One local woman’s struggle with cancer has been a roller coaster of experiences that started more than 40 years ago.
But through it all, Whiteland resident Kay Clark, 72, has never lost her smile, sense of humor or hope.
Clark, a hairdresser who’s been in business for 54 years, doesn’t let illness stop her. She is living with three kinds of cancer but hasn’t let radiation or chemotherapy or their side effects keep her from her work or other passions.
Clark was first diagnosed with uterine cancer in 1973 at the worst possible time: she was three months pregnant with her son, David.
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Only her closest confidants such as her husband, Don, knew what was going on. Doctors told her a hysterectomy would be needed but that her pregnancy was still healthy.
“They watched me closely, and when I was seven and a half months pregnant they did surgery to see how fast it was spreading,” Clark said.
Two days after the surgery, her dad was critically injured in a work accident and later died from his injuries.
“The doctor gave me Valium to prepare me for what I had to deal with,” she said. “Nothing could prepare me for what I had to deal with. He lived five days.”
The promise of new life suddenly took on new importance for Clark and her husband.
“I knew that that precious baby I was carrying was special to God because that baby went through a lot but (my doctor) got me through to my delivery in January to a beautiful son,” she said.
Clark had the hysterectomy not long after she had David and remained cancer-free for decades.
Her next bout with cancer began in 2008 when she noticed she was having difficulty breathing. Doctors thought it was bronchitis and treated her with antibiotics, but she was not improving.
Asthma runs in Clark’s family, and as with other discomforts of getting older, such as joint pain, she’d just learned to live with it and work through it.
After many rounds of tests and diagnoses that turned out to be wrong, exploratory surgery finally determined that she had multiple myeloma, a bone marrow cancer. She then developed non-Hodgkin lymphoma. This cancer wasn’t as easily treated with surgery.
“I was very emotional,” she said.
“I had been very busy with my life — like anyone else, taking care of a family, a house, a business and to have that bomb dropped on me. The only thing I can say is that I cried.”
Treatment wasn’t easy.
“I am terrified of needles,” she said. “I had to have five bags of chemo drugs inserted into the back of my hand.”
Ultimately, she had a port surgically inserted, and she went right back to work. The only times during the past several years she has stopped working is when she’s been in the hospital.
Cancer at that time was something you didn’t talk about … Today, everyone talks about cancer; back then it wasn’t. I kept it to myself. It was not only a private thing, but it was also a very scary thing. —Kay Clark
Clark calls her customers her friends, and truly means it — and they feel the same way about her. As many of them have watched her journey during the past nearly nine years, they find themselves astonished and inspired by her.
Barbara Droeger, a customer since 1994 and good friend, called Clark the personification of God’s love.
“She has such faith. She knows that God has a plan for her,” Droeger said.
“She intends to live her life, just as much as she can — it’s just amazing.”
She’d had a clear mammogram in October 2013, but just a few months later in spring 2014, she had pain in her left breast.
Right away, her doctor ordered a breast biopsy, which showed cancer, and she started more chemotherapy.
“That was the worst experience with chemo. I never got too sick, but the pain in my legs, arms, neck or anywhere it chose to hit was an all-day and daily event,” she said.
And she lost her hair.
“As it was looking patchy and stringy, I had my husband Don use the clipper and just buzz it off. I cried,” she remembers.
She tried two gray wigs, but they itched, so she gave up and decided to use caps instead.
Clark had her breast removed on April 7, 2015, and surgeons also removed the lymph nodes in her arm pit, but they couldn’t get all the cancerous tissue.
“The cancer was and still is wrapped around my blood vessels and up to my neck,” she said. “There was only so much they could do to remove all they could.”
She can still feel the tumors through her skin, like a string of oblong beads under the skin on her neck.
Three days after her mastectomy, she was cutting hair again. Her doctor told her she had to maintain a “T-Rex” posture with her arm close to her side so that her stitches didn’t open up. She maneuvered her salon chair and work space so she could still cut and color hair.
Within days, she started radiation. The hospital’s radiation room was equipped with a light show patients can watch while they take the therapy, which made Clark think of Star Wars, she said.
“Every once in a while there was a shooting star. How cool is that? Keeps your mind busy while they cook you. I was burned so badly that my shirt would stick to my chest and bleed. I had to change shirts two and three times a day, and the smell was horrible,” she said.
