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December 4, 2013
Louise Clark: Walking toward another victory
Almost exactly a year ago, Louise Clark was working one day on a freelance job for the Reporter, designing an advertisement for the Shelter Island 5K Run/Walk.
The weather was as serene as autumn can provide that morning, identical to most days this October. The Clark’s backyard, which rolls down and away from the house, was lit softly by the sun and a good crop of apples from trees lining the fence were ripe on the boughs.
A graphic artist, Louise was just putting the final touches on the ad for the 5K event, which supports breast cancer victims, when she got a phone call.
The irony was as cruel as it was inescapable. She was told she had breast cancer.
It would be one of many calls over the next year that she and her husband of 17 years, Keith, would dread answering for the news they might hear.
“The hardest part is waiting for phone calls,” Keith said, sitting with Louise at their dining room table one morning this week.
More irony: She had placed first in the race walking event at the 5K for the past seven years, boasting a personal best of 33 minutes. She was in perfect health, an athlete who could walk the legs off anyone who accompanied her on her long rambles around the Island.
It had all happened quickly. Early in the fall of 2012, feeling fine, with no lumps and no worries, Louise had gone for a regularly scheduled mammogram at Southampton Hospital. Something had been discovered, she was soon told. A biopsy was arranged and then the phone call came. She had a malignant growth in her breast.
The shock took an immediate toll. That afternoon Keith’s mother Barbara, known as Buzzy, who Louise is close to, was due for lunch. “I just ran up the stairs, I couldn’t take it,” Louise said. “I couldn’t tell her.”
But shock soon turned to action, she added, with the melody of Dublin’s speech clinging to her voice after two decades away.
“Let’s get down to business,” she told Keith.
His mind was dominated by a question, obvious and insistent: Will she survive? “But then you have a goal,” he said, and with a goal comes a course of action. And hope.
“You go from there,” he said.
Louise described her therapy in modest terms. “I had a simple lumpectomy,” she said. “It didn’t spread.”
She followed her doctor’s orders to the letter and started a chemotherapy and radiation program. “It wasn’t as bad as I’ve heard,” Louise said.
Keith smiled, and said, “It depends on the person.”
Louise has a close friend who had recently been diagnosed with cancer. “That’s what I tell her, that it isn’t so hard,” she said.
What eased the ordeal of the therapy, and more importantly, the feelings of uncertainty and fear, was the support she received. Her parents came from Ireland within a week of hearing the news to stay with them.
And she got letters from a girlhood friend from Dublin she had stayed close to over the years. “Mary Kennedy,” Louise said. “She’d send long, hand-written letters. She’d been through it.”
Solid support and love was also a bit closer to home. Louise described how she’d get up in the morning and find gifts at her front door. “Scarves, comforters …”, her voice caught just slightly as it trailed off.
She lost her hair. “That was tough,” she admitted. “It was long and blonde.”
But then another phone call came. After months of arduous therapy, she had come through. “It was on the first day of summer,” Louise said. “I was told it was all normal.”
“Or as normal as she gets,” Keith said, and they both laughed.
A city girl, Louise had walked everywhere in Dublin and never stopped when she got to the Island. “There are just so many beautiful places here,” she said.
She’s out almost every day, sometimes just for a stroll with her new puppy, Lucille, and wearing headphones, listening to downloaded programs from Raidió Teilifís Éireann, Ireland’s national broadcasting service, of “news, chat, sports,” she said. And sometimes she trains for the race walk, which leaves the puppy at home because she can’t take the pace.
Ann Clark, Louise’s sister-in-law, got her into race walking and is now mock angry with her, Louise said, since the student finishes ahead of her teacher every year in the 5K. Louise also participates in the spring “Avon Walk for Breast Cancer” in Boston, noting that Keith has been known to get emotional at that event.
“It’s an emotional scene,” he said. “Lots of drama with survivors. People helping people.”
“Like our 5K,” Louise said, adding that her father, Mick O’Regan, was coming from Ireland to walk with his daughter this Saturday.
Going outside to greet Lucille turned into a love fest as the puppy joyfully bounced from one person to another. Louise pointed to the trees along the fence, with the fruit shining red in the sun.
“We have a beautiful crop of apples this year,” she said.