Six years ago, when Karen Jo Dobyns noticed a phone call coming in from her doctor, she hurried out of the restaurant she had just entered to answer it. She knew he was calling to tell her she had breast cancer.
“I knew as soon as I saw it was him on my caller ID,” Dobyns said. “After being my doctor for 34 years, he knows my personality well. If he would’ve said I should come to his office, I would have told him to just tell me up front, right there on the phone!”
Dobyns’ intuition was eerily accurate. “You have breast cancer” was in the message coming directly from Dr. Michael Sergi, now retired from Aurora Healthcare in