated: 7:25 am

When, at the age of 58, Celeste Smith was diagnosed with breast cancer, she never anticipated all of the things she would lose.

She lost her job as a real estate agent, her house and her car. Once a woman who belonged to social clubs, donated to charity, and just generally “threw money at things,” she could no longer lead the lavish, “rocking” life she had become accustomed to. Not even close.

“I went to DSHS one day and I go, ‘I have been eating Top Ramen for three days […] and I have no food in the house,'” she recalled.

By that time her pride was gone too, she said.

But there is at least one thing cancer didn’t take from Celeste: her life. At 62, she is a cancer survivor, because she had access to some of the best cancer care in the world right here in Seattle.

Diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer on March 9, 2008, Smith went through 30 rounds of radiation, 18 rounds of chemo, and 26 rounds of Herceptin.

“It’s really Seattle Cancer Alliance that got me through,” said Smith, who now volunteers her time to work with cancer patients and their families as an advisor. It is also her job to tell doctors and staff at the Cancer Care Alliance how to improve the patient experience.

Seattle Cancer Care Alliance is a partnership between the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, the University of Washington Medical Center, and Seattle Children’s Hospital. The facility is on the leading edge of cancer research, diagnosis and treatment.

It is thanks in part to the doctors there that Celeste Smith now has a chance at a new life, albeit a much different life than the one she had spent half a century building.

“There’s nothing that I would rather be doing,” said Celeste, whose new version of a social club is speaking to fellow cancer survivors. She now gives her time to charity, rather than her money.

“It’s been a tremendous journey for me in so many ways. I am a completely different, reinvented person than I was in 2008.”

Wings of Karen

By the time Karen Denmark was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer at the age of 49, it was really too late to save her life.

“We caught it at a very late stage,” said her daughter, 35-year-old Kristi Blair. “At the time it was everywhere in her body.”

While she knew there was a possibility that her mother’s diagnosis could become her own, Blair focused instead on a support group she created called “Team Karen,” and spent every waking hour learning what she could about the disease that was sure to claim her mother’s life.

She researched the best hospitals, and knew all of the best doctors. She learned about advances in care, and found out where donations to breast cancer charities were going.

“We learned really quickly about breast cancer,” Blair said.

But she was about to learn a lot more.

Five years after her mother died, Blair was diagnosed with breast cancer. She had been preparing for a Halloween party to benefit the Breast Cancer Research Foundation when she got the call.

“That was a devastating day,” she recalled. “Talk about fear; that was a fearful day.

“It was hard for me to walk in the exact same building; in the exact same shoes my mom was in,” Blair recalled of her treatment with doctors at the University of Washington Medical Center.

But unlike her mother, Blair had been diagnosed early and had knowledge of the disease. She knew exactly which doctors she wanted to see.

Among them was Dr. Julie Gralow, a renowned medical oncologist at the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance.

It was during her treatment there that Blair began to think about the support group she had started for her mother, “Team Karen.” She wondered if she could take it even further.

Indeed the doctors who treated them both were among the best in the world, but Blair began to wonder how she could help improve the care women like her mother received.

“They have all the knowledge that’s out there right now,” Blair said of doctors at the Cancer Care Alliance. “There’s just so much more research to be done.”

With a group of close friends by her side, Blair transformed “Team Karen” into “Wings of Karen” in early 2012. While still named in her mother’s memory, Blair envisioned a new charity with a new mission.

It was up and running in a matter of months.

Wings of Karen became the only charity dedicated solely to breast cancer research in the Pacific Northwest. More specifically, it benefits research at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and elsewhere within the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance.

“I admire those people so much for what they do,” Blair said of the doctors there who worked to save her life. “It is those people that are going to change how we live our lives, how my children live their lives. I have five children and I am not going to leave this disease for them.”

For Blair, life after breast cancer is a “new normal.”

“I pretty much dropped everything else except for my children,” she said.

She now spends her time meeting with doctors and researchers, to find out how her charity can benefit them. She has convinced a loyal group of friends and her loving husband to donate their time as well.

“I don’t know that I’m on a completely new path, there’s just more fire behind it,” said Blair. “This is what I’m supposed to be doing.”

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For these women, a new path after breast cancer