Karen Shayne and Judy Pearson are very di;erent people.
Karen is in her mid-40s, a healthcare administrator from
Nashville, Tennessee, with an outgoing personality, big
hair, and boundless enthusiasm. Judy has just turned 60, a
Michigan native who also lives in Chicago, and a writer of
newspaper and magazine articles and books. Her favorite
topic is the courage of ordinary people.
;ey lived in di;erent worlds, many miles apart, but met
because of one big thing they have in common: ;ey are both
cancer survivors. On their journeys, separate ones at ;rst,
they knew the fear and pain of dealing with cancer and the
frustration that so o;en comes a;er, and they came together
to make life better for others like them.
Karen was diagnosed with uterine cancer at the
extraordinarily early age of 20. Already a college graduate and
looking forward to starting a family, Karen fought the cancer
for ;ve years until her ovaries were involved and she had to
have them removed, as well as undergoing a hysterectomy,
followed by chemotherapy.
“All I thought about was, what is my life going to be like
being childless?” she recalls. “As a newlywed, your heart just
sinks, knowing that you brought a man into your life and you
planned a life together, and now everything has changed.”
She also found it di;cult to reconcile her role in the healthcare
industry with her status as a cancer patient.
“So I went into this hole. I didn’t want to talk to people. I
didn’t want to deal with this. I wanted my journey to be quiet.
I didn’t even tell my mother until my hair started to fall out,”
Her doctors and caregivers focused on helping her beat the
cancer, but when it was gone, she felt she was on her own.
Even when she attended healthcare conferences that dealt
with cancer, she heard little about the post-cancer experience.
She dealt with shock, then depression, then anger, and then,
“Oh my God, what do I do now?” she says. “But I ;nally
realized that we are all in this together, and that is what
brought me out of the depression, and got me on a new and
Karen plunged into support and advocacy activities in the
cancer community but felt the need for a greater focus on
survivors, especially women. A;er talking it over with another
survivor in 2009, she went home, pulled out a lipstick, and
wrote on the mirror, “Survivors Convention.” ;e idea took
shape over time and moved closer to reality when Karen got a
call from a persistent journalist from Chicago.
Judy’s career as a writer had been suddenly interrupted in
2011 by a lump in her breast that a mammogram hadn’t
detected a few months before. “ I am the poster child for how
dense breast tissue can make breast cancer screening di;cult,”
she says. A biopsy led to a diagnosis of triple-negative breast
cancer, which was treated with a mastectomy and 18 rounds
“For me, the mastectomy was not frightening at all. But the
chemo was terrifying,” Judy says. “ I lost my hair. I was really,
really sick. But we all go through those things. What shocked
me the most was that no one told me about the survivorship
issues. No one told me I would have joint pain, fatigue,
‘chemo brain,’ night sweats three years later. ;at made me
mad. I survived this horrible cancer, and I am still dragging
this du;e bag of stu; behind me.”
A great source of strength was the man she married just
before having her cancer diagnosed.
“As a newlywed, I felt badly for my husband. I told him, this
isn’t what you signed up for. You don’t have to stay. We could
get it annulled. I don’t know what I’m going to look like. I
don’t know if I’m going to live. You should probably go,” she
“And he said to me, ‘;is is exactly what I signed up for, and
I’m not going anywhere.’ And there he was, an incredible rock,
and together we kept trying to make sense out of all this.”
Judy decided to write about her experience, and in 2012
her research led to Karen. ;e two became fast friends and
sister survivors. Together they founded the Women Survivors
Alliance, which held its ;rst convention in 2013, with more
than 800 in attendance from 49 states and ;ve countries, and
representing 27 forms of cancer.
;e Women Survivors Alliance has three “ribbons” of
support. ;e ;rst is the convention, which is scheduled to be
held in Nashville through 2015. Second, realizing the internet
would give them the greatest reach, they launched a digital
magazine called ;e Plum. A women’s magazine, it covers
nutrition, exercise, ;nance, skin care, and more, all with a
focus on survivors.
Last, they created a platform called “My 2nd Act,” giving
women an opportunity to communicate how they’re using
their survivorship to help others. Read the essays and learn
about the stage shows at www.survivorssecondact.com.
“Life changes dramatically a;er a cancer diagnosis,” Judy says.
“Survivorship is not a buzzword. It’s a reality. You can never go
back to being the person you were before the diagnosis. What
we try to inspire women to realize is that the ‘a;er’ doesn’t
have to be a horrible, end-of-life stage. It can be as bright
and beautiful and giving, and sometimes more valuable, than
what you had before.”
WORKING TOGETHER TO HELP OTHER WOMEN
NAVIGATE CANCER SURVIVORSHIP