2011-10-20 / News

Islanders support teacher’s fight against cancer

BY MARGO SULLIVAN


Karen Rafanelli, a special education assistant teacher at Melrose, begins chemotherapy on Oct 20 to help with her battle against breast cancer. Her son Matt, 16, asked permission to wear pink shoelaces during last week’s football game – the entire NKHS team supported Rafanelli and wore pink during its contest. 
PHOTO BY MARGO SULLIVAN Karen Rafanelli, a special education assistant teacher at Melrose, begins chemotherapy on Oct 20 to help with her battle against breast cancer. Her son Matt, 16, asked permission to wear pink shoelaces during last week’s football game – the entire NKHS team supported Rafanelli and wore pink during its contest. PHOTO BY MARGO SULLIVAN When the North Kingstown Skippers broke their long losing streak Saturday night, the football team’s victory came with special signifi- cance for one of the player’s mothers.

Karen Rafanelli, a special education assistant teacher, is battling breast cancer. She starts chemotherapy treatment on Oct. 20. Before Saturday night’s game with East Greenwich, her son Matt, 16, told her he wanted to win the game for her, she said.

To support his mother’s fight, Matt asked coach John Horsman for permission to go on the field with pink shoelaces, a symbol of breast cancer awareness month.

Horsman not only agreed but also arranged to outfit the whole Skippers team in pink shoelaces.

Then, the East Greenwich team that they faced also donned pink shoelaces for breast cancer awareness month.

“Of course, it’s not only for me,” she said. “Everybody knows somebody with this.”

Later this month, on Sunday, Oct. 30, Rafanelli will also join her friends and well-wishers at the Making Strides Against Breast Cancer Walk in Roger Williams Park.

Although she will have started her first chemotherapy treatments, she is determined to complete the 3.2-mile course with Jamestown’s “Breast Friends Unite” team.

The walk, which kicks off at 9 a.m., raises money to find a cancer cure. Rafanelli said people don’t have to pay anything to register for the 3.2- mile course, but they’re encouraged to make donations or ask people to give.

Susan Baccari-Varrecchione, also of Jamestown, organized the team. She has emailed invitations, asking community members to “Walk for Ms. Karen,” or to make a donation if they can’t attend the event.

“The whole idea of the walk is for all women with breast cancer,” Rafanelli said. “It’s not just for me.” She added that the emotional support she has received from the Jamestown community has helped her already.

Rafanelli wants to tell her story to spread the word about the value of getting a mammogram.

Doctors this week again clarifi ed confusing issues about whom should have the test annually. With controversy raging over best medical advice, Rafanelli is concerned some women who need the test will opt not to bother with the annual.

“The main thing I want to get across is how important it is to be diligent,” she said. “I was very lucky somebody at Newport Hospital [who reads the mammograms] was having a good day.”

Her stage one breast cancer diagnosis in July came as a complete shock, she said.

“Everyone was surprised,” she said. “I found out while I was on vacation.” Doctors had urged her to wait until she came home to call for her results, but she wanted to know the good or bad news right away.

“I’m not the kind of person who can dwell on it,” she said.

Since July, she has undergone two operations, she said, the second one necessitated because the first time surgeons had been unable to establish a “clean margin” around the cancer. Then she was faced with conflicting advice from doctors about chemotherapy treatment. One doctor recommended chemotherapy, and the second doctor said it was unnecessary.

She worried about making the wrong choice, but then her doctors suggested another test, counting the number of an abnormal cell type, dubbed onocytes. A high number of onocytes indicated chemotherapy; and when her count came out high, she opted for an eight-week chemotherapy regimen followed by radiation.

“So I didn’t have to make the decision,” she said.

Rafanelli said she didn’t lose time by going for a second opinion because she had to heal six weeks after surgery anyway.

She does not have a family history of breast cancer, she said, and she didn’t have any lumps. She did, as it turned out, have three small tumors, which an ultrasound finally detected. A biopsy confirmed the lumps were cancer, she said.

The news was a lot to process, she said, but she is grateful she has her job at Melrose Avenue School to keep her busy.

“It’s a great job,” she said. “You start with these kids in the morning, and you don’t have time to think [about cancer] all day.”

“I have a great support system,” she added, starting with her family: husband Anthony, sons Matt and John, 20, and mother Juliette Moura. She also mentioned the support from her school colleagues, including Superintendent Marcia Lukon, Principal Carole Melucci and Director of Student Services Ken Duva.

Rafanelli, a past Parent Teacher Organization president, has worked at Melrose for eight years. She added that she also has “the most amazing friends in the world.”

“I feel very humbled that so many people are in my court,” she said. “Jamestown is an amazing place to live.”

Rafanelli was raised in nearby New Bedford, Mass. Her husband’s family lived in North Providence but owned a summer home in Jamestown, and that’s how she became an islander.

“I can’t think of a better place to live,” she said.

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