ST. GEORGE – As her hair fell out during the first few weeks of her chemotherapy treatment for breast cancer, Cari Buckner was determined to soldier on in her own way by showing up to work with a different hairpiece every day.
Buckner’s chemo had her hairless, frail, and too ill to walk across the Dixie State University campus where she’s taught education courses for years. However, Buckner carried on with style.
“Well, if I’m going to go through this,” Buckner said, “I’m going to have some fun.”
Buckner had ordered a multitude of wigs upon discovery that she had a cancerous tumor in her breast. During her chemo, on a daily basis her hairpiece would change length, color and style. Her students requested wigs that were their favorites. One of the most frequently requested wigs was her “long sexy red-haired” one but Buckner’s favorites were her tightly-curled African American wigs, and her wavy blonde wig – which friends and students called her “Barbra Streisand” wig.
Second cancer tragedy in one family
Buckner’s experience with cancer began right before she was diagnosed, when her sister died shortly after doctors discovered a massive, cancerous tumor near her ovaries. Soon after her sister’s death, during a yearly checkup, Buckner found out she herself had breast cancer. Without time to process it, Buckner was swept into a schedule chock-full of check-ups, hospital visits, and doctor analysis. Her first few weeks of treatment left her in a total daze.
“I felt like I was on autopilot,” Buckner said, “just going through the motions.”
She wasn’t sure how she taught her college classes during that time, Buckner said, but she managed somehow. At first, she said, she felt angry and frustrated by her plight. Living alone while being a caregiver and teacher for most of her life, Buckner said she wasn’t very comfortable allowing others to take care of her. But, after an extraordinary flock of what she calls “guardian angels” appeared in her life, she began to accept help from others.
Two of her many guardian angels were her secretary, Deborah Connolly, and her late friend Cathy Lindell. Both of these people appeared in Buckner’s life to help and encourage her during a dark and lonely time.
Loss of hope
Buckner had spent most of the month of December sick and alone in her home. On one particular day she trudged in to work hoping that getting out of the house would help her feel better. Buckner was so weak, she said, that she had lost any hope of making it through chemotherapy. At work, Buckner told Connolly that she couldn’t live like this any longer. Her secretary encouraged her to keep going by pointing out that she only had two of the six chemo treatments left. That afternoon her guardian angel Lindell randomly ran in to her. Lindell had already battled cancer twice and shared words of advice and encouragement with Buckner enough to raise her spirits to carry on and finish the last two treatments.
After six chemo treatments between November 2010 and February 2011, Buckner had radiation treatments and a fairly smooth recovery.
Tragically, one of Buckner’s guardian angels, Lindell, after fighting through her own third cancer treatment, passed away in 2012.
Buckner said she will always keep Lindell’s memory close to her heart.
A new perspective
For Buckner, her friend’s death, plus her sister’s death, and her own difficult battle with cancer have collectively changed her view of life. She’s more keen on the struggles of others now and she tries much harder to give people love and support no matter what their circumstances.
“What can I do to give others that support and comfort that was given to me?” Buckner said she often asks herself.
Besides giving help to others, she said she has learned the importance of accepting help. “I tend to be the nurturer, so I have to take care of everybody else,” Buckner said.
Aside from Lindell and her secretary, Buckner’s college students and other friends took care of her during her treatments. She has no family around – although her family did travel to St. George often to visit her – she had to rely heavily on students and friends during her chemo treatments. And she said she was astounded by the help she received from the community.
In 2010, Her chemo treatments fell during the holiday season so she wasn’t able to go home for Christmas. Buckner accepted an invitation from one of her friends, Kalynn Snow, to spend Christmas with their family. There she learned a valuable lesson about kindness: “Sometimes you need to let other people take care of you,” Buckner said, spouting off a laundry list of other guardian angels who gave her aid and comfort.
Finding hope and optimism
However tragic the last few years of her life have been, Buckner manages to carry on without taking life too seriously. “I try to look at the funny side of things,” she said, chucklin as she cited the title of a book that she has taken as one of her mantras for this period in her life. “Any day with hair is a good hair day.”
Today, her brown, wavy natural hair is shoulder length and she has had no other health problems since her cancer treatments. Nonetheless, Buckner hasn’t been able to part with her wigs. In fact, she said she typically pulls them out for halloween. “They are kind of a part of me now,” she said.
Cancer checkups have gone from every three months to every six months and her health has improved back to normal, she said. She is still teaching human development and early childhood education at Dixie State University.
She has had a lifelong career as a teacher, and she has survived her bout with cancer, but Buckner doesn’t see herself as a hero or an inspiration.
“It’s just something I had to go through,” she said, “so I don’t think of it like that.”
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