In December 2007, Karen and Vaden Short were at her parents’ home, where Karen’s mother was giving everyone a card — a pre-Christmas tradition.
When Karen realized her son, Stephen, wasn’t there to receive one, she ran down the hallway to her old bedroom and burst into tears.
Her 19-month-old grandson, Jesse Dawe, heard her crying and opened the bedroom door.
“That’s OK, my nanny,” he said.
“Jesse is here.”
Now, more than three years later, Jesse is still there, thankfully — a constant ray of sunshine as the family weathers life’s storms, one battle at a time.
Their war began on Dec. 10, 2007. It was a day like any other until, early that morning, Karen went to the bathroom and found 15-year-old Stephen dead on the floor. He’d suffered cardiac arrest caused by a seizure.
By May 3 this year, 45-year-old Karen was feeling weak and her hemoglobin had dropped dangerously.
She was admitted to the Carbonear General Hospital and given three units of blood. Two days later, her doctor did a biopsy of her womb and scheduled her for a hysterectomy.
On May 12, she was recalled to the hospital at Carbonear, this time for a CT scan.
That night, her doctor used the dreaded “C” word: cancer of the womb.
“My mouth dropped open and my teeth dropped out. The only thing is, I don’t have false teeth!” Karen says, revealing the sense of humour she relies on often to get through the day.
The next morning, the CT scan revealed a spot on her lung and perhaps one on her liver and in her stomach lining and lymph nodes. The hysterectomy was cancelled and her file was transferred to the Dr. H. Bliss Murphy Cancer Centre in St. John’s.
That afternoon, Karen was told the spot on her liver was a cyst and the spot on her lung was too small to be concerned about. However, the cancer in her stomach lining and lymph nodes was a real concern. Endometrial stromal sarcoma, a rare type of cancer, develops from the endometrial layer of the uterus.
Vaden received the diagnosis with total shock and disbelief.
Beginning June 1, Karen underwent five sessions of radiation. After the first session she was surprised she felt up to grocery shopping. By the fifth day, her back and stomach pain was gone.
“I think the Lord was already doing work in my body,” she says.
The family’s faith in God is deep and abiding.
Karen had more than a half-dozen chemotherapy treatments, one every three weeks. After the third session, the tumour and lymph nodes had shrunk and the spots — now on both lungs — had disappeared.
Vaden, 48, an ambulance dispatcher, says he’s amazed at his wife’s strength and attitude.
“That’s just her makeup,” he says.
“I only think about (cancer) when I look in the mirror and see myself without a bit of hair on my head,” Karen quips.
She’s been bald since June 26. It’s something she’s learned to deal with. She doesn’t wear a wig because “it’s too blessed hot,” she says.
As if her cancer diagnosis wasn’t enough, on Nov. 3, her father, John (Jack) Holmes, died. In 1989, he had been diagnosed with Binswanger’s disease, a form of dementia caused by damage to the brain.
“I just leave it all in God’s hands,” Karen says.
Her mother, Eileen Holmes, taught her children to live one day at a time, and that’s become Karen’s motto.
Vaden’s approach is a tad different. From the day Stephen died to February 2009, 14 family members and friends of their have died, including Vaden’s 92-year-old grandmother. It was hard enough losing his son, he says, so he mentally blocked out the other deaths.
“There’s always someone out there who’s worse than yourself,” he figures.
The couple has received unceasing support from family and friends, and members of the congregation at Bethel Pentecostal Church in Bay Roberts. Friends granted them unlimited access to a furnished basement apartment in St. John’s, and others have made financial donations.
Vaden’s parents, Henry and Rosie Short, and three of his sisters — Vivian, Norma and Brenda — are all cancer survivors.
Vane’s and Karen’s daughter, Stephanie, her husband Stephen and their children Connor and Jesse, are there for them in many ways.
“He kept us alive,” Vaden says of Jesse.
Karen’s mother, Eileen, is a tower of strength and support and she accompanies her daughter to all her medical appointments.
Karen’s feeling good these days. She does her own laundry and cooks meals. Recently, they even accompanied friends on a two-week vacation to Prince Edward Island.
As for the future, “that’s something I don’t know,” Karen admits.
“Meanwhile, I do whatever I can, while I can. Each morning, I thank God I can still walk.”