Karen Reason, of Gering, touts her five grandchildren as the five reasons she fought to survive a breast cancer diagnosis.
The self-affirming motto became so dear to Reason that her children and a photographer surprised her in September 2017 at a photo shoot.
Karen and her husband, Brian, had been planning to have their photos taken by Chelsea Parrish, who is a friend of the family, when suddenly Brian Reason noticed his daughter, Jill Hernandez, of Gering, show up. Suddenly, her other two children, Michael Stephens, of Centennial, Colorado, and son Taylor Stephens, of Gering, their wives, and all five grandchildren were at the photo shoot, each of the grandchildren donning shirts that said, “Reason One, Reason Two,” and so on.
“We had no idea,” she said of the emotional moment she and Brian experienced as they showed up in matching T-shirts. “It was pretty awesome.”
The photo shoot occurred just a month after Reason had been diagnosed with breast cancer on Sept. 15, 2017, two days after she had found a lump and her physician got her scheduled for a mammogram right away.
She had great cause to be concerned, she said.
“My mother and five aunts are all breast cancer survivors. I knew that it was in my family, so that stressed me out even more.”
Because of her family history, she had been doing regular self-exams, she said, when she found the lump.
Her diagnosis was stage 2 invasive mammary carcinoma. She had a double masectomy on Oct. 5, just days later, and had a port placed, starting chemotherapy in November. Her husband, Brian, explained that she had a total of 15 chemo infusions, the first four of which are nicknamed “the red devil” and Reason described as “horrible.” She had her last day of chemotherapy on April 13, 2018, “Friday the 13th.”
Reason has taught math for nine years at VALTS, also known as Valley Alternative Learning Transition School. Nine different districts send students to the school.
“I love it,” Reason said of her teaching career. “The staff is small, with four teachers, secretary, and a principal/administrator. I love my students. The students are amazing and its the students who helped me through so much of my journey when I was first diagnosed.
“As a teacher, you are supposed to be making a difference in their lives, but they have made a difference in my lives, more than they will ever know.”
One of the fun things the students did was build a Breast Cancer Awareness themed guitar to honor Reason. Later, sale of the guitar at auction garnered a significant amount of funds to be donated to the Festival of Hope, a local organization that helps cancer patients with non-medical expenses.
The students had been building guitars as part of a science project. The science room is located next to the math room, Reason said, and she would be curious about their projects and go over and take a look. The college’s auto body shop helped paint the guitars, “so they were painted really cool,” Reason said. “The kids worked hours and hours on these electric guitars. And, unbeknownest to me, they built a breast cancer (themed) guitar. I didn’t know about it until the last day of school and it was presented to me.”
The guitar was built with the intention to be raffled for Festival of Hope during an October fundraiser at Backaracks. Over the summer, country singer Josh Turner autographed the guitar, bringing its value up. At the October 2018 fundraiser, the guitar was auctioned, bringing in $3,700.
Her students came to support her at the fundraiser.
“It was really cool. It was really fun and it was awesome to give back to Festival of Hope,” Reason said, noting that the organization helped the Reasons with non-medical expenses during her own cancer struggle. “You don’t want to ask for help, but Festival of Hope was so giving and so caring. They were there when we needed help with some issues.”
The students also supported Reason in other ways, staging a “Pink Out” the day before she traveled to Rapid City, South Dakota, for surgery for her bilateral mastectomy.
“The students here were amazing,” Brian Reason said. “The staff were supportive, picking up the slack when she missed days after her surgery, after her infusions, and then, last day of school to be presented with that guitar was amazing.”
When Reason was out of school, “students would message me. I’ve got bracelets, I’ve got trinkets, pictures that the kids made for me through my journey. I still have contact with those kids who have gone and graduated. I went through the hair loss, the fatigue — the fatigue was horrible — they would ask me questions or how I was doing.”
She expressed that she was grateful that her fellow coworkers and principal supported her, decorating her office, encouraging her to take a break when she was tired, and other things.
“They were very, very good for me,” she said.
One thing breast cancer has taught Reason is to embrace life, she said.
“The direction that you thought your life was going is totally going to change, not necessarily a bad direction, because I’ve learned so much about who my friends were, my family.
“But, it was very shocking. It was very hard to tell my parents, because my mother had gone through cancer, and to tell my kids. ... I think a lot of times the people know that the person that has cancer is going to go through chemo, they are going to lose their hair, and that’s not fun, and they are going to be tired, and that’s hard, but I don’t think they realize what spouses and family go through.”
Brian Reason took care of his wife during her treatment, tracking her medications and other aspects of her care. His father battled pancreatic cancer 25 years earlier, he said, and he said his wife’s cancer struggle brought back those memories.
“Mentally, it’s always in the back of your mind,” Brian Reason said. “But, when you get the diagnosis, there is only option, and that’s to fight it.”
When Brian was unable to go with her, her children and her parents sat through chemo treatments with her.
“It was very hard for them to watch what was happening.”
When Reason lost her hair, she said, her son and daughter, together with four of her grandchildren, had a “shaving party.”
One of her sons joined by video conference. Later, she said, her son told her that shaving her hair was one of the hardest things he ever done, although at the time, she said, she didn’t know.
“We were all having a good time,” she said. “Having a pizza party, four of the grandkids were there.”
Her children and grandchildren “gave her extra love when she needed it,” she said.
Though Reason completed chemotherapy, her cancer journey still continues. Reason had complete reconstructive surgery after her masectomy in Rapid City, Colorado.
“I think that has helped my mental health, more than my physical health.”
Reconstructive surgery took a total of seven trips, as its an extensive process, and she was out for a week for recovering from the surgery.
Her focus has been on getting her physical health to where it was, as she still gets tired. She has appointments every three months with her oncologist and still has to take medication and will do so for another eight years.
The couple attended a cancer support group, which is 12 weeks, and seeing the other patients and their families “is just overwhelming. But, you can’t let it consume you,” he said.
Brian Reason said he is also thankful for all the people, in the community and even around the country who would offer support to her and her family. He called the local cancer treatment “top notch” as far as its professionalism and compassion.
“This is a journey that no one wants to take, but we have met a lot of awesome people along the way,” he said.
She said she talks to anyone about her cancer struggle — that there is life after the diagnosis, and also early detection. She believes her self-exams helped her to find her cancer at an early stage.
Reason said she has been to Camp Hope twice and made amazing friends in other areas.
“We have to continue to look at the positives that come around. The glass is half full, not half empty.”