In honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, here is an interview with a survivor who I love and admire very much. Even though October is done and Breast Cancer Awareness Month is over, it is important to remember those who are still fighting the disease and working towards a cure. This piece is in honor of those amazing people.
I have known Randy Karsch my entire life. I have had her matzoh ball soup countless times, hung out on her back porch for hours, and marveled at her wildly thick curly blond hair. She became friends with my parents before I was born, and she has been a staple figure in my life ever since. Even as a child, I knew I could always count on her. But she had a past, something I had never talked to her about face to face. I knew it was something that had majorly defined her, making her one of the strongest, most determined women I know.
Randy survived breast cancer.
I had heard stories about her inspiring strength, but in honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I knew it was time to ask Randy about her experience directly. But I wasn’t sure how to even start the conversation – how could I ask her intimate questions about something we had never talked about before? But the moment she answered the phone, greeting me with her New York accent that I had come to know so well, I knew I could ask her anything.
In 1991, Randy moved to Atlanta, Georgia, from New York City with her husband and infant son. A few years later, the year I was born, she found a lump in her breast. Still new to the Empire State of the South, Randy had not yet established a strong relationship with the local doctors. The last mammogram she had had was when she lived in New York. “I [had] to learn to trust someone here,” Randy told me, still reeling from the anxiety 20 years later. Finally comfortable with a gynecologist, Randy had a mammogram. The doctor did not appear concerned, and said all they needed to do was watch it.
5 months later, the lump was still present, and Randy was getting nervous. She and her husband wanted another kid, so she wanted to get the lump cleared up. She called for a follow-up, but the doctor was busy for another month. So Randy went to see his associate, figuring meeting the entire practice wasn’t a bad idea. The associate wanted another mammogram right away, and scheduled one for a few days later. But when Randy went home, she discovered she was pregnant, so the doctor quickly changed the mammogram to an ultrasound. Based on the results, Randy had a core biopsy per the radiologist’s recommendation. She then scheduled to meet with the doctor a few days later to discuss the results, but he called her in sooner. That, Randy told me, was the moment she knew she had cancer.
By the time Randy’s cancer was diagnosed, it had spread all the way to her pectoral muscle, and there was a good deal of “lymph node involvement.” But Randy’s case was special – she was pregnant. So she was faced with a difficult choice: take a chance and do minimal treatment until the child was born, or terminate the pregnancy. Randy knew what she had; as she told the doctor, “I have a 2-year old who I want to see at his bar mitzvah.” Randy knew she had to fight for her life in order to be there for her family. She ultimately needed 8 sessions of chemo, and 35 sessions of radiation. “35?” I stuttered, shocked. Randy sighed and laughed, agreeing that was in deed a lot radiation, but it was necessary. It was a year and a half out of her life, but she wanted the cancer gone. The original plan was to go with a lumpectomy to have the three lumps in her breast removed, but go ahead with a mastectomy if surrounding cancer cells were found. Before the procedure, Randy turned to her doctor and asked him to be straight with her: was she going to make it? “I’m a nurse,” she said, letting him know that she could handle the truth. “We’re going to do everything we can,” he said.
Randy awoke to find out that she did indeed need a mastectomy, and her breast was gone.“I didn’t want a mastectomy – no one wants to lose their breasts,” Randy told me, but she now knows it was the best option. To this day, she recommends mastectomies over lumpectomies. Randy told me that lumpectomies, although positively advertised, are more likely to result in recurrences. “It’s only tissue. I never have to worry about getting breast cancer in that spot again.” In fact, she is sorry that she didn’t get both done. Her cousin-in-law had waited too long to get a lump in her breast checked out, and only went to the doctor once Randy herself had done so. She then chose to get a lumpectomy. Unfortunately, the cancer returned, and she did not survive.
Randy went for the next year of her life without hair and a “hole in her chest.” When I asked her about whether or not she had gotten a prosthetic, she told me she had opted for a mastectomy bra with fillers – the prosthetic wasn’t worth it, especially since she was planning on getting a reconstruction. While Randy did have a wig, she never wore it. “I thought I looked like those Hasidic women from where I grew up.” So instead, she wore cotton scarves when at home, and a ponytail hair piece attached to hat when she went out. The thought of Randy without hair still startles me – I couldn’t imagine her without her signature curls. But for Randy, the return of her hair was one of the most relieving things. “You really do get your hair back,” I could hear her smile over the phone.
Nearly 20 years after her recovery, Randy still fights to raise awareness and provide support for those with the disease. “Unless you’ve been through it…you can’t explain it to people.” She even fought to open a Gilda’s Club in Atlanta, which unfortunately did not open. Luckily, wherever a location does not exist, the wellness community takes over. Randy eventually left the organization’s Atlanta board of directors, but continues to give people little bits of advice and even share her own story. After such an experience, she told me, “Your priorities change. Little things don’t bother you anymore. You realize what’s important in life.”
Our conversation soon dissolved into holidays plans, what was happening with her dogs, and when I would be able to visit. We said good-bye and I hung up the phone, glancing at all the notes I had taken during our conversation. Although Randy is not related to me, she has been a part of my family ever since I was born. And for the first time, I got to hear about when she was most vulnerable. But I soon realized, this was actually a story of when Randy was at her strongest. She had so much to overcome, so much to come to terms with, and so much to embrace. And Randy did all of those things, and then continued to help others. As Randy said, it was “a life changing experience.” Randy’s fight for survival helped make her the remarkable woman I look up to today.