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Karen's Story

Written by Karen’s Husband, Matt Nakon

It seems inappropriate to put Karen’s name to this Foundation without explaining what about her moved many to undertake this effort. Besides being the love of my life, Karen was a gift to all those who knew her. She carried herself as a beacon of hope to many, portrayed a grace and dignity reserved for a few, and inspired anyone who came in contact with her. She was a champion of the underdog, generous to a fault and among the most caring people I’ll ever meet. Regardless of her own circumstances, Karen always took time for others. Until her death, many who knew her had no idea she was even ill, as she desired to be defined by the content of her person, rather than the disease that inhabited her.


Karen and I met in college. I was a 19 year old junior and she a gracefully quiet 18 year old freshman. Although often the most attractive person in the room, what made Karen special was that there was never a hint that she was aware of the fact. She was quiet and shy, yet polished and composed. I never anticipated that any person could have the kind of impact on my life that I felt from her from the start.


Karen and I were engaged shortly after I left for law school. (I was not leaving her behind for the vultures without a ring on her finger.) She completed her elementary education studies, graduating in 1987. She secured her first teaching assignment in 1988 at St. Stanislaus in the Slavic Village area of Cleveland. We were married at St. Stanislaus in the summer of 1989, the same year that Karen began teaching second grade in the Olmsted Falls School District.


We started our family in 1992, welcoming Nicholas. Karen postponed formal teaching to concentrate on motherhood—a vocation at which she was a natural. Morgan joined us in 1993 and we had what most considered the perfect family. Karen thrust herself into motherhood with the same vigor she put into teaching. While I was off career building, Karen built the foundation of our family. Together, we were a formidable team and were living the life together we had dreamed of sharing.


Karen Nakon, circa Dec., 1987

As is true of most people, our health was something we worked at, but also took for granted. Karen was in top physical shape. Never did we dream that cancer would enter our lives-it was a disease reserved for the elderly or those who were less careful with their health.

In early 1996, Karen found what she believed to be a lump in the rear of her right breast. Though it was obvious to both of us, Karen's OB/GYN could not feel a lump. She ordered a mammogram, which was normal, and we were told not to have another until Karen turned 40-an age she didn't get to see. Less than twenty months later, when she was seven months pregnant, Karen was referred by the same OB/GYN to a breast specialist for what turned out to be hormonal changes due to her pregnancy. However, while there, the specialist expressed concern regarding the area of breast tissue Karen had been questioning for nearly two years. A mammogram and ultrasound confirmed a suspicious growth. Within less than a week, Karen had a lumpectomy, which confirmed cancer. Unfortunately, the pathology also showed the disease had spread to her lymph nodes, as seven nodes tested positive for cancer.


While the surgery was complicated because of her pregnancy, chemotherapy was even trickier. The extremely toxic nature of the heavy dose of chemotherapy Karen's physician preferred would have been too risky for the baby. Karen withheld chemotherapy for one month, to allow the baby to develop enough to be delivered early. Madison was born in February 1998, and Karen was on quadruple dose chemotherapy within days thereafter.


I was stunned at the fight Karen displayed. She had always been demure, someone who preferred to avoid confrontation. Not when it came to cancer. She was willing to try anything her physician felt showed promise. There is a sign that hangs in University Hospital's Ireland Cancer Center with a quote by Eleanor Roosevelt. "A woman is like a tea bag: You never know her strength until you drop her in hot water." Karen was living proof. She was determined, regardless of diagnosis, to give her children every day she could, and to make sure they understood how hard she fought to be with them. Although I admit to losing count, I believe there were a total of eight operations and approximately 300 chemotherapy treatments, including several experimental treatments.


Karen was a person of unyielding faith. Faith gave Karen the strength to fight, and her faith was unimpeded by her circumstances. It remained that way until the end. Karen died on February 22, 2003-her 38th birthday.

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