Fans’ outpouring of support lifts spirits of sisters in cancer battle
by Karen Rudolph Durrie
(photo: Karen Pearson, left, and sister Kriste Ruhland get some Human Touch from Rick)
Sisters have a special bond. They may share secrets, clothes and recipes, inside jokes, and even crushes on the same musician.
But with sisters Karen Pearson and Kriste Ruhland, that bond was deepened by something they never dreamed they’d share: cancer.
In August of 2005, Karen, now 50, was working at a bank in Washington, Illinois, living an active life riding and showing her beloved horses Valvikourrr, Doc and Boo, tending to a menagerie of animals including dogs and barn cats and enjoying life with Barry, her husband of 25 years.
But for some time she’d been carrying around a worry — a lump in her left breast.
She didn’t have time to be sick, she reasoned with herself, so maybe if she just denied the whole thing, it wouldn’t really be happening.
"I waited way too long," Karen says.
"Because I was worried about who was going do everything. I was working two jobs at the time, and had horses. I was praying every night for God to make it go away."
She began to appear so ill that her best friend, Diane Bauman, waited in the bank’s parking lot one day to confront her, begging to take her to a doctor right there and then.
"She said ‘I know you are not feeling good, you don’t look good. You need to go, and I’m taking you right now.’ But I said I couldn’t now, that I would go Thursday on my afternoon off," Karen says.
"Diane was bawling, and she made me promise."
The friends drove to Proctor Hospital in nearby Peoria that Thursday and headed to the emergency area — Karen was feeling very poorly by then.
An X-ray showed masses in both breasts, and she was sent to admitting. The next day oncologist Dr. Paul Fishkin diagnosed breast cancer, and set her up to undergo numerous tests and scans.
Karen was diagnosed with stage 4 bilateral breast cancer, which had already metastasized to her bones and liver.
Five days later she started on IV chemotherapy, which she took for a full year.
Shock to My System
That November, Dr. Fishkin told Karen that she’d only been a few weeks away from dying when she came into the hospital that August day.
He told her that he could give her some months, maybe even some years to live, but that she was not curable. Treatable — but not curable.
In October of 2006, Karen underwent a double mastectomy. Doctors, Kriste believes, did not originally want to put Karen through the surgery in 2005 because they did not foresee her surviving very long.
Just a few months after the mastectomy, more cancer was discovered — lumps in her side near her ribs. Karen had 33 radiation treatments on her left side. Eight weeks after her last radiation treatment, another tumor was found in the chest wall on her right side below the ribs, and she underwent another 38 radiation treatments, which left her right side blistered and burned.
"I would never wish that on anybody. I had bleeding and blistering. I couldn’t wear shirts. I sat in the living room with the fan on and I didn’t go out. I wore my husband’s loose shirts," Karen says.
In November, Karen had laparoscopic surgery to have her ovaries and fallopian tubes removed.
Since that time, Karen has continued with chemotherapy. She now takes an oral cocktail of pills — including Tykerb, a promising new drug that can significantly slow the growth of tumors in women battling breast cancer. Studies have shown the drug also offers a level of protection against breast cancer tumors spreading to the brain, and a shrinking effect on ones already present there. Twenty to thirty per cent of breast cancer patients will develop brain metastasis.
Today, Karen takes oral chemo seven days on, seven days off, and takes a variety of other drugs to combat the effects of cancer and the side effects of treatment. Among those are Vicodin for pain, an antidepressant, and Ritalin, a central nervous system stimulant that helps combat fatigue and gives her some get up and go.
"For a while, I was so tired all the time, I would just sit and do nothing," Karen says.
Now, she is able to sit on her garden swing — a gift from Barry — and enjoy her flower garden, care for her pets and do little things around the house.
What she wants most of all is to spread the word to others about the importance of breast cancer screening and early intervention. She wants to get the message to women not to neglect themselves as she did, with devastating consequences.
"Women need to go for mammograms. Don’t be afraid to go. There are programs out there even if you’re under-insured or not insured at all. I had never had one myself. I would encourage all women to get one," she says.
