After a neurosurgeon told Kara Larson she had brain cancer, she blurted out a cuss word. Then came two surgeries, four weeks of radiation and chemotherapy, followed by months of recovery and still more chemotherapy.
Now Kara is living every day as if it were her last.
“I’m a New Yorker. I’m a little bitchy,” Larson said. “I get brain cancer. So what am I going to do?”
Travel. Dance. Swim, bike, run.
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“Yes, I have cried and I have laughed,” she said, “but I have never felt depressed.”
It’s been over a year since the diagnosis, and cancer has changed Kara Larson in ways she never would have expected.
There were the usual outward signs. She went from having long blond hair to a bald head with two ugly scars down her scalp. When her hair began to grow back, Larson took the transformation one step further. She dyed her hair red. It fits her sassy personality.
The most profound change, however, has been in her outlook.
“Before, I was crazy, loud, dealing with kids and a crazy husband who works all the time. I was always complaining: ‘I need this. I want this.’ Now I live every day for itself, and I love my day every day. To get a new day is a great thing for me and I try not to spoil that.”
Larson, 44, often stops midsentence when talking, unable to come up with the next correct word. “My brain is all twisted,” she said. Sometimes, she can’t remember what she did the day before.
But, as trite as it may sound, she no longer frets over little things like that. She said she doesn’t even fret over the big thing. What good would it do? She’s calmer and happier – and credits the cancer diagnosis for that.
“I try to explain it to friends. I tell them, ‘I don’t want any of you to ever get cancer. But ...’ ”
Outpouring of support
The first signs came after Thanksgiving 2012. Headaches. Trouble balancing. One day in early December, she drove her car onto the sidewalk. Several times.
Larson, who has multiple sclerosis, assumed she was having an unusual flare-up. An MRI detected something more serious: stage 4 cancer, an aggressive brain tumor called glioblastoma.
Dr. Anthony Asher operated the week before Christmas. He was able to remove more than half of the tumor, Larson said, but about 40 percent remains. In the weeks following, fluid began filling her brain. Asher operated a second time.
She doesn’t remember anything from the next three months. Her husband, Ed, took charge of the household with the same intensity he brings to his job as a managing director in the fixed income division at Wells Fargo.
Ten of their friends, among others, pitched in with carpooling, meals and anything else the family needed.
Karen Kelleher, a neighbor, took Wednesdays. It was hard to watch Larson suffer, but she made it easier on everyone around her. Kelleher said they have laughed more than they’ve cried.
“One thing that really surprised me is her attitude,” Kelleher said. “Kara is one of those people who was not content in a lot of ways. She wanted things a certain way, and she wasn’t happy if she didn’t get what she wanted. She spent a lot of her life trying to accomplish the next thing.
“When she got sick, it surprised me how all that fell away.”
“I’m going to cry,” Larson said when she recalled everything her friends have done for her. As if on cue, tears flowed. “They came over and they helped me. They took me to the hospital. They took me out to lunch. I got three dinners a week for seven months.”
Best year of her life
One of the toughest days had nothing to do with how Larson felt physically. It was the day she confided in her children.
Chloe was 11. Connor, 10.
Larson sat at the kitchen table with each one separately and told them about the “horrible, horrible disease.”
“Unfortunately a lot of people don’t make it and they die,” she said. “But sometimes it takes time.”
The Larsons are hoping for more time.
“The way I’m rationalizing this whole thing is that life is very, very long,” Ed Larson said. “We will have highs and lows, and this is our time to have a low low. We’re going to get through it and deal with it and just have fun.”
Last June, six months after the second surgery, when Kara felt strong enough to travel, she and Ed lined up the first of what they hope will be many trips, to Bermuda. They’ve also been to the Hamptons, where they met in 1992, and Las Vegas.
Every Wednesday night is now date night. “I never did that in our whole marriage,” Ed Larson said. “I worked late and exercised. Never once did we go out on a weekday.”
A few weeks ago, Kara told Kelleher that the past year has been the best year of her life.
Next big event
On a trip with friends to New York in October, Kara Larson suggested they all compete in a triathlon this spring. She doesn’t remember suggesting it. But her friends remembered.
And so Sunday, Kara Larson is doing what a year ago would have seemed impossible. With her husband, daughter and nine friends, she will compete in the Huntersville Sprint Triathlon. “Kara’s Krew” will swim 500 yards, bike more than 12 miles and run more than 3 miles.
Larson doesn’t expect to finish in record time. Before she had cancer, she would have minded that. Over the years, she competed in four marathons and five triathlons, and three times she biked the 150-mile MS ride to the beach.
Being one of the best is no longer important. Kara Larson is just happy to be alive and having fun.