A woman’s odyssey with cancer: Beating it herself, watching loved ones die

Karen Girvan is pictured with her daughter Bailey at the 2007 Relay for Life event. It was Girvan’s first year in remission.

Karen Girvan, 54, of Kenduskeag, knows cancer in many ways. It killed her young niece and her husband, but it didn’t kill her. So she walks. And every year, at the Relay for Life of Penobscot County event, when the spotlights on the University of Maine track are turned off and luminaria bags lining the track light up — one luminaria candle representing one person — she reflects on what has been lost, the continuous fight.

She is part of the local planning committee that organized the Relay for Life event in Penobscot County this year. Of the 230 Relays across New England, the one in Penobscot County drew 85 teams and placed 18th in funds raised, bringing in a net $204,000. “We were shocked,” Girvan said. “To break into the top 20 in New England is a big deal because there are huge, huge events in southern New England, so we feel pretty good about that.”

Relay for Life — where teams raise money and then walk for 18 hours — is preparing for its 20th anniversary in Penobscot County and has already signed up 26 teams. On May 17-18, 2013, the group hopes to surpass what it raised this year and contribute even more to cancer research, education and patient services, such as transportation for cancer patients and individual support for breast cancer patients.

If you haven’t experienced cancer yourself, you know someone who has. Consider getting involved.

For Girvan, being involved in Relay is a form of healing. The high school English teacher helps organize events, maintain Facebook and Twitter accounts and provide online support for participating teams and fundraising efforts. “I was the recipient of a lot of great doctors and care and things that American Cancer Society does that people don’t know about. So, you know, I just wanted to give back,” she said.

The first time she got involved with Relay was after her 3-year-old niece, Brianna Koncinsky, was diagnosed with juvenile brain cancer. Her family named their Relay team “Curious for a Cure” because Brianna loved the storybook monkey Curious George. She fought for three years, dying in 2000.

Cancer became personal for Girvan once again in May 2006 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She was obviously worried, she said, but, “I felt confident from the moment I met my oncologist.” He told her she would have a lousy summer and fall but would, in the end, be fine.

Her belief in his words buoyed her. She attended her son’s graduation from Colby College after her first round of chemotherapy, staying in the shade. Her daughter was taking driver’s ed and had to get in her driving hours, so she drove her mother to treatments.

Girvan had a lumpectomy in November and radiation in January. The tumor never spread. She said she got really tired but kept working. She is still grateful for the people who supported her along the way.

“I’m kind of like the best-case scenario,” she said. “Believe me, I know that I am.”

In February of 2008, her husband, Bob, was diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer and died six months later. He was 54.

“I see it from both sides, from being sick and being a survivor but also being a caregiver. That makes me even more determined, I guess, to work for a cure,” she said. And her husband? “That was devastating because I feel like in some ways it was way easier to be dealing with my own cancer than watching someone else.”

More than anything, she said, her husband appreciated having friends and family visit after his diagnosis. He knew what was happening to him and just appreciated the contact.

It’s that contact that people at Relay celebrate, too. The event is about raising money for survivors, but it’s also about having a party — to celebrate and remember those who are and are not present. Girvan said her friends who come to Relay are “always surprised at how upbeat it is and how uplifting and, in some cases, very moving.” And being involved with Relay shows her just how many people’s lives have been touched by cancer: “I think my story isn’t unique.”

For information visit relayforlife.org/penobscotme or call Mike Hart at 989-0332.

Erin Rhoda

About Erin Rhoda

Erin Rhoda is editor of Maine Focus, a journalism and community engagement initiative by the Bangor Daily News.