Karen Berube was born 63 years ago in Oak Bluffs. She lived with her family in Edgartown and moved to Vineyard Haven after second grade. It was a time when town pride reigned and you only traveled off-Island to pick out school clothes for next fall. Today, Karen lives in Edgartown with her husband of over 30 years, David. They both agree they were aware of each other in high school but didn’t connect until 1976. Their first date was a clamming trip and they married in 1982.
These days Karen travels from Edgartown to Boston once a week for chemotherapy. She likes the drive because it gives her some alone time. She’s had a lot of time to think as this latest round of chemo began a year ago this past March.
Karen found the first lump in her breast in 2004 when she was on a tennis trip by herself in Sarasota, Fla. A long-time tennis player, the game is one of the things she misses now.
“David hates to travel and I made this trip and had time to myself and I decided to give myself a self exam,” Karen remembered. “I found this lump and I just knew.” She came home, got a biopsy and within 24 hours it was diagnosed as cancer.
Karen had three surgeries, chemotherapy in Boston and also made 28 Angel Flights to Hyannis for radiation treatments. Angel Flight, Inc. is a charitable organization of pilots, volunteers and friends who arrange free air transportation for medically-related needs.
“And then she would come home the same day and go oystering,” David said. “Her hair was just growing back as she did it, but she did it.”
Her oncologist posted a newspaper clipping of Karen shellfishing while going through chemo to inspire the rest of his patients.
“It hurts, you know, when your hair falls out the first time,” Karen explained. “Your hair follicles hurt. I was 54 then, and then about a year later I had a recurrence at the surgery site so then there was another surgery, a mastectomy and then more radiation.”
This Saturday, April 13, there will be a fundraiser for the Berubes to help with medical expenses and lost income due to cancer. The event begins at 5 p.m. and will be held at the P.A. Club, located at 137 Vineyard avenue in Oak Bluffs. Tickets are $20.
Karen underwent 25 more radiation treatments in 2006 and continued to have check-ups afterwards. The prognosis was looking good until she had a difficult bout of pneumonia a few winters ago that left her weaker and nervous that something wasn’t quite right. Because of all the radiation and the resulting accumulated scar tissue, it wasn’t easy to get a clear X-ray during her pneumonia. The next winter Karen thought she might be getting pneumonia again. The X-ray revealed the cancer was back and had metastasized.
David explained that since Karen’s cancer has metastasized — now stage four triple negative breast cancer — she has gone through a couple of clinical trials but was pulled off of both. Her cancer is a difficult one to treat.
“Not a lot of research has been done and they just don’t know what will work,” Karen said.
Karen is weak these days and needs rest, but that doesn’t stop her and David from waking up at 3 a.m. every morning to meet the Patriot boat at the dock in Oak Bluffs so they can deliver newspapers around Edgartown and Oak Bluffs. On chemo days, Karen delivers the papers first and then drives herself to Boston for treatments.
Last summer Karen worked at the Beach Plum Inn in addition to delivering the newspapers with David. She has had to ease back on this schedule now and the result has had an impact on the couple’s livelihood. They will most likely have to give up the newspaper delivery job, but Karen is determined to pick up a new job to replace that income despite her condition. Karen’s friends are not surprised by her tenacity. It’s the way she’s always been.
Susan Towne Gilbert has known Karen since they were 12 years old. Susan’s grandfather owned the Mansion House in Vineyard Haven and Susan visited each summer. She transferred to the Vineyard her freshman year and the two girls became inseparable.
“Either she was sleeping at my house or I was sleeping at her house,” Susan said in a phone interview from her office in Boston. “Our wardrobes were interchangeable.”
Susan explained that at some point all of Karen’s siblings worked at the Mansion House and the two families were close. She said she saw an old photo of Karen’s first grade class on Facebook the other day. “She’s the only one with a great big smile,” Susan said. “All the other kids look terrified. I think she’s no less positive now. She accepts all this with grace, and I think with some spirituality.”
Karen stays with Susan and her husband Bob if her chemo treatments are early in the morning and she has to arrange to be in Boston the night before. Susan is not surprised at Karen’s insistence on working. “We’ve been working since we were 13 years old,” Susan said. “The first time I ever went out to dinner with my own money I was with Karen.”
Many Islanders may know Karen from her years of waitressing at the Square Rigger or Home Port. She and David have been shellfishing since the beginning of their relationship. Karen wasn’t able to go scalloping with David at all this past season, which meant a half-sized harvest every time he went out. She did manage to shuck a few times, though.
“I probably did about three bushels all season this year,” Karen said. “I used to do that in a day.”
“Karen generally goes scalloping until the beginning of January, sometimes longer,” David said. “One particularly good year she stuck it out until the middle of February.”
This season David had to pay someone to shuck for him. Karen’s body now requires that she stop lifting and start finding more opportunities for resting. “After we get done with the papers now, I rest and I might meet somebody for breakfast or lunch and then maybe my support group or acupuncture,” Karen said. “It feels like a lot to do. I think I might stop the paper route while I still have some energy and I can do some things I’d like to do.”
Karen and David said they are grateful to the community for the opportunity to be part of the fundraiser taking place this weekend. They could certainly use the help, David said. He also explained that a group of family and friends prepare meals for them a few days a week and they appreciate the generosity. Their friend Susan said the couple is private and would be considered “typical stoic New Englanders.” But, she said, Karen is the most genuinely generous person she knows.
“It’s time for the caregiver to be on the receiving end.”
The Karen Berube fundraiser begins at 5 p.m. on Saturday, April 13, at the P.A. Club in Oak Bluffs. There will be a lasagna dinner, silent and “loud” auctions, and live music. Tickets are $20 and all the proceeds, facilitated by the You’ve Got a Friend organization, will go to help the Berubes. Anyone interested is also invited to send a tax deductible donation to You’ve Got a Friend, PO Box 1317, West Tisbury, 02575, or call 508-693-7733. Be sure to write “Karen Berube” on the memo line.
The Martha’s Vineyard Cancer Support Group meets Wednesdays at noon at the Hebrew Center in Vineyard Haven. Call 508-627-7958 or 508-693-8296. Financial assistance is available for Island cancer patients.
The Breast Cancer Support Group meets on the third Wednesday of each month at 6 p.m. at 83 Seaview avenue in Oak Bluffs. Call 508-696-6412.