Walking to Beat Breast Cancer: One Man’s Tribute to His Wife

03 Oct 2019 - Michelle Breyer

Welcome

Every November since 2011, Stephen Younger man participates in Susan G Komen’s 3-day, 60-mile walk.

He travels from his Riverside, California house to participate in walks around the country – from San Diego to Boston - in the hopes that others won’t have to go through the pain and suffering that his wife, Karen, and their family went through.

She passed away on Dec. 29, 2017,14 years after being diagnosed with breast cancer.

“It’s too late for my wife, but it’s not too late for somebody else,” says Younger man. “Ultimately, I can sit back and say something needs to be done about it, or I can do something about it. I want to know that another family won’t have to go through what we have gone through.’

No matter who you are, breast cancer probably has touched your life.

In 2019, close to 270,000 new cases of breast cancer will be diagnosed in women in the U.S. alone. One in eight women in the United States will be diagnosed with breast cancer in her lifetime. It is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in women, and the second-leading cause of cancer death among women.

These are daughters, sisters, girlfriends, wives, mothers, aunts and mothers-in-law. They are sons, brothers, boyfriends, husbands, fathers, uncles and father-in-laws.

During the month of October, National Breast Cancer Awareness Month is an important time to educate women and men about breast cancer, including symptoms and warning signs, factors that impact a person’s risk and the importance of speaking with your doctor about what screening is right for you.

It is also a time when people who want to make a difference can find a variety of ways to engage, from volunteering to raising funds needed to support those living with the disease today while also searching for tomorrow’s cures.

“While it is important to help people access quality care today, research is critical for developing new, more effective treatments,” said Kimberly A. Sabelko, Ph.D., senior director of Scientific Strategy & Programs at Susan G. Komen.

Held in more than 100 communities nationwide, Susan G. Komen’s Race for the Cure and MORE THAN PINK Walk are inspiring family-friendly events that joins participants of all ages and abilities, coming together as one, and remembering those we’ve lost, celebrating those that have survived, honoring those currently living with the disease and uniting as a community.

They are an opportunity to come together as a community, while raising funds for patient advocacy, breast cancer treatment and lifesaving research.

Through its Snapshots of Hope initiative, the National Breast Cancer Foundation encourages people to share their stories about how they are someone they love have been affected by breast cancer. Those stories are shared through the month of October on social-media platforms to encourage others facing breast cancer.

Loved ones have deeply personal and unique ways to memorialize those who have died.

In some cases, a mother with young children may write letters to their children to be opened on special occasions like high school graduation or weddings. They may put together a scrapbook with memories of their time together as a family.

“These can provide something beautiful and tangible after they have died,” said Lisa Veglahn, vice president of education of Hospice Foundation for America. “The power of ritual can be very powerful. They can be comforting, even for a little child. Even just smaller memorials – like sharing stories or taking a favorite object – can have special meaning to us. It’s important to allow people to have that connection.”

After her mother passed away in 1993, after seven years of fighting breast cancer, Caity McCauley scattered her ashes at California’s Point Lobos State Natural Reserve – a gorgeous natural reserve park south of Carmel known for its spectacular beauty and the seals, sea lions, sea otters and migrating gray whales that gather there. Her mother lived in Carmel when she was young and often took Caity and her late brother, Kevin, there on foggy, summer picnics.

“It became her place for reflection and rebalance,” McCauley says. “So now when I visit Point Lobos, it’s like I’m visiting my mom. I walk every inch of trail there along the ocean, and I almost always spot something in nature that makes me wonder if she is trying to say hello.

“I love how full of life the park is, all the sensory input of the crashing surf and the incredible views, and I know that’s how she would want me to spend time thinking about her, is in the midst of all that amazing natural energy and life force.”

McCauley has taken her daughter, Robin, to Point Lobos on “my mom pilgrimages” a few times. “It was really cool because I see so much of my mom in Robin,” says McCauley.

For many people, jewelry can be a powerful keepsake.

“Having a memento you can wear around your neck or carry in your pocket is a linking object,” says the Hospice Foundation of America’s Veglahn. “Those tangible objects can be a comforting way to keep people close to their heart.”

In the case of Stephen Youngerman, he turned his wife’s ashes into jewelry.While working as a dental hygienist, Karen Youngerman commented on a patient’s beautiful necklace.

“She asked what it was and the patient said ‘That’s my husband.’” Youngerman said. “After that, my wife said ‘I want to be a gemstone.’”

