Dancing with cancer

CAREY – Kara Ward graduated from Carey High School in 2001 and received an undergraduate degree from The Ohio State University in 2004. Then, it was on to The University of Findlay to complete a master’s of business administration degree. She had a boyfriend, a great job in direct sales with City Apparel in Findlay and was teaching dance classes at Becky’s School of Dance.

Then came the diagnosis. At age 30, she had breast cancer.

This year, Ward is to be honored at the first Komen Race for the Cure in Findlay. The event is Sept. 28 in downtown Findlay. It is to begin at Main and Hardin streets near Marathon Petroleum’s offices.

Ironically, Ward had participated in many Race for the Cure events in the past to support her mother, Pam Ward, and her aunt, Carol O’Reilly. Both are breast cancer survivors.

Did she ever imagine she would be walking it as a survivor herself?

“No. No. It’s going to be a whole different experience this time around,” Ward said. “I have known about Race for the Cure and the Komen organization for years because of my mother. We’ve been participating in races for six or seven years now. Actually, when I was diagnosed, I looked to Komen for a lot of research because they have the most comprehensive research available to women, especially young women.”

Kara said Pam had two bouts with breast cancer at age 48 and again at 56. Her aunt was diagnosed at age 58.

In 2012, Kara developed a benign fibroadenoma and sought treatment at Ohio State’s Stefanie Spielman Comprehensive Breast Center. In a follow-up visit after the fibroadenoma’s removal, Kara told the doctor about another spot she had discovered. It turned out to be cancerous.

“That’s the way we found it. I actually found it on my own and then had the surgery,” Kara said.

She can’t forget the date – Feb. 16, 2013.

Kara had a double mastectomy in an effort to prevent a recurrence. Her procedure took place the same month as Angelina Jolie’s. The movie star carried a genetic factor that made her more susceptible to cancer, but tests for Kara, Pam and Carol showed no such condition. The cause of their cancer is unknown.

For most women, 40 is the so-called magic number to ramp up concerns about breast cancer. Research contains few studies of breast cancer in 30-year-old women who are unmarried and childless. But as Kara knows too well, younger women are not immune.

“When I go to treatment, I see people younger than me. … It’s awful. Every day we go down there, there’s so many people. It’s sad,” Kara said.

She has been traveling to Columbus for a 24-week cycle of chemotherapy that is to wrap up Sept. 20. Kara will be checked periodically to be sure cancer does not develop in any other organs, but with no breast tissue, her risk is greatly reduced.

“A lot of people are unaware that insurance doesn’t cover a bilateral mastectomy if you do not have a (family) history. My mom only had one side done, so she continues to have follow-ups to make sure it does not reappear on the other side. I, though, because my mother has had cancer and my aunt has had cancer, my insurance is required to pay for a bilateral mastectomy, if I choose. And I chose, because, I watched them have to follow-up every six months,” Kara said.

Before surgery, Kara scheduled a photo session and then had her long hair cut off to be donated. Her new look was a short spiky, “funky” haircut she “absolutely loved.”

The women who did Kara’s wig-fitting were trying to find her a style similar to what she had, but Kara had other ideas.

“I said, ‘Listen, if I have to wear a wig, I want the best one on that rack. Find me something fabulous’,” she recalled.

After the last treatment, Kara’s hair is expected to grow out again. Although her wig is uncomfortable in summer temperatures, she said she likes the look.

“I love my wig, and I think I might keep it. I’m not blonde, but I like being blonde,” Kara said.

Her make-the-best-of-it attitude was one reason Race for the Cure chose to honor Kara.

Stephanie Pilgrim, communication manager for Northwest Ohio Affiliate of Susan G. Komen, said Kara has inspired others by “exuding strength and grace” while coping with breast cancer.

“Despite a very aggressive treatment plan, Kara has used every opportunity to teach dance routines and also about facing each challenge with strength and never giving up,” Pilgrim said. “On May 18, 2013, Kara took the stage at Becky’s School of Dance Recital and taught people that life is for celebrating each moment and embracing the journey God has provided.”

A life-long member of Our Lady of Consolation in Carey, Kara said her faith has been a source of strength. Support from family, friends, co-workers and dance students also has sustained her.

“My mom has been by my side through everything. She goes to every treatment, every doctor’s appointment, everything. She does everything with me. … People have been so generous and so supportive. It is incredibly overwhelming,” Kara said.

She was 3 years old when she started lessons at Becky’s School of Dance. At 17, she became an instructor there, teaching tap, jazz and lyrical styles. Although Kara had to break ties while she was in college, she continued to dance at other studios. She started teaching again about six years ago when she returned to the area. This is her 20th year with Becky’s, and the studio is celebrating its 50th year of operation.

For more than three years, Kara has been employed in the corporate uniform program with City Apparel, a division of Kramer Enterprises. She said cancer has not changed her goals, but it has altered the timeline she had mapped out.

“There are some things that are going to have to change, based on what my doctor tells me I can and can’t do,” Kara said. “The one thing I have said from Day One is, if I can help somebody else, I would like to do that. … I want them to know they need to take care of themselves, because it can happen to anybody.”

She is pleased to be an honoree at the first Findlay Race for the Cure. In July, Kara was invited to throw out the first pitch for the Toledo Mud Hens’ “Pink in the Park.” Her whole family got to be there with her.

At the Hancock County Fair, she got to ride in a sulky cart with a harness driver for the fair’s “Harness Race for the Cure.”

“They call me, I show up to have fun,” Kara said.”

After she is introduced in the Sept. 28 opening ceremony, Kara plans to join the participants and walk the race with a team of about 30 people, including her mother and aunt.

“It’s a really cool event. It’s very emotional. … The first time I watched my mom cross the finish line – it’s just so awesome,” she said.

In addition to being open with her dance students, family and friends, Kara also shares her insights, knowledge and experiences through a blog and a website, www.goodthingilovepink.com.

She emphasizes taking responsibility for one’s own health, but she acknowledges the cost of doing that can be prohibitive, even with insurance coverage and support from loved ones.

She said she tries not to worry about the future.

“I honestly am a true believer that everything happens for a reason. I haven’t quite figured out exactly what the purpose is yet, but I think someday, it’ll come to me,” Kara said. “You have to trust that there is a higher power that is going to take care of you.”