BY JACLYN ROSE –
Karen Larson grew up in Minnesota and completed her Bachelor’s Degree in Elementary Education before moving to Colorado, where she met her husband, Michael Thompson. The couple married and had two children, Christopher Thompson and Annika Thompson, and lived in Houston and Detroit before Michael was hired by Brodix and moved to Mena. While their children were young, Larson and her husband opted for Karen to stay at home with their children until they were both old enough to enter school. At that point, Larson began subbing for Mena Public Schools and a couple years later was hired as a seventh grade math teacher at Mena Middle School. “I enjoy watching my children turn into the people they are going to be, and watching them as they become their own individual people. I think back on all the stages we have gone through and have left behind and I really enjoy each new stage that comes along,” said Larson.
In the spring of 2014, Larson went in for a routine mammogram and was given a clean bill of health, but by that summer she knew something was wrong. Larson met with her doctor who quickly confirmed her concerns and she was immediately sent to UAMS in Little Rock and a week later received a cancer diagnosis; two weeks later, on the last day of July, she began chemotherapy. Knowing that she would be traveling to Little Rock every other Friday for treatment, Larson explained to her students on the first day of school that she would be receiving treatments and that they would watch her lose her hair. “That afternoon, I watched the custodian as he swept up a pile of hair that I had started to lose and on the second day of school I shaved my head. The third day of school I showed up and all my colleagues were wearing scarves. That was the start of ‘Turban Tuesday,’” explained Larson.
For the 2014-2015 school year, every Tuesday was ‘Turban Tuesday’ at Mena Middle School and students could pay one dollar to wear a scarf. This money was donated to Larson to assist in her traveling expenses back and forth to UAMS in Little Rock. Mena Middle School did not stop there, though, and each grade had a competition against the other grades. Whichever grade raised $500 first could choose out of five faculty member volunteers to shave their head. The five volunteers were, Principal Hobson, Coach Johnson, Coach Alexander, Tish Cox, and Elizabeth Thompkins. Both 6th and 8th grades met their goal before Christmas and chose Principal Hobson and Ms. Cox to have their heads. In the spring, Coach Alexander, Coach Johnson, and a newly recruited Mr. Sherrer all shaved their heads. “There is so much good that came out of the cancer, it reinforced how good the people I work with are, not only as teachers, but as people. When I gave Mr. Hobson my diagnosis, he told me to do what I needed to do and that they would be here for me. Patty Pate stepped up as my personal substitute and was there for every appointment, which was a Godsend, because I knew my kids were still learning math and they were able to get to know Patty and be comfortable with her. That group of kids will always have a place in my heart, they are a good group of kids,” explained Larson.
The support for Larson and her family did not end with her colleagues and students at Mena Middle School, but extended to her husband’s employer, Brodix, as well as her church family at Grace Bible in Mena. “My husband’s work really rallied behind him and allowed him to be with me anytime he needed to be. I had to do radiation for six weeks last winter and they were really open to him being a single parent during that time, they were really good to us. My church family was amazing. The women of the church brought meals for my family on chemo nights and they also did a lot of cooking for my family during my radiation treatments. They also said lots of prayers. There are some real prayer warriors in that church and they continue to pray for me,” Larson said.
Larson had her one-year follow up appointment this summer, where she learned that her prognosis is excellent. “Being a survivor is different, when you get your diagnosis and treatment plan you go into ‘Warrior Mode’ and fight, and then when you’re done you are just kind of like, ‘now what?’ I asked my doctor that question and she said, ‘now you live your life,’” said Larson.
“I am a pretty private person but I know that this isn’t my story, this is God’s. His grace and mercy is what got me through it and it’s amazing what He has done for me. You go through life thinking that you are in control but cancer taught me that I was not in control, that is a farce, while you are going through it cancer is in control, but God is in control of cancer,” Larson said.