KNIGHTDALE — Kyra Best and her mother, Keowanna Best, can remember looking for scarves in the middle of summer. They searched every store they could think of, but they could only find thin scarves that felt like gauze and ripped easily.
It was a difficult task, but also an important one: Keowanna Best was fighting Stage 4 breast cancer. She was in the middle of treatment and wanted to continue working without the attention being on her hair loss, one of the hallmarks of cancer treatment.
Today, Keowanna Best has been cancer-free for three years. She recently had reconstructive surgery following the two mastectomies she had as part of her treatment. Her hair has also grown back.
Kyra Best, now an eighth-grader at East Wake Middle School, remembers looking for scarves with her mom. She remembers all the women she met when she kept her mom company during her treatments. She can remember when her mom shaved her head in anticipation of the hair loss.
In honor of her mother, Kyra Best and East Wake Middle School will be taking an active part in Breast Cancer Awareness Month, which lasts through October. They’ll be collecting scarves for women and will engage the school in a day of awareness activities, including classroom lessons based around cancer awareness.
Kyra Best suggested this project as a member of National Junior Honor Society. She said it was easy to share the idea when she thought about her mother’s journey.
“My mother inspires me to do a lot because she’s gone through a lot,” she said. “If she can do this big step, I can do this little tiny step.”
Treatment was “walking death”
Keowanna Best found a lump that prompted a series of mammograms, ultrasounds, MRIs and other tests about three years ago. Doctors initially thought the lump was a cyst, but further testing showed it was a cancerous mass.
She had a rare form of the cancer that makes it hard to understand how the cancer is passed. Keowanna’s mother had breast cancer too, but doctors couldn’t link the two women’s diagnoses.
Keowanna Best began scheduling surgery and treatment immediately. Chemotherapy took a physical toll on her that eventually turned emotional.
“(Treatment was like) walking death,” she said. “If you’re not strong or you don’t have a strong faith system it’s hard … because chemotherapy tears you down.”
As she started losing her hair, Keowanna Best wanted to make sure it wasn’t obvious to other people. She tried to wear wigs like many other women she met during treatment, but she didn’t like how hot and itchy they were.
“You go through stages where you don’t feel pretty. That’s devastating. A lot of women really need the wigs,” she said.
“The scarves made me feel better, I don’t know why,” she said. “It was kind of like my blankie.”
Putting on a brave front
Kyra Best was 8 and 9 years old when her mom went through treatment. Her parents didn’t allow her or her two sisters in the room while her mother received treatment, but Kyra Best tried to spend time with her mother every night.
She would talk to other women in waiting rooms of the facilities her mother went to for treatment, including Duke, UNC and Rex hospitals. Her mother said Kyra Best would try to lift patients’ spirits and helped with her two younger sisters.
“I’m the oldest of three so I kind of had to put on a little bit of a brave front because my other sisters thought of breast cancer as being a death sentence,” Kyra Best said.
Because her mother’s cancer was a rare form, doctors are not able to predict how likely it is for Kyra or any of her sisters to also develop the cancer later in life.
It doesn’t bother the Best women, although Kyra Best does think about it when her mother goes in for routine tests or more recently, her reconstructive surgeries.
“(I always think) this could be me in a couple of years but I try to put those thought out of my mind,” Kyra Best said. “I don’t really know what’s going to happen next, but like my mom, I’m going to have my support system around me.”
Bringing awareness to school
Kyra’s project includes a day’s worth of breast cancer awareness activities during spirit week. Students who donate more than five scarves will get to participate in a walk around the track and the whole school will help to form a breast cancer awareness ribbon.
After that, a day’s worth of lessons will be tied to breast cancer to help educate students about treatment and other aspects of the illness.
“I don’t think a lot of people realize how widespread cancer in general is, and breast cancer especially,” said Mary Hardison, the staff adviser for Kyra’s project.
“A lot of students in middle school keep it to themselves because they don’t want people to know, because they are afraid … but (this project is) just bringing that awareness to let them know it’s OK, and it’s something we can get through.”
Hankerson: 919-829-4826; Twitter: @easternwakenews