By Stuart Baskin
Organizer of the “Shave to Save” fundraiser to benefit breast cancer research at the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute
I’d like to tell you about my wife, Janet.
The first time I saw her was amazing — seeing her long flowing blonde hair, her beautiful green eyes and her smile. I think my heart truly skipped a beat. We sat together at dinner at our five-year high school reunion and soon after started dating.
One thing led to another and before I knew it, we were married and expecting our first child, Robert Andrew. Life was good. We had a beautiful home, good jobs and the start of an amazing family.
Like almost every fairy tale though, things changed drastically – and it was not from a poison apple. It was from a lump Jan found in her left breast. Sometimes I think a poison apple would have been easier to deal with.
At the time, Jan was a registered nurse with a Bachelor of Science in nursing. She knew what the lump could mean. She made an appointment with her doctor and he told her it couldn’t be anything to worry about, that she was only 30 years old. The doctor advised her to wait 45 days and see if the lump dissipated on its own.
Like most people, we heard what we wanted to hear and followed doctor’s orders. Forty-five days went by and Jan went back to her doctor. The lump had not dissipated, so he scheduled a needle biopsy, with the continued assurance that it couldn’t be anything serious, that Jan was too young.
So the day of the needle biopsy arrives. We thought, no big deal – it’s just a needle being stuck into a growth in her breast. If you’ve ever been through this type of procedure, I don’t need to tell you the hardest part is waiting for results. Her doctor took a sample of her cells and we waited a week to receive the results.
We stayed positive and just waited. After all, we had nothing to worry about — Jan was only 30. Time passed and we went back to the doctor to receive the results. The information was not the most positive — the needle biopsy came back as “highly suspect.”
So what does that mean? Since conclusions weren’t definite, Jan’s doctor recommended a lumpectomy. Again, he said that he could perform this easily, that just a small amount of material would be cut away — out with the bad and in with the good. So we scheduled the procedure and life went on.
The procedure day arrived. We got there and everything went just as planned. Jan did well and we headed home. Again, more waiting occurred and that was tough.
Test results finally came in and we found out that the lump was not something we could let dissipate, that in actuality, it was breast cancer.
I don’t know how many of you have heard those words or listened to the ominous tone of the doctor’s voice when he or she tells you or someone you love that they have cancer. It’s devastating. Everything hits you at once and your life changes in an instant.
From there, Jan underwent a mastectomy and removal of her lymph nodes. She was a practical woman and asked to have both breasts removed. Doctors told her no, that there was no need for something so drastic, that her suggestion was ‘silly talk.’
Today, I believe a radical mastectomy is standard protocol to treat the type of breast cancer Jan had. We scheduled the surgery and realized that this procedure is much more serious than the other procedures, that it’s meant to treat a serious problem and could turn out to be very bad.
The surgery went well. Jan’s breast was removed and they found three out of her nine lymph nodes had been compromised. The good news, however, was her disease was still considered Stage I breast cancer and her prognosis was good.
Jan took time to heal and I kept telling her that it’s a walk in the park, we have this disease under control, that we caught it early and everything is going to be fine. I told her to stay positive and reassured her that life was good.
I read a saying once: “Cancer may leave your body but it never leaves your mind.” It is such a scary thing hearing those terrible words — that you have cancer — that you are always watching and looking for signs that it may have returned, always hoping that it does not come back.
The good news is our life moved forward. Things seemed back to normal and we made it past the five year mark. That’s the big number — five years and we made it!
Jan returned to school and became a nurse anesthetist. She worked so diligently, studied so hard and graduated with honors. It then came time to consider having more children. We already had a wonderful baby boy and wanted more kids. Unfortunately, Jan’s hormonal receptors tested positive. What that meant was no more kids. The doctors did not want her hormones to become elevated.
So what options did we have? We decided to adopt. My son wanted a brother and I wanted a daughter, so we started the paperwork to adopt two children from Russia.
Life was grand. Jan had started her new job and our house was full of children and love. And then it happened. I will never forget that day. Jan called me home from work to talk. She was having some vision troubles and had made an appointment with her eye doctor. She sat me down and proceeded to explain her vision difficulties were from cancer tumors on her optic nerves.
We were devastated. We knew the cancer was back and we suspected it had metastasized. We cried, we hugged and we hoped for the best.
Jan’s doctors tested, they scanned, they poked and what they found was not good. Her cancer had spread. It was now in the meninges of her brain, in her lungs, in her bones and in her eyes.
Jan, 36 at the time of her cancer recurrence, was a strong woman. She didn’t want to know a prognosis because it didn’t matter to her. She was going to stay and fight as long as she could. I would like to tell you that she wanted to fight to be with me, but I know that she had her kids and that they were her driving force.
I was not as strong as Janet. I wanted to know what was going on and I needed to hear how good or bad her situation was. Her oncologist was amazing. All I had to do was call and he would give me an update. I did not have to ask. What I can tell you is that my wife’s situation was bad. Her oncologist told me she had anywhere from two months to two years to live, but sooner or later, the cancer would get ahead of the chemotherapy.
As I mentioned, Jan was a fighter. Over the next six years, she had full and focused brain radiation, radiation to her eyes, a second mastectomy, a bone marrow transplant, which was performed at the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Center, and chemotherapy every week, which lasted for the full six years. To top it all off, the drugs put her into early menopause.
I am sorry to say that we lost a perfect soul, a caring mother and a courageous woman, but she did not go without leaving all of us an example to follow. Jan, who was 42 when she passed, she taught me how to cherish each and every moment and how to enjoy each breath. Most of all, she taught me how to live!
I found myself a widowed father of three kids who had just lost his wife after a long and difficult battle with a terrible disease. At first I was lost. I had a full plate with three kids to raise. I also had this helpless feeling.
It’s hard to put it into words, but mostly I felt defeated. I had to watch my love — my wife and life partner — fight this terrible disease and I knew one day it would win.
Each week, doctors put poison into her veins, hoping it would keep her cancer at bay. I knew that I could only offer comfort and support. I could not fix her, nor could I heal her.
Jan and I used to participate in the Komen Detroit Race for the Cure, which we would both walk together. One year I decided I was going to run in honor of Janet. I had never been a runner but had a goal and a passion from within.
I started like most novice athletes and ran a block, then two, and finally worked up to running my first 5K race. So many nights I would go off for a few-mile run to clear my mind. Running became my therapy, my saving grace, and I found my mission — raising funds to honor my wife. For the last 11 years, I have been raising funds in her memory through my “Shave to Save” fundraising event.
This year, the “Shave to Save” event will take place from 5-9 p.m., Saturday, Aug. 24 , at Black Finn in Royal Oak and is being put on with my Detroit Iron Triathlon Team. There is a $20 donation entrance fee at the door, which will include drink specials, free appetizers and a silent auction. Detroit Iron team members, myself included, will shave their heads as part of the event. Aiding in those shaving efforts are two young ladies who are also cancer survivors. One hundred percent of the proceeds will benefit breast cancer research at Karmanos. The team chose Karmanos as a beneficiary because of the wonderful experience Jan had undergoing her bone marrow transplant at the center.
My hope is that one day, by supporting breast cancer research and the commitment to finding a cure, a father will not have to look into the eyes of his children and tell them their mother has passed away from cancer.