Claudia Laskow: A Sense of Humor Carries the Day

A Dare County real estate agent refuses to let a breast cancer diagnosis and its treatment detract from her trademark sense of humor and constant outreach to others.

Claudia Laskow:  A Sense of Humor Carries the Day
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Claudia Laskow, at left, and her husband, Jan.

Media contact: Tom Hughes, (919) 966-6047, tahughes@unch.unc.edu

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Written by Elizabeth Swaringen for UNC Health Care

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Claudia Laskow has never been a shrinking violet.  A breast cancer diagnosis and its treatment didn’t change that.

“No one is a stranger to Claudia,” said Jan, 58, her husband of nearly 33 years, who was hooked when they met in eighth grade.  “If they don’t know her, they want to know her.”

“I’m just a social worker at heart who knows a sense of humor helps any situation,” said Claudia, 58, who holds a masters degree in social work and is a real estate agent in “the Village of Avon, on the Island of Hatteras, in the County of Dare.”

The Doylestown, Pa., natives moved to the Outer Banks in 1989 after falling in love with the surf and sand they enjoyed over many camping and fishing vacations.  “We call ourselves long-time transients, but we’re here to stay,” said Jan, who runs a fire safety business and is assistant chief of the Avon Volunteer Fire Department.  

Jan found the lump in Claudia’s left breast last July 4. Lumpectomy results revealed Stage II-B breast cancer and her family doctor — and family friend — Bentley Crabtree, MD, referred Claudia to UNC Hospitals.  

“I know it’s where I’m supposed to be,” Claudia said.  “Even before the diagnosis was confirmed, Jan’s brother who is on the board of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center told us if I did have breast cancer I had to get to Lisa Carey at UNC Hospitals.  Before we could ask for her by name, the referral was made, and she’s my medical oncologist.  I’ve always believed things happen for a reason.”

Day One at UNC Hospitals was long, but good, Claudia said.  It involved a full-day of meetings with key members of the multidisciplinary team that would be taking care of her through surgery, two separate chemotherapy regimens, radiation and the follow-up endocrine therapy.  It’s the multidisciplinary patient-centered care for which UNC Health Care is known.

“We know our approach asks a lot of patients, and it can be overwhelming,” said Dr. Carey, the Richardson and Marilyn Jacobs Preyer Distinguished Professor for Breast Cancer Research, Division Chief of Hematology and Oncology, and Physician-in-Chief, of the North Carolina Cancer Hospital. “Depending on the diagnosis, there can be up to six groups of physicians involved.

“The good news is we talk to patients about the value of the multidisciplinary decision making, how lots of decisions have to be made at the beginning about what is going to happen and in what order,” Dr. Carey said. “We have patient navigators to help with scheduling, questions and interpretations, and every patient gets a written plan.

“It’s always about what’s the optimal way of getting our patients through their treatment and giving them what they need, including the needs outside of the treatment. Our care is tailored to meet the needs of each individual patient.”

And that’s what Claudia — and Jan — felt and appreciated throughout the journey.

“We can’t say enough good things about everyone we’ve interacted with while in Chapel Hill,” Jan said.  “From the parking attendants and receptionists to Claudia’s doctors, they all really care about patients.  They’ve got a good thing going.”

Part of that good thing going was referring Claudia to SECU Family House, a 40-bedroom hospital hospitality house minutes from UNC Hospitals that provides comfortable, convenient and affordable housing for seriously ill adult patients and their family member caregivers.

Claudia stayed there Sunday nights through early Friday mornings while she had six weeks of radiation that wrapped up on April 8.

“I had to drive home for weekends to see my sweetie, be near the water, sleep in my own bed and sit on my own toilet,” Claudia said.  “As wonderful as Family House is, there’s no place like home.”

But Family House was the ideal location for the former social worker to thrive.

“She could not have gotten the socialization she needed by herself in a hotel room,” said Jan. “She was able to help other patients—often just by listening and making them laugh — and probably gave way more than she got.  But no one was keeping score.”

A born outdoorswoman, Claudia took it upon herself to maintain the herb garden at Family House.  She brought her own clippers from home, bundled clippings for fellow residents and volunteers to take home to start/add to their own gardens and made lists of what additional herbs would round out the garden’s bounty.  

“It was pure therapy,” Claudia said.  “If I can’t put my toes in the water, let me have my hands in the dirt.  Besides, I was finished with my radiation every day before most people were up and moving.  How else was I going to spend my day?  I could only be on my computer for so long.”

By her own admission, the chemotherapy kicked her butt.

“I let the nausea and other side effects get the upper hand,” she said. “They have anti-nausea medicine for a reason.  If they tell you to take it, you should.”

“We encourage patients to be honest and tell us when they feel bad,” Dr. Carey said.  “It’s our job to make them feel better, but it’s a collaborative approach. Being stoic is not realistic or appropriate.”  

Despite some rough days, humor prevailed.  

After losing her hair to chemotherapy — and Jan shaved his head in solidarity — Claudia sported seasonally appropriate hats and caps.  She fashioned “costumes” for the chemotherapy infusion poles, the most memorable including a turkey hat for Thanksgiving.  

Then there was the pink tutu and pink boxing gloves she donned her last day of chemotherapy, with the tutu reprising its role when Claudia rang the gong marking the completion of radiation.

“I don’t normally ‘do pink’ but with breast cancer, I had to make an exception,” Claudia said, pondering the possibility of a celebratory bonfire on the beach once she finishes all treatment and gets the word that her otherwise healthy body is cancer-free.  Of course, the fire would be fueled by all the pink she’s ever worn.

“Claudia has done an amazing job, absolutely doing her part every step of the way,” Dr. Carey said.  “As far as we can tell, her treatment has done what it’s supposed to do.  Now we wait and pray, and hope it doesn’t come back.”

For now, Claudia and Jan are relishing getting back to their routine, just in time for the high season to crank up at the beach.  They will celebrate their 59th birthdays AND their 33rd wedding anniversary on May 10.  Two fish blissfully happy in the same net.

“I constantly remind her she’s 12 hours older and always will be,” Jan said.

“Yeah, I robbed the cradle, but I’m not complaining,” she said.

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