The National Cancer Institute recommends that all women age 40 and over should have a mammogram every one to two years, while women at a higher-than-average risk of breast cancer should talk to their physicians about having them earlier.
Hole in my Heart
Five months after Karen was diagnosed, she received a shocking phone call from her pregnant sister Kriste, now 41, who lives in Dallas.
"I will never forget when Kriste called me. I was hooked up to chemo, and she called from her cell phone saying ‘I just found a lump in my breast,’ and she was crying. I thought ‘it can’t be cancer, it must just be a cyst,’ but it was not the case. They (needle) aspirated it, and it came back with cancer. I was like, ‘I can’t believe this is happening to our family,’" Karen says.
Kriste was carrying her second child when stage 2B breast cancer was diagnosed, and she had her left breast removed when she was 35 weeks pregnant.
Son Grant was born healthy via c-section two weeks later, and another two weeks later, Kriste undertook a six-month course of chemotherapy.
"I was devastated, because she is so young and there she was pregnant with Grant, and sometimes I would pray to God, ‘If you are going to have to take either one of us, let it be me.’" Karen says.
"She has so much to live for with her kids, and I don’t have any kids. Just my animals are my kids. I tried to be strong for her and tried to help her with her questions," Karen says.
Today, Kriste has a clean bill of health and continues to work for American Airlines. Third sister Kathie, 43, who also lives in Illinois, has been free of cancer, but is linked in with the family’s struggle to remain healthy.
With Karen and Kriste falling victim to breast cancer, Kriste’s doctor had her tested for the breast cancer gene.
She came back positive for the mutated BRCA2 gene, which was traced back to the women’s father, who succumbed to cancer in 2004.
Ironically their mother, who is still alive, had breast cancer at age 63, but she was not the gene carrier.
Karen and Kathie also tested positive for the gene. Their brother tested negative.
According to the National Cancer Institute, women carrying the gene mutation are up to seven times more likely to develop breast cancer, and have up to a 60 per cent chance of developing ovarian cancer.
The carriers of this gene who are diagnosed with cancer in one breast have an 85 per cent chance of getting cancer in the other breast. And if already diagnosed with breast cancer, they have a 67 per cent chance of developing ovarian cancer.
Many women facing such odds often opt to undergo prophylactic — or preventive — surgery to remove breasts, ovaries and fallopian tubes before any problems strike.
While this may reduce the risk, it is not a guarantee against developing cancer, since not all at-risk tissues can be removed with surgery.
Kathie, mother of three children, has undergone a preventive hysterectomy, but is struggling with whether to move forward with a prophylactic mastectomy, Karen says.
"My doctor has said there is a hormone drug she could take and could keep her breasts for another five years, so there is no hurry to take them off. But Kathie is like a health guru and doesn’t like the thought of putting something foreign into her body," Karen says.
"But they have told us it’s not if you get the cancer, it’s when. We don’t want her to go through what Kriste and I have gone through."
Kriste’s and Kathie’s children will need to be tested for the gene once they reach 18.
It’s Always Something
On the phone from her humble home, Karen’s pleasant, easygoing chatter in her typical Midwestern accent belies what she has to contend with on a daily basis.
Only an occasional cough and apparent shortness of breath tip a caller off there may be something untoward going on.
But there is more than that.
With cancer in her bones and spine, Karen’s joints are sore and she is in pain daily. She can’t wait to get into bed at night to sleep, but dreads the mornings, when she is in the most pain. She takes pain medication first thing and waits a little bit before getting up.
She gets hand-foot syndrome, a condition common to chemotherapy patients, where her hands and feet tingle and itch terribly and become inflamed and cracked.
And she has lymphodema in her left arm, a common side effect from radiation, making it twice the size of her right arm.
She has gained weight from the medications. She was bald from her initial chemo treatment, but hair has started to grow back darker and coarser.
Her lungs are scarred from radiation and she is prone to fluid accumulation around then, so she coughs and feels short of breath.
Even with that laundry list of ailments, she is simply not the complaining kind.
