April 16, 2013
Riding out the storm:
Avon couple faces down cancer in Chapel Hill
By PATRICIA McCARTHY
years ago, Pennsylvania natives Claudia Laskow and her husband, Jan,
kicked over the traces and chased their dream to live a life ruled by
the wind, tide, and shifting sands of Hatteras Island on North
Carolina’s Outer Banks.
“We always wanted to live at the beach
one day,” says Claudia, 58, of Avon. “We thought, why not try it sooner
than later and that’s what we did. We’ve never had a single regret
about our decision to move. The beach is home.”
The couple quickly became part of the fabric of the local community.
smiles broadly when she recalls, “I worked as a waitress for three
years at the Froggy Dog restaurant in Avon when we first moved. I met
the fishermen who came for breakfast before setting out to sea. I met
the summer people year after year and watched their families grow. I
knew what to order up for the regulars before they sat down. I settled
in and made friends for life.”
Jan joined the local volunteer
fire department and set up his business as a distributor of fire
protection equipment. Claudia earned her real estate license in 1992
and soon after began to work at Outer Beaches Realty. In all their
years in Avon, Claudia and Jan actively volunteered in support of
needed services in the community and in disaster relief whenever the
But in 2010, life on the beach for Claudia and Jan began to shift as the couple faced a number of daunting challenges.
Christmas, Jan had a severe heart attack that required medical
evacuation by air off the island for treatment. While he recovered and
returned to Avon and Claudia, eight months later crisis hit again in
the form of Hurricane Irene. The storm ravaged the coast and Outer
Banks of N.C., drawing Jan and Claudia into survival mode. The two were
among those who coordinated emergency services for the people and
animals who had remained on the battered barrier island during the
For a time, things seemed settled. But in August 2012,
sands shifted under their feet again when Claudia was diagnosed with
Stage II breast cancer.
Since then, Claudia has undergone three
surgeries and this April is completing her chemotherapy and radiation
treatments at the University of North Carolina Lineberger Comprehensive
Cancer Center at the N.C. Cancer Hospital, where she has been under the
care, guidance and support of her medical team -- Dr. Lisa Carey,
Division of Hematology and Oncology; Dr. Nancy DeMore, Division of
Surgical Oncology; and Dr. Timothy Zagar, Division of Radiation
Her treatment required her to stay in Chapel Hill
close to the hospital, and so nurse facilitator Linda Foster, who works
with the UNC Cancer Network in Dare County, referred Claudia to SECU
Family House at UNC Hospitals.
The 40-bedroom, craftsman-style
hospital hospitality house is nestled amid the pines just minutes from
UNC Hospitals and provides comfortable, convenient, and affordable
housing for seriously ill patients and their family members or
caregivers. Room rates are as low as $35 per night, and the House
raises funds to offer further discounted rates for families in greater
need of financial assistance.
Claudia remembers her husband’s first reaction to Family House.
knew at once that this was the place for me,” said Claudia. “It is safe
here. There is a community of supportive guests going through similar
health challenges, a caring staff and volunteer group, and a great
environment inside and out. It does become a kind of home away from
In addition to housing, guests at SECU Family House
benefit from the community groups that pitch in to prepare meals for
the house most weeknights, and the friendships that form over the
“The dinners cooked by volunteers are a Godsend,”
said Claudia. “We gather in the kitchen and dining area, serve
ourselves family style, then sit at table and talk about our day to one
another. This kind of sharing is an important part of life and being
here is like being a part of a big caring mixed bag of personalities –
just like family.”
A few times a month, too, musical or
performance acts provide evening entertainment, whether music, tap
dancing, juggling or magic acts.
The musical programs were a
particular surprise to Claudia. “Very talented people volunteer their
time to come here and perform for us in the evenings,” she said. “The
range of musical styles is broad enough to have something for
While community can heal, so can quiet solitude.
SECU Family House offers both. Claudia often sits outside alone in the
sun near a fountain behind the house, enjoying the warmth on her face.
She also finds comfort in tending to the house’s gardens, in pulling
spring weeds from the herb garden. She has brought several snippets
from her own garden in Avon to plant at Family House.
has discovered welcome, comfort, and kindness at Family House, and she
has given it back many times over to other guests she meets for
scheduled coffee breaks, to staff she buzzes on the phone to urge them
to join the “family” for dinner, and to the volunteers who always get a
smile and cheerful conversation as she passes by.
needs three things to succeed in life and to face its biggest
challenges,” says Claudia. “You need love, you need a community and you
need an operating system to get things done.”
In its own way,
SECU Family House aims to help meet these needs for a time and in a way
that eases a part of the journey toward healing that Claudia is
So far 2013 holds hope and celebration for the Laskow.
marked Claudia’s 20th year with Outer Beaches Realty, where she checks
in via Skype most Fridays to let the gang know she will be back. May 10
marks Claudia’s birthday, Jan’s birthday, and the 33rd
anniversary of their marriage. And, yes, if you ask them, they would do
all of it all over again.
On May 30, Claudia and Jan will meet
with her physicians and surgeons at UNC to review the results of all
the interventions and efforts to banish cancer from her body. All of
the lucky people who have come to experience Claudia’s spirit count on
her to remain optimistic, indefatigable, healthy and living on the
beach for decades to come.
Claudia’s supporters receive updates on her progress from a Facebook site set up by friends at www.facebook.com/Claudia’sPowPow.
Since the site launched, Claudia has been cheered and inspired by all
the old friends and new who have found her there and reached out to
her. Take a look and stay in touch.
For more information about SECU Family House, visit www.secufamilyhouse.org or contact [email protected].
Since opening in March 2008, SECU Family House has provided more than
120,000 guest stays, supporting more than 8,000 patients from all 100
of North Carolina’s counties, as well as 35 other states and seven
article is provided by SECU Family House in Chapel Hill, N.C. Pat
McCarthy is a journalist and a volunteer at the Family House.)
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