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A survivor’s story

Valencia woman shares her tale of breast-cancer survival

Posted: October 7, 2011 1:55 a.m.
Updated: October 7, 2011 1:55 a.m.

Barbara Larson sports pink ribbon earrings in honor of breast cancer awareness.

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Barbara Larson was getting ready for bed when she felt it, a grape-sized lump near her left breast.

The next morning, Larson went for a mammogram. The following day, she had a biopsy. Within a few more days came a diagnosis: Larson had breast cancer, between stages 2 and 3.

“The initial shock was devastating. I didn’t know where to turn. There were so many things going through my head,” Larson said. “Just the thought of having breast cancer was very emotional and scary for me and my family.”

That was 2006. Today, Larson is celebrating five years cancer-free, and has been named the 2011 Henry Mayo Health Foundation Breast Cancer Awareness Spokeswoman. 

Larson, a real-estate agent who lives in Valencia, will speak to Santa Clarita Valley women throughout the month of October about her experiences. Her first appearance was at the annual Bras for a Cause event on Sunday, Oct. 2 at Valencia’s The Oaks Grille at Tournament Players Club.

“It’s such an honor to do this, and I’m enjoying it so much,” Larson said. “Many women have come up to me to tell me I’m an inspiration and that they really appreciated my incredible journey.”

Like most women who are diagnosed with breast cancer, approximately 70 to 80 percent, according to the American Cancer Society, Larson didn’t have a history of the disease in the family.

She’s grateful for taking her lump seriously, especially after discovering the cancer had spread to three lymph nodes during her single mastectomy surgery in October 2006.

“That’s the thing about this disease, it moves quickly. I’m glad I got in the Sheila R. Veloz Breast Imaging Center so quickly. Early detection is key; that’s why mammograms are so important,” Larson said.

Following the mastectomy, Larson received a combination of chemotherapy and radiation. The former caused her hair to fall out in clumps. She had acquired a wig in advance for the occasion, but felt sad about it all the same.

When she was almost bald, Larson’s husband, Ken, an environmental sales manager, took Larson to the bathroom for a short haircut, then a shave down to the scalp.

“I was looking in the mirror, with tears streaming down my face,” Larson recalled. “I said, ‘I look so ugly,’ and Ken said, ‘No, you don’t. You look beautiful.’”

That kind of love and support got Larson through her toughest times.

“I have to credit my doctors, family and friends for keeping my spirits high. Through faith, prayer and the love of my husband, who is my biggest cheerleader, I was able to overcome a lot of challenges,” she said.

After she finished chemotherapy, Larson went back to work and, amazingly, managed to stay working in the process of receiving radiation, an ability she credits to her medical team at Henry Mayo Newhall Memorial Hospital in Valencia.

“I was so fortunate, all the medication they gave me was just the perfect combination,” Larson said. “There were days I was tired, but I never missed work.”

She finally did miss a few days when, two weeks following her chemo, Larson was admitted to Henry Mayo’s emergency room with acute appendicitis, for which she received an emergency appendectomy.

Months later, Larson underwent breast-reconstruction surgery and was happy with the results. “It’s amazing what they can do with all the modern technologies out there now,” she said.

In the summer of 2008, however, another health issue developed when Larson underwent open-heart surgery to repair a valve.

During a follow-up breast-cancer visit in August 2009, Larson was dealt yet another physical blow.

Her physician, suspecting something unrelated was awry with Larson, ordered an MRI. The test revealed Larson had an aneurysm on her heart, requiring a second open-heart surgery.

“If that aneurysm hadn’t been discovered, I probably wouldn’t be here to tell my story,” Larson said. “Between the cancer, the surgeries and appendectomy, and chemo and radiation, it was a pretty challenging three years of my life.”

The best thing about having breast cancer, Larson noted, was that it drew her closer to her faith, friends and family.

“I can’t stress how important that is,” she said. “With all the things going through your mind, you need a close person, husband, family member or friend to get you through it, which I had.”

Even in her darkest moments, Larson continued to find inspiration and strength. She even decided to give back to the hospital she credited with saving her life by becoming a member of the Henry Mayo Holiday Home Tour League, which raises funds for the hospital’s women’s services unit.

“After my experiences, I wanted to do something, anything, to help other women. Last year, the home tour raised about $25,000 for the neonatal intensive care unit, which is being built now,” Larson said proudly.

While the impact she’ll have as a volunteer speaker isn’t as tangible, Larson has high hopes that her contributions will make a difference for other women with breast cancer in the community.

“My motto is, ‘Keep a positive attitude, and never give up, because life is not over by any means,’” she said. “Just by working together, I’m certain we can find a cure for this dreadful disease.”

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