Karen is thankful to still be here. She has hopes that she can get back to work and get back to riding her horses again — she hasn’t competed in dressage since 2004.
"I try to take each day as I can and do what I can. For as horrible as it’s been, it’s really just brought about some really neat things in my life. You appreciate everything even more. Family and friends and old classmates, and the cards I get — oh my gosh, I haven’t thrown a single one away."
Human Touch (or... What’s Rick got to do with it?)
So how does a handsome former (TV) doctor fit into this story?
This part starts with Kriste, a longtime fan of Rick Springfield, the veteran musician who played suave, dark-haired Dr. Noah Drake on General Hospital in the ‘80s— a role he’s since reprised sporadically over the last couple of years.
In her line of work, Kriste is often treated to the sights of celebrities and occasionally assists them with travel arrangements.
For the last decade, Kriste and her friend and co-worker Deanna have helped Rick and his band with details such as ensuring musical equipment gets on connecting flights, or by zipping them around the airport on golf carts to get them to their connecting gates.
When Karen was diagnosed with cancer and her friend Diane was organizing a benefit to help with the medical bills, Kriste called up Rick’s tour manager to ask for a signed CD or photo to auction off at the benefit.
"They turned around and offered a signed guitar. Rick has a heart of gold, I swear. He is just the nicest man on this earth," Kriste says.
The guitar was auctioned off on eBay instead to attract higher bids, and it garnered a $1,500 selling price. The successful bidders threw in an extra $500 donation as well, Karen says.
Several weeks after the guitar was proffered, Kriste herself was diagnosed with breast cancer, and the sisters’ story was put up on Rick Springfield’s official website to encourage fans to make donations via Paypal to help the women with mounting medical bills.
That year, the women were nominated to be the fundraising recipients for a fan charity drive that takes place annually during Springfield’s five-day concert series in Milwaukee.
In what has evolved into an annual organized event, fans schedule outings, activities and a charitable event attended by concertgoers. Rick’s fans have helped a number of charitable organizations and individuals by holding luncheons, auctions, raffles and direct-donation campaigns.
"There are no words to describe how we felt when they decided to do the fundraiser for us," Kriste says.
Karen and Kriste attended one concert during what Springfield himself has dubbed the Milwaukee "Freakfest" in May of 2006 — Karen covering her bald head by sporting a hat with a fake ponytail attached to it, and Kriste wearing a jaunty "Cancer Sucks" T-shirt.
"Rick made the comment in front of the fans that he agreed and what a great shirt," Kriste says.
The women met with Rick during a pre-show soundcheck.
Tour manager and all-around guru Ronnie Grinel had the girls sneak up on the band from the back of the stage while Rick and the band ran through a number.
"I remember Rick turned around and quit playing guitar and said ‘Oh my God,’ and gave Kriste and Deanna a big hug and a kiss, and then gave me a big hug and a kiss," Karen says.
"It was neat. He was so gracious — all the guys were. And we got to talk with them after that in the room where they chill out before the show, and then later we came back for the concert."
Karen loved Rick since her high-school days when she used to watch him on General Hospital, and has always enjoyed his music.
She counts his sexy hit Affair of the Heart as her favorite Springfield song.
The funds raised by Rick’s fans in 2006 were a major boost — financially and spiritually — to Kriste and Karen.
The money was deeply appreciated, say the sisters.
"What do you say to people who are donating to pay your bills, who have never met you and live halfway around the world? The Rick Springfield fans are truly one of a kind," Kriste says.
"When there is a cause, there is a way and a will, and those fans do everything in their power to see that something good comes out of a terrible situation."
It is here that Kriste mentions how proud she is of the fans for the work they did to contribute to the family of Sahara Aldridge, 13, who passed away last November after courageously battling a brain-stem tumor for 17 months.
This year, Milwaukee organizers are putting some of the funds raised toward Mississippi Valley Therapeutic Horsemanship in Southeast Missouri — an organization that helped bring Sahara joy during her illness.
Amy Aldridge, Sahara’s mom, says that Sahara would have been rooting for Karen and would be in total support of Rick’s fans helping her out.
