Editor’s note: This story was originally published on Omaha.com
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By Jay Withrow
WORLD-HERALD STAFF WRITER
The only thing missing, rocker Bruce Springsteen might suggest, is a pink Cadillac.
Omahan Karen Kruse’s front yard near 52nd and Blondo Streets isn’t just a vision in pink. It’s an almost year-round tribute to the color that has become a key part of breast cancer awareness during the month of October.
“I call it my survivors’ garden,” she said. “I did the (flower) garden for all those (breast cancer survivors) out there.”
Kruse, 48, began the garden of pink (mums, daisies, roses, tulips, impatiens, zinnias, hydrangeas and an assortment of others) for herself after she was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer on June 1, 2009.
“I went into shock,” said Kruse, who was a single mother at the time. “My first thought was my son,” Jackson, who was 14.
In May 2009, she felt a lump while gardening when she bent over and her left arm brushed against her breast.
“And I had just gotten a clean mammogram in January,” Kruse said, who added that her family has no history of breast cancer.
She underwent a double mastectomy and began several rounds of chemotherapy about three weeks later. She eventually had breast reconstruction. She said the treatments had her bedridden at times and suffering from a “hard-to-describe” flu-like feeling that left her bones hurting.
“I lost everything … my hair, eyelashes, eyebrows, everything,” she said of the effects of chemo.
She also lost 14 lymph nodes, causing lymphedema in her left arm that led to a buildup of fluids, which requires her to participate in physical therapy and to wear a compression sleeve … pink, of course.
“I had to wrap my brain around it (treatments),” Kruse said. “I had to believe that chemo was my friend.”
She and some friends shaved her head in her backyard before chemo could take all her hair.
“I called it my G.I. Jane look. We had to make this fun. You have to,” Kruse said.
She also started dressing in pink, practically head to toe, and got three pink tattoos: a breast cancer ribbon on the inside of her right wrist, a cursive “Hope” on her left foot and “Fight Like a Girl” on her right shoulder.
“That was my whole mantra,” she said of the words on the shoulder.
Kruse praised the doctors and nurses and Methodist Hospital’s Estabrook Cancer Center, and her support system of family and friends.
Doctors have said she is cancer-free. She’s down to just blood tests every four months and a regimen of Tamoxifen, which is used to lower a woman’s risk of redeveloping breast cancer.
“The whole experience was a life-changer for me,” she said. “It wakes you up. It make you appreciate little things in life. I was very lucky,” she said.
“I’m proud of my story. I’m proud that I’m a survivor,” she said. “I don’t think I’d change anything if I could.”
One year after her diagnosis, she married longtime friend Mark Hathoot, 43. And she started her victory garden of sorts a month later, on July 1, 2010.
The garden of pink doesn’t stop at just plants. Her front yard also includes a pink recycling bin, pink flower pots and garden signs with the pink breast cancer ribbon, and pink solar garden lights, pink garden art and a pink porch light.
“Everybody loves it,” she said. Passers-by anonymously leave pink plants and planters with notes of encouragement.
In October, son Jackson, who just turned 18, will don some pink items. And the family dog, a Shih Tzu named Sophie, wears a pink collar.
Recently, Kruse was in the front yard of her tidy, quaint brick home. She was decked out in her favorite color: Pink and black shorts, a pink tank top and pink flip-flops, pink toenails and fingernails, a pink bracelet and ring and even pink lip gloss.
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