Local cancer survivor uses faith, friends, family to win fight

Kathy Carnes (left), a breast cancer survivor, and her husband, Ron, enjoy the view outside their Huntington home. She recently marked a year since she has been cancer free. Ron Carnes was named the 2017 Caregiver of the Year by the Huntington Relay for Life for his efforts in helping his wife beat the disease.
Kathy Carnes (left), a breast cancer survivor, and her husband, Ron, enjoy the view outside their Huntington home. She recently marked a year since she has been cancer free. Ron Carnes was named the 2017 Caregiver of the Year by the Huntington Relay for Life for his efforts in helping his wife beat the disease. Photo by Rebecca Sandlin.

Originally published Nov. 6, 2017.

A year after Kathy Carnes was cleared as cancer-free, she asked her three adult children to write down their thoughts about how they felt when they were told she had breast cancer.

She was surprised by their responses.

“I was shocked that they thought I was going to die,” she says. “I didn’t realize how seriously they took my diagnosis.”

Her middle daughter, Natalie Burgess, said her mother’s diagnosis caused her to think about her own mortality.

“I was almost 40 years old with four children and never had a mammogram. I worried about the genetic possibility that I had it as well and just didn’t know it,” she wrote to her mother. “I made an appointment for my first mammogram immediat-ely.”

The Carnes’ youngest child, Nick Carnes, told his mom how hard it was to describe how he felt.

“The fear of losing you cannot be put into words. It is a devastating thought that can’t be described with words,” he wrote. “The thought of putting an actual number on your days, be it months or years, is terrifying … To think about how ‘this may be the last time I get to do this’ really makes one appreciate the fragility and impermanence of human life.”

Carnes had faith that she would survive, but she did not come through unscathed. She learned that her family, her church family and her husband, Ron, in particular fought alongside her in a multitude of battles — physical, emotional and spiritual — against the aggressive form of breast cancer that, thankfully, was spotted early.

It all started in February of 2016.

“I had discovered a lump right at Christmastime, at the end of 2015, but I kept it to myself. We had some major things going on in January, and I thought, ‘This is going to go away,’” she says. “It didn’t go away.”

Carnes made an appointment with her family doctor, who ordered a mammogram and ultrasound tests. The next week, she underwent a needle biopsy. During the biopsy, she got “signals” from the doctor that something was wrong.

“He kept saying, ‘It will be OK — they’ll take care of this,’” she recalls. “So what does that tell you? He’s not saying, ‘It’s nothing, so don’t worry.’”

At the end of the week, on Friday, she got a phone call from her family doctor, who gave her the diagnosis and recommended a surgeon. She found herself in the surgeon’s office the following Monday.

It was all new to Kathy, who had never before had a major illness or surgery. She barely had time to react to the news that she had cancer.

“I knew he (Ron) was working and I didn’t want to bother him at work, and so I called my daughter, the oldest one,” she says. “She was standing in Hallmark, just browsing, and she came immediately.”

“I remember the day she got the call,” Stacia Hertel, the Carneses’ oldest daughter, writes. “My mom’s voice was shaky and she said, ‘The doctor just called and it’s not good.’ My heart sank and I began to feel numb … In the car on the way to her house I cried, yelled at God, saying, ‘You can’t take my mom! I still need her! Why her?’ The drive to her house was a blurry, messy, loud, sad, speed-induced trip.”

In March of 2016 Kathy underwent the first phase of chemo treatments, which lasted for eight weeks; in May she began the second phase, lasting for 12 more weeks with a different cocktail of drugs.

In addition to appointments with the surgeon and oncologist, the Carneses also went through programs at the Cancer Resource Center at Lutheran Hospital. The nurses there explained her diagnosis, went over definitions of terms used and the levels of staging of the disease. Kathy was diagnosed as in Stage 2 because of the size of the lump that was found.

“There were lots of tears that day, I do remember that,” she says. “But they make you feel very comfortable, that it’s OK to cry.”

In August she had a lumpectomy, with two lymph nodes also removed. Since that time she has received 20 radiation treatments, with echocardiograms every eight to 12 weeks to monitor the effects of the medication she was taking. That was in addition to a variety of other tests, including a bone scan.

During the 12 months of treatment, Kathy lost her hair, her feet went numb and she lost strength in her heart. But in October 2016, scans revealed the news they wanted to hear: no more cancer.

Ron says he had no idea his wife’s illness would become a year-long ordeal. He knew what it felt like to hear the “C” word, because he had battled skin cancer.

“I was thinking, before we went to see the doctor, that it wasn’t a big deal,” he explains. “A lumpectomy — no big deal — a few stitches and we’ll be on our way. I wasn’t concerned it was anything that was so involved.”

