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Relay's honorary survivor to share story of cancer battle

When Karen Graves found a lump on her breast six years ago, she chose not to tell anyone, though she was sure it was cancer.

The Woodbury woman was diagnosed by her doctor just a few days later at 47 years old.

"When you think you have cancer or when you're told you have cancer, you feel like you got kicked in the stomach," she said, which is why she chose to wait to tell her husband and two children.

It was stage 2A breast cancer that gave her three tumors. It was aggressive; she needed surgery and extensive chemotherapy and radiation.

But she stayed positive. She told her kids at 10 and 7 years old that everything would be just fine.

Her son, Alex, wasn't too sure about that, though. He had just seen his best friend's mom -- and a close friend of Graves -- die from liver cancer.

"That's what you told me when Mary got sick," he said to Graves.

"It was of course difficult to tell them because there is really no cause," Graves said, adding that she explained it wasn't a vital organ like a liver or a lung. "... I could see the skepticism in his face."

Six years have passed and Graves is now a survivor who participates in Relay for Life South Washington County among other programs for the fight against all types of cancer.

She will be this year's honorary survivor who will speak about her experience battling breast cancer during the opening ceremony beginning at 6 p.m. Friday, June 3 at East Ridge High School.

Graves comes from a family with a history of cancer: her mother and mother-in-law are both breast cancer survivors, her father had prostate cancer and her sister passed away from cancer. She had numerous friends and acquaintances who suffered from cancer and most will be represented by luminaries at Relay for Life South Washington County.

"Relay is about all cancer, so that's why I 'Relay,'" she said, as opposed to other fundraising events. "I wish I can do all of it, but being a working mother of two very active children prevents that."

Her talk at Relay will focus on the positive aspects of her battle against cancer, like making light of difficult situations and looking forward to ending eight rounds of chemo and 36 rounds of radiation.

She began treatment in July of 2005 and finished in December. She knew she'd lose her hair, but didn't let it get to her.

"I came out of the shower and said 'It's time,'" Graves said. "There is always an underlying feeling of sadness but we tried to make light of it."

Because the tumor was big, she underwent radiation in a large area: from her collarbone down to right above her waist and from mid chest to the underarm area.

Two years went by and she was enthusiastic about reaching her first milestone.

"I started screaming, ran around the house and hugged my kids and my husband," Graves said.

She was even more elated after five years.

"It was a happy day, I was telling everybody, 'Five years, woo hoo!'" she said with a smile. "I don't think the milestone meant as much to me as other people. But it's more comforting the more years that pass."

According to the American Cancer Society's most recent available statistics, an estimated 192,370 cases of breast cancer were expected to occur in 2009.

Graves is now a volunteer for the Reach to Recovery program with the ACS that pairs survivors with new cancer patients who have very similar diagnoses.

"You basically listen to their feelings and fears," she said.

This year's Relay for Life participants will have survivors, supporters and those honoring loved ones lost to cancer.

It will be divided into three major parts: the survivor lap that will celebrate, the luminary ceremony to remember, and the closing ceremony that will focus on fighting back.

"This year's Relay for Life of South Washington County is the biggest yet," Graves said.

Riham Feshir
Riham Feshir is a reporter and photographer for the Woodbury Bulletin. Her coverage includes Woodbury City Hall, Washington County Board of Commissioners and business news.  Follow Riham on Twitter @RihamFeshir for the latest updates.