“Those are the grandchildren from Florida —you can tell they weren’t happy about that picture— and there’s one of my paintings — I sold it — and these are the Christmas stockings I made,” Karin, 63, smiles as she scrolls through photos on her husband David’s smartphone.
“That’s our son’s wedding; I had hair in that picture,” David, 76, chuckles, flipping to an old photo of the couple then to a more recent picture camping with the Southern Appalachian Chapter of Tear Jerkers, an international club of tiny travel trailer aficionados. “… And there’s a none too flattering shot of my chubby belly.”
“He’s lost more than 20 pounds in the last year,” Karin pipes up in his defense.
Karin and David Driver are sitting across the table at the Patient Resource Center, having just come from clinic appointments.
They’re sharing a glimpse of their everyday life outside the walls of Duke Cancer Center and opening up about their journey here. Karin is a melanoma survivor and David is in treatment for stage 4 prostate cancer.
The Drivers, western-New Yorkers who had lived and worked in Florida for 26 years, moved to Kittrell, North Carolina, in 2005 for “a change of scenery.” After Karin was accosted on her way to make the New Year’s Day store deposit for the Dollar Tree (where she was assistant manager), they’d had enough.
In 2010 their lives took another unexpected detour.
The retirees had just bought a vintage ’67 Yellowstone camper and prepared to refurbish it — an early 30th wedding anniversary present to themselves.
“We planned to get out and do more camping,” recalls Karin, the social director for their Tearjerkers chapter, “but on the day of our anniversary, David found out he had stage 4 prostate cancer.”
As medical bills mounted, they put off fixing up the Yellowstone and sold their teardrop trailer.
Karin is wearing an orange inspirational t-shirt referencing Joshua 1:9; the words “Be Brave, Strong, Fearless” peeking out from her grey blazer.
One day, late last year, Karin the caregiver became, also, Karin the patient; an unexpected double whammy.
“I woke up one morning and my back was itching, driving me nuts,” shares Karin, recalling that day.
Handicapped by a frozen shoulder, she said she managed catch the tip of the bothersome spot, felt instant relief, and got ready to go Christmas shopping with her son.
When the two returned home later, she took off her coat and her son exclaimed, “Mom, your back, it’s full of blood.”
Shaken, she had turned to her husband David and asked him to lift up her shirt and take a look. He snapped a photo of what appeared to be the source — a protruding dime-size black mole — then told her, “I don’t like the looks of that. You’d better call your doctor.”
After six weeks, she finally got on her local doctor’s schedule. He said the mole didn’t look “really bad,” but that it needed to be removed immediately and sent to the lab.
“I ended up going home with 10 stitches,” remembers Karin. “I joke that they used a melon baller to dig it out.”
Three weeks later the results came in — melanoma stage 1 b.
“I knew stage 1 is a good thing and that the margins were clear, and there was no further treatment needed, so I didn't totally freak out, but I just had a nagging gut feeling that something wasn't right,” she says.
At David’s next oncology appointment with Duke Cancer Network oncologist David Mack, MD, at Maria Parham Cancer Center in Henderson, Karin asked the nurse in his office, whom she’d befriended, to give her scar a second look, just to be safe. The nurse, warning that a neighbor had died of melanoma, also had Mack check it out.
“Dr. Mack said, “Oh, no, that scar isn’t near big enough; there needs to be a bigger margin and your doctor should have also checked some of your lymph nodes,”” recalls Karin. “He told me melanoma goes deep so it’s kind of a silent killer. My head was spinning, everything was going so fast. I hadn’t felt any pain and had no other signs.”
Melanoma skin cancer cases represent only about one percent of all skin cancers, but they cause a large majority of skin cancer deaths. While 10 % of all people with melanoma have a family history of the disease, a well-known risk factor for melanoma is too much exposure to ultraviolet rays from the sun, tanning beds and sun lamps. Those with light colored hair, blue or green eyes, multiple moles, and/or fair skin that freckles or burns easily are at increased risk. Age adds to the risk.
Karin has reddish-blond hair and a fair complexion. She’s covered in freckles and has quite a few moles.
“She’s moley,” David affectionately ribs her.
Though she loves the outdoors, Karin’s not what she’d call a sun worshipper. She applies plenty of sunscreen and wears hats.
Growing up in the Finger Lakes area of New York State, however, she wasn’t so careful.
“We used to put nickels, pennies, quarters on our arms, then lay out in the sun, then remove them later to see how much of a tan or burn we got…The things we did when we were younger,” says Karin, shaking her head.
Karin counts herself fortunate to have been referred to Duke melanoma specialist, surgical oncologist Georgia Beasley, MD, MHS, before her cancer spread.
“Dr. Mack said, “She’s excellent, knows what she’s doing and is an expert in her field, and I feel very confident in sending you to her,” recalls Karin, grateful of the referral from David’s oncologist.
On February 19 of this year, Beasley removed more tissue from the scar area as well as four suspicious looking lymph nodes from under her arms.
“Everything came back clear,” says Karin. “Dr. Beasley was thrilled to death. We were relieved and really thankful. I've got to stay strong because David is more important at this point.”
David, unfortunately, didn’t see a doctor for his cancer until very late, she explains, turning to David.
“He was a typical man,” she says.
“Doctors are for wimps,” says David, who worked as a mechanical designer for Teleflex Marine, then as a teak installer for Chris-Craft Boats in Florida before retiring in 2003. “I never went to the doctor. I’ve been really healthy most of my life. I’ve never had to deal with doctors much until lately.”
He’d ignored abnormal bleeding for more than a year, believing that he’d developed kidney stones. He waited for them to pass.
One morning, Karin says, she found him laying across a footstool to get comfortable. She forced him to see a doctor.
“I wasn’t happy about it,” grins David.
Nine years later, David’s prostate cancer is now in the lymph nodes under his arm and in his groin and he has some suspicious looking spots in his lungs. Duke Cancer Institute medical oncologist Tian Zhang, MD, who’s consulted on David’s case, said for the moment he’s responding to a new targeted therapy regimen prescribed by Mack.
“We’re just waiting and praying,” says Karin. “It’s been really hard to absorb everything, for me anyway. We thank God that, you know, he's still here.”
Karin and David say they’re beyond grateful to still be able to enjoy camping weekends with their friends. Karin sometimes brings her knitting, crocheting and sewing projects along and David “plays at his guitar” when he can.
Two years ago, a fellow Tear Jerker offered to gut the moldy insides of their Yellowstone camper, completely refurbish it, and make it more accessible to get in and out of as David doesn’t have the range of mobility he used to. Donations from other camping friends poured in for the rebuild that would also accommodate Dave’s mobility limitations. When it was complete the “sponsors” etched their names on the inside of one of the cabinets. The Drivers were touched.
Over the years they’ve learned to lean on family, friends, neighbors, and their pastor for emotional and sometimes logistical help and have recently taken advantage of the patient and caregiver support services at Duke Cancer Institute.
“At Duke, they want you to have the fullest life that you can possibly have, in spite of this curve that you've been thrown,” says Karin. “I'm tough, I'm determined..... and I'm thankful to be alive!”
“Life moves a little slower on teardrop time,” is the national motto for the Tear Jerkers. If only time, the Drivers wish, could stand still.
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CIRCLE PHOTO (TOP): Karin Driver (second from right) with her supportive camping friends.