Age: 47 Mom of: Adam 17, Lina 15, Rayan 12 and Darin 9 Occupation: CEO of Chaoui Family and business manager for Boston Diagnostics
By Carrie Wattu
Newly diagnosed with breast cancer at age 45, Carol Chaoui, an avid runner since high school, went on a 3-mile stress relief jog in her hometown of Wellesley. As she approached the intersection of 135 and Weston Road, an unexpected sea of pink headed toward her, hundreds of walkers participating in the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Walk.
Carol stopped, breaking down as she opened up to the women about her diagnosis. Total strangers hugged her and wished her good luck.
“That was the way my breast cancer story started,” she says about that powerful day two years ago.
Thereafter, a MRI revealed a 5-centimeter tumor the size of a tennis ball in her left breast, another smaller tumor and cancerous breast tissue. A month later, Carol had a mastectomy to treat Stage 3 breast cancer.
About a month after surgery, Carol returned to slow jogs, and a week after completing her first of eight chemotherapy treatments, she signed up for her first post-diagnosis race (a 5K): The Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure. Carol’s return to racing was a relief and comfort to her four children, a sign that their mom was going to be OK.
Carol signed up online in the survivor division, but questioned, despite persevering through a mastectomy and four months of chemo every other week, “Am I really a survivor yet?” When she wrote about this on her Lotsa Helping Hands website, a friend commented, “You are a survivor the day you are diagnosed.”
Seven weeks of radiation followed the four months of chemotherapy. During this time, Carol and her husband, Dr. Amin Chaoui of Faulkner Hospital’s Department of Radiology, ran a half marathon together in Quincy. And they were just getting warmed up…
With her family’s support, three weeks after radiation ended, Carol and her husband ran the 2010 Boston Marathon. Carol wore a racing jersey that read, “I am the cure” in pink on the back.
At Mile 15, Carol’s feet went numb, a side effect of her chemotherapy medications. “I went smack down and was bleeding,” she says.
Before cancer, she had dropped out of marathons because of injuries, but not this time.
“I said, ‘I have to get up and finish this marathon,’” Carol recalls.
And she did, injured, bleeding and having lost 15 minutes of race time. Still, Carol finished in an admirable 4 hours and one minute, an excellent time for runners in top shape never mind a runner who is injured and battling cancer.
In fact, Carol has placed in her age group in most races she has run since her breast cancer diagnosis.
Her son Darin wrote about cheering on his mom in Boston: “She kissed me on the head. She was sweaty and fast!!! She was doing great for someone who had cancer.”
After completing her “active” treatments of chemo and radiation, the marathon was a victory. Yet Carol considers her most difficult challenge after active treatments not running 26.2 miles but adjusting to what is known as the “new normal,” getting used to the side effects of the tamoxifen. Carol also had surgeries in October and December of 2010 as well as in January and June of 2011. This meant almost 8 months without running.
Today, Carol faces two more reconstructive surgeries because of tissue damage due to radiation as well as ten years of medication and follow-up doctor appointments every six months.
Still, Carol says, “I feel good and have made an amazing group of friends throughout the journey.. I definitely feel, like many others, that my cancer has been a gift and that I have really been able to find the silver lining in the dark cloud of cancer.”
Since April 2010, along with a team of four women and her husband, Carol has helped to raise $80,000 for the Breast Health Care Access Program at the Faulkner Hospital Sagoff Centre, which provides mammograms and follow-up cancer care, including chemotherapy to women who are uninsured or underinsured.
Carol also helps women diagnosed with breast cancer in other ways: listening, going for a walk, helping them select a team of doctors, preparing a “cancer care” gift basket…
Cancer has changed Carol from a competitive runner to a philanthropic one. “I know that because of the residual side effects of chemotherapy, radiation and multiple surgeries, I will not be out there racing to win. I am content just being able to go out for a run and if along the way, I can inspire others to exercise throughout treatments, then all the better.”
“This,” says Carol, “is a much sweeter victory.”
Take 10 with Carol
Three words to describe my family: caring, very family oriented, strong and of course, very silly at times.
Best part of my day: when I go for a run. It is the only time to myself and I can reflect upon what I have been through and also helps me to clear my head and organize my life. When I was going through treatments, it was also the time when I would cry if I felt I needed to do so.
We love going to: Crane Beach, walks around Lake Waban (Thanksgiving Day tradition), Boston for an urban adventure
What makes me a better mom: taking time to listen to my children, doing activities with them, making sure we have at least one meal a day together
Current family obsessions: running (my kids were devastated that my husband and I did not run the Boston Marathon this year), watching movies together, barbecues
Best things about the town where I am raising my children: great schools. We live in the center of town so we can walk everywhere, great pizzerias and ice cream/frozen yogurt shops!
People may be surprised to know: that I did not run my first marathon until the age of 41
An inspiring parent I know: Theresa Keresztes. I saw her poster for her skincare cream [mygirlscream.com] while doing a jog in Wellesley just after I started radiation treatment. She is a Wellesley mom, a breast cancer survivor and wonderful mother to two children. Her cream saved my skin while undergoing treatments and I still use it today. She is so funny and generous and really encourages me to stay positive and active.
The best thing others can do to support a mom battling breast cancer: Offer to help with rides to treatments, meals, etc. Set up a community website but be respectful of the need for rest and alone time. Be positive!
Cancer affected my children: My youngest watched me get a shot 24 hours after each chemo treatment in my stomach. My youngest wanted to do it after watching my husband. He really wanted to take part. I took him to my last radiation treatment. The teenagers were scared and nervous and didn’t want to discuss it. They were stressed worrying about it. They have more access with the Internet, and with Stage 3 breast cancer, the prognosis doesn’t look great.
How I reassured my children: What was reassuring is that I was home every day cooking, cleaning, driving and going to school functions and most importantly running and going to races.
I wished I would have: In retrospect, I wish we had used a social worker. We are fairly open as a family but when something like this happens, you don’t realize that the teens are going to clam up. Even if you have a good prognosis and are healthy and doing well, the teenagers are at a selfish age and something like this is hard to deal with.
My marathons: I ran 7 marathons before my diagnosis and since the doctors estimate that I was living with my cancer for about 4 – 5 years, most likely all 7 of these marathons were run with some stage of breast cancer.
What I would like others to know and understand about breast cancer: that breast cancer as a disease and as an experience for each woman is different. We are not statistics. Screening is essential for early detection; you should be your own best advocate. If you feel something, say something!
Feelings about the Think Pink Movement: It’s amazing that a grassroots effort turned into something so big. If it can help raise awareness and encourage others to get screened and find a cure, then all the better. The pink ribbon is the symbol of hope and solidarity for breast cancer patients and survivors, and it is a symbol that has helped to raise awareness and to raise money for education and research.
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