“But I never missed a day’s work. I still have a gorgeous tan on my chest from all that radiation. Not all bad then.”
Clark said she surprises people by the fact that she still works and doesn’t let herself succumb to any kind of despair. She said she has her moments but not too many.
“Most people seem to be amazed that I’m not down in the dumps,” she said. “I just don’t have time to be ill.”
However bad she may be feeling, Clark also has a knack for making others feel good.
“Just being in her presence is comforting,” Droeger said. “I think most of us wouldn’t be able to go through that journey she has. She’s just amazing.”
Throughout it all, Clark maintained a positive, grateful outlook on life, no matter how demoralizing her treatments were. She gives credit to a physical therapist who helped her through the worst of the radiation period.
“And my customers stuck it out with me,” she said. “I’m so pleased to have such wonderful people around me, and as the time rolled on, my hair began to grow back.”
She remembers her hair growing back in time for a granddaughter’s graduation. But she still jokes about her looks.
“I’m having a hard time getting used to being lopsided,” she joked. “We might as well laugh about it.”
She also credits her husband, Don, for helping her in many ways when she’s tired. The two have been married for 44 years.
“He does all the cooking, he does all the dishes. He does the laundry, which is downstairs, and he brings it up and puts it away. He goes and buys all the groceries and puts them away. He buys all my (salon) supplies and puts them away,” she said.
“I’ve been a hairdresser for 54 years, and I’ve heard it all — cheating husbands and boyfriends, abusive husbands. I can’t fathom what my life would be like without him. He does everything — it’s just who he is.”
His support has been a big part of what has helped her stay active and engaged with her life.
“I chose to keep trying and keep trying,” she said. “This cancer is small compared to what life has given me.”
Clark’s latest battle is a fight to raise her white blood cells, which are low because of the multiple myeloma.
To combat a dangerously low white blood cell count, her doctor prescribed her Retuxin chemo, which was her fourth round. The chemo ended up making her counts worse, and she was very ill. Because of her missing lymph nodes she can easily get high fevers. One spiked up to almost 103 degrees, which landed her in the hospital taking antibiotics and saline intravenously.
She also got a shot to force her bone marrow to make more cells, which caused a lot of pain. She takes Advil, which takes the edge off enough.
Clark also still makes time for her crafts, hobbies and community involvement. She makes jewelry from dichroic glass, and she is a historian for Indiana for the Daughters of the American Revolution.
She is determined to continue working and living a normal life for as long as she can.
“You just can’t keep her down,” Don Clark said.
She’s not currently receiving chemotherapy but is on a regimen of Neulasta, a drug to help increase white blood cell count, and Arimidex, a drug that lowers estrogen levels to help shrink tumors and slow their growth. She’s also getting an external wrap treatment for lymphedema, a swelling in her arm.
People have asked if her prognosis has changed or if she’s in remission. Her doctors tell her that her cancer is like “children on a playground, and they’re all behaving right now.”
“She’s always upbeat. She doesn’t talk about her problems to just anybody, and she doesn’t look sick or expect people to treat her like she is. She wants to be all she can be,” Droeger said.
“If there was anyone (who could recover), it would be her. She’s just such a unique person. She’s made a difference to a lot of people.”
Name: Kay Clark
Cancer diagnoses: 1973, uterine cancer; 2008, multiple myeloma, non-Hodgkin lymphoma; 2014, breast cancer
Treatments: surgery, radiation, chemotherapy
Family: husband, Don; sons, Donnie and David; sister, Tammy Miller; five grandchildren in the area
Occupation: hairdresser since 1962
Memberships: Daughters of the American Revolution; Friendship Baptist Church; Order of the Eastern Star – Nineveh Chapter
How cancer changed me: “I may have cancer, but it doesn’t have me. I think when you have cancer, you stop taking life for granted. Each person is precious.”
What cancer taught me: “I chose to keep trying and keep trying. This cancer is small compared to what life has given me.”
What I would tell someone just diagnosed with cancer: “The best thing I can tell anybody is don’t give up, keep busy; don’t focus on your cancer; focus on your blessings. In my case, I’m so blessed with a husband and children and grandchildren and my friends; I’ve got to deal with it but it doesn’t run my life.”