Regardless, Ron threw himself into the role as Kathy’s caregiver, coach, cheerleader and prayer warrior. During the next 14 months, Ron took time off work to take her to nearly every appointment, sat with her during chemo and radiation treatments, managed the financial bills and negotiated with the hospital over costs and discounts. He cooked, cleaned, and even became his wife’s hairdresser, shaving her head when the time came.

“It totally changes your whole life schedule and outlook. As a caregiver, I put all my effort pretty much into what she needed,” he says. “You try to keep everything positive, as much as possible, even though the negativity can take over if you’re not careful. So I tried to be as positive as possible.”

In June, Ron received the 2017 Caregiver of the Year Award from the Huntington Relay for Life for his efforts on behalf of his wife.

Kathy says there were also moments of levity during that year, despite the situation she found herself in.

“(A nurse) asked me ‘What are you thinking right now?’ and I said, ‘Well, I was thinking, the only thing I have to worry about the rest of my life is getting dementia, because my mother has Alzheimer’s dementia,” she recalls. “As women, we don’t sit around and think, ‘I wonder if I’m going to get breast cancer.’ I had made it 63 years without anything.”

She adds that what got her through that time was her faith in Jesus Christ. The Carnes family also discovered a supportive network of church family and friends, who kept her at the top of their prayer lists. Kathy received hundreds of cards with words of love and encouragement. Others brought food and did chores for them.

“We couldn’t go to Walmart without someone asking, ‘How are you doing?’ … The prayer support in this town was unbelievable,” Ron says. “It was hard to be on the receiving end, when you’ve always been on the giving side. I think it’s easier to give than it is to receive, and we were on the receiving end.

“It was a very humbling year. You really start looking at your priorities in life — they really change. It changed all of us.”

The oncology nurses and staff also became part of the grafted Carnes family — angels, Kathy calls them — becoming close as they interacted with each other during procedures. And there were others placed in her life whom they would not have met if they hadn’t gone through the ordeal, putting her in a unique position of encouraging and ministering to them in the midst of her own trial.

“There was a friend brought into my life that I only met because I was in Florida in a church and she was struggling with pancreatic cancer and she kept it so private and secret, and then I found out,” she says. “We sent letters back and forth … She called me, and I didn’t know her deeply enough to know all of her family, but I knew some of her cancer journey.”

The friend called Kathy that summer and asked if she would come to Florida. Kathy said she would be there in October.

“She said, ‘OK, I look forward to seeing you.’ She said, ‘I just wanted to hear your voice today and tell you I love you,’” Kathy remembers. “And before I got there in October she passed away. I gained a lot of strength from her.”

In the midst of her treatment Kathy’s father became very ill and was placed in hospice care; she would visit him after she received a chemo treatment in the hospital. Miraculously, he rallied a month later and is still going strong. But during his illness the Carneses had to sell his home and move him to a care facility.

In addition, toward the end of her illness, Ron’s brother, who lives in Florida, was also diagnosed with cancer. The two bonded as they shared experiences and encouragement together.

Kathy documented her treatment, progress and experiences on Facebook, using the social medium as a platform not only to keep her friends and family informed, but to also engage them in prayer.

Now cancer-free, Kathy still takes medication every day to keep the disease from returning. She has been changed forever, she says.

But looking back, she can see there was a plan to what happened to her.

Among the things she’s learned is that there is more than just one person going through the experience, but her words fall short trying to describe everything she felt during the days she battled cancer.

“The journey was tough, but I never felt defeated,” she says. “I truly never felt like I was going to die. But there were some days I thought that medicine was going to kill me!”

“What you learn from the fight is what affects the future,” Ron adds. “You just keep fighting … Cancer doesn’t get better on its own. You have to attack it.”

In a somewhat triumphal gesture, Kathy had the purple subcutaneous injection port she wore in her chest made into a necklace, which she wears rarely, but during events such as Relay for Life when the jewelry becomes a trophy of her survival.

The couple is also on the steering committee for Relay for Life, continually reminding the public to be vigilant about cancer, and do what it takes to catch it as early as possible.

Kathy has two words of advice for those who find themselves in the same situation. The first is, “don’t hide.”

“If you’re a person of faith, share it. I’ve had people that didn’t want anybody to know, and they didn’t want you to call and ask how they’re doing,” she says.

“It was hard for me to understand, because I wanted anybody and everybody out there who had the power of prayer to be praying for me.

“You can find people — find a friend, mentors. I’ve had many people call me, email, I’ve had people find me on Facebook. Stay positive.”

The second advice is to get tested, and do what the physician says.

“Don’t wait if you find a suspicious lump, or look, or rash — it comes in many different forms. Go to your doctor,” Kathy says. “I just want people to be aware of their bodies. Get it checked — don’t wait.”