April 16, 2013

Riding out the storm:
Avon couple faces down cancer in Chapel Hill


Twenty-three 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.

Claudia 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 need arose.

But in 2010, life on the beach for Claudia and Jan began to shift as the couple faced a number of daunting challenges.

That 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 storm.

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 Oncology.

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.

“Jan 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 home.”

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 dinner table.

“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 everyone.”

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.

Claudia 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.

“A person 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 traveling.

So far 2013 holds hope and celebration for the Laskow.

January 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 other countries.

(This 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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