His brother lived in Austin, Texas and told him about Eterneva. After Karen died, he sent her ashes to the company, ordering a pink diamond and working with Eterneva designers to create a necklace that reflected the spirit of his wife.

On the front of the necklace, beneath a diamond encircled with a heart, are the words “It’s magic.” These words are a tribute to way Youngerman signed the daily love letters he sent her when they were dating, as well as a nod to her magician father.

On the back, are the words “Carpe Diem,” (seize the day) as well as “Fuck Cancer.”

“I wear it pretty much 24-7, and she’s with me all the time,” he said. “It’s comforting and beautiful. And she goes with me on all of the walks.”

With the walks, he is carrying on the tradition started by his wife in 2005, two years after she was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 43.

Karen Youngerman went to her doctor with pain in her chest and initially was told it was probably nothing to worry about. A mammogram was inconclusive, but a needle biopsy came back with the diagosis nobody wants to hear: it was cancer. The surgeons discovered a large tumor that had spread to her lymph nodes.

“It was the worst-case scenario,” Youngerman says.

At the time of her diagnosis, the Youngermans were preparing for their son’s Bar Mitzvah the following month. She asked her doctor if she could delay treatment until after the celebration. But because the cancer was aggressive, the answer was no. She did chemotherapy, radiation and more chemotherapy, and had to take a year off work. Youngerman took time off to take care of her and their three children.

Eight years later, after life had returned to normal, the cancer was back. She discovered she had a mutation of a BRCA gene, A small percentage of people –– one in 400, or 0.25 percent of the population –– carry mutated BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes, which increases the likelihood of developing both ovarian and breast cancer at a younger age.

The carrier of the mutated gene can also pass a gene mutation down to his or her offspring. Karen Youngerman opted to have a full hysterectomy in addition to another mastectomy.

Karen Youngerman began walking in the Susan G. Komen 3-Day walks in 2005, often wearing full camouflage in the spirit of fighting cancer, earning her and her friends the nickname the “Camo girls.”

Initially, Stephen Youngerman would drop her off at the starting line, cheering her on three days later at the finish line. To help find her amidst the crowd at the finish line, she would carry a red balloon adorned with “Mazel Tov.”

In 2011, when Karen was going through chemotherapy, Stephen took her place. The next year, they began walking together, and he has walked every year since.

In December 2016, the Youngman’s were planning a Panama Canal cruise to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary. Shortly before the trip, they received the worst possible news. The cancer was back for a third time, and she got a Stage 4 diagnosis. The cruise would be their last trip.

Karen Youngerman participated in her last 3-day walk on a Sunday in 2017 in a wheelchair, wearing an oxygen mask, cheering on Stephen and the other walkers. She was dressed in camouflage.

“It wore her out, but it made her happy,” he recalled.

This year, he will participate in seven walks around the country. He admits it may be extreme, but he believes it makes a big statement. To participate walkers must raise $2.3K for each walk.

For Youngerman, these walks are emotional, empowering and inspiring, joining together with survivors and the families and friends of loved ones lost to breast cancer. A positive way to channel grief. Some people have multiple names on their back of people of people of survivors as well as those who have died from the disease.

‘It’s referred to as a “pink bubble,’” says Youngerman. “There’s a feeling of comradery and of love. Everyone who is there has given a lot of themselves to do something to help fight cancer.”

For two nights, participants camp with the 3-Day community, just like sleepaway camp for grown-ups.

“We’ll provide the tents—you make them home. Refuel and recharge for the journey ahead with meals, hot showers and massage chairs. This will be unlike any other camping experience you’ve seen.”

The event culminates in a Closing Ceremony at The Ford Center at The Star celebrating everything you accomplished, remembering those we have lost, and honoring those who are in the fight of their lives.

“She never gave up hope,” says Youngerman. “She was always out there helping somebody else. The 3-day walks were my wife’s happy place.”

Breast Cancer Facts:

Breast Cancer Awareness & Research Organizations

What is Breast Cancer?

Breast cancer occurs when cells divide and grow without their normal control.Ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) occurs when the abnormal cells grow inside the milk ducts, but have not spread to nearby tissue. DCIS is a non-invasive breast cancer.Invasive breast cancer occurs when cancer cells spread to nearby tissue or other parts of the body.Invasive breast cancer that spreads beyond the breast and nearby lymph nodes to other parts of the body is called metastatic breast cancer.

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