"She so fully understood what it means to help others when they need a helping hand," Amy says.
"The fundraisers held for Sahara literally changed our lives. They enabled us to give her the very best care possible. They allowed us to try an alternative treatment that ultimately gave us nine more months with her. They helped us keep her in physical therapy longer than insurance allowed, they provided her with an accessible bathroom, and they literally kept our family above water."
The financial toll cancer takes on lives, Amy adds, just adds to the heavy impact it already exacts on health and family life.
The Aldridge family had many people championing Sahara during her fight. From people living in the family’s town of Cape Girardeau, MO to Rick’s fans to Rick Springfield himself, the support helped the family during some of the darkest days any parent can imagine.
"We were very blessed to have so many people in our corner, especially Rick. Without his help and support, which led to the support from so many across the country and the globe, I truly can’t imagine how much different our experience with Sahara would have been. I thank God for these blessings," Amy says.
Amy and Shannon, Sahara’s dad, are now dedicated to helping others as much as possible and strongly encourage people to contribute to help Karen.
"I hope that the Milwaukee attendees take advantage of the opportunity to help Karen, not because she has asked for anything — she is way too proud to do that — but because it is the right thing to do," Amy says.
"We can’t cure someone with a donation, but we can help out with the everyday challenges that a family will face. Nothing feels better than knowing you have helped to ease the burden of someone else. It may sound trite, but there really is a ‘Circle of Life.’ Give when you can, and then when you need it, it will be given back to you."
The majority of the funds raised in Milwaukee will go toward Karen Pearson to help offset the expenses incurred from battling cancer for nearly three years.
Rick Springfield has donated one of his favorite concert-worn shirts as a prize for the fundraising raffle.
Karen says that she feels somehow that everything is connected, with the underlying theme of horses and other animals — she loves them, Sahara loved them, and Springfield is well known for his love of animals.
Karen is deeply grateful for being chosen as a recipient of the fan fund raising efforts, and is touched by the goodwill of Rick’s fans.
"I am totally overwhelmed by it. I am even feeling funny about this interview. I don’t like to be the center of attention. But I like to tell my story, to say ‘You can do it. You can fight it,’" Karen says.
The donations from the first fundraiser in 2006 so affected Karen that she tried to write back everybody that donated when checks arrived in the mail.
"I can’t even describe what that meant to me. I am just a little stranger in this world, and they totally did that for me. They don’t know me, and I don’t know them," she says.
She was thrilled that she did finally get to meet a few of her "angels" at a Rick Springfield concert in Fort Worth in February.
And she got another magic moment with Rick again, who recognized her and gave her a big hug.
"It was wonderful. I felt closer to him. It’s like I’ve grown up with his music," Karen says.
For her part, Kriste says she has learned a lot from Rick Springfield’s fans and has gained a new perspective on life.
"I now pay it forward whenever possible. I always have a good day, and I am thankful for every passing second. It is so easy to get caught up in the rumors, the gossip, the small talk about other people, until you sit back and try to realize that it is just not worth it anymore. There is no sense in getting worked up over the little things. You know, I truly believe that."
Tiger by the Tail
Despite Karen’s fears that everything would come apart if she were not able to "do it all," her husband Barry has faced up to the task. He now works two jobs and looks after Karen’s horses.
"He has been wonderful. I always felt I was the one that needed to do everything — it was part of my problem. But he stepped right up to the plate. He and Diane were crying in my room when (doctors) said what all I had wrong with me. I felt bad for them, and said ‘You guys don’t cry.’ I felt bad for them crying for me," Karen says.
Karen’s illness has brought out the angels in force — and she is filled with gratitude for the good karma people have bestowed upon her.
Other angels around her include the man who owns the stable where she boards her horses, who has stopped charging for the service.
Several Rick fan friends of Kriste’s who sell craft items regularly send Karen a portion of the proceeds.
Canadian author Kathleen Mendelin, whose recently released book Vamplitude (www.vamplitude.com) was inspired in part by Rick Springfield and his album Shock/Denial/Anger/Acceptance, is also donating a portion of book sales to Karen Pearson.
And when Karen couldn’t afford to board all three horses, her friend Diane kept the aging Boo — Karen’s very first horse — at her pasture until he passed away of a heart attack at age 28.
Even Barry’s brother, a roofer, gifted them with a new roof to replace their leaky old one.
Insurance covers a portion of the medical bills, but not everything Karen says.
For example, Kriste adds, the co-pay to the oncologist is $30 a visit, and during her own illness she would have to visit several times a week. She also had an anti-nausea pill that cost $75 per pill, $32 of which was not covered. Scans and other tests are only covered partially by insurance.
Taxes have put Karen and Barry even further behind, and a 2006 emergency shoulder surgery and a CAT scan for Barry have also set them back financially.
"I always think there are people so much far worse off than we are. I don’t like to complain. I am thankful for what we have," Karen says.
Religion of the Heart
When her scans come back "pretty good," Karen has not given up asking her doctor whether she is in remission.
She believes in miracles, after all.
"He just shakes his head and says no, you are not in remission. I will probably not be in remission because the breast cancer has set up shop in the bones."
And so Karen is thankful to still be here, wowing even her doctor with her survival and strong will to live.
"I am coming up to my three-year anniversary (of being diagnosed) in August, and my doctor just gets a grin on his face. I have excelled a little bit, and I think attitude has a lot to do with it. He tells me I am his star pupil. I guess I came further than he thought I would."
If We Help One Another
Even if you’re not hitting the road for FreakFest this year, you can still help in a number of ways.
Fundraising organizers Teresa Chyzie of Ontario, and Linda McGary of North Carolina have put together a Breakfast Bash in Milwaukee during the week of the concerts.
It takes place Saturday, May 10th, from 9 a.m. till noon, at the Ramada City Center and will include a raffle for a number of Rick-related merchandise and other prizes donated by fans. Some of the merchandise has been signed by Rick.
Tickets cost $26 apiece and you don’t even need to plan to attend to purchase a ticket. You’ll feel almost as full and satisfied even if you pass on the pancakes, by donating to a good cause. But they do hope to see you there.
Tickets for the Breakfast Bash can be purchased via Paypal using the e-mail address email@example.com. Please put Breakfast Bash in the subject line when submitting your payment.
Tickets for the online raffle for Rick’s concert-worn shirt are being handled by Virginia resident Lynne Sims and can be purchased via Paypal using the e-mail address firstname.lastname@example.org. Raffle tickets are $25 apiece or 3 for $65. Please put SHIRT in the subject line when submitting your payment. Please do not use the word “raffle.”
For those wishing simply to donate any amount of money to help the MVTH and Karen Pearson, donate via Paypal using the e-mail address email@example.com, and put HOPE in the subject line. Please do not use the word “donation.”
Teresa, who is organizing the Milwaukee fundraiser for the fifth year in a row, says that the amount of support the fan fundraisers have increasingly garnered from Rick’s management is much appreciated.
“He’s usually really good with us every year. He has even spent time autographing piles of items backstage to help us out in the past,” she says.
“The fans that come out to Milwaukee feel like family. They come from all over the world — Germany, England, Scotland... it’s so much fun.”
The response to this year’s fundraiser has been low, Teresa admits, but they hope to rally a good measure of support in the next month prior to the kickoff of the FreakFest. Rick Springfield’s concerts are slated nightly at Potowatami Casino from May 6th to the 10th.
Helping publicize the fundraiser along with organizing fan activities during the week is Milwaukee resident Carey Bartosch, herself a breast cancer survivor of 16 years.
“Many of us can’t work on a grand scale of saving everyone with cancer, but I can help one, especially one who is a fan in Rick,” Carey says.
“I’m married, have four kids, work hard for my money and have little to spare — but what better place to put it?”
For information on Rick Springfield’s Milwaukee and other tour dates, go to http://www.rickspringfield.com/.
The writer of this article encourages anybody that wants to run it on a website, blog or group to please help spread the word. To have the story e-mailed to you in an MS Word file please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Karen Durrie is a freelance writer and Rick Springfield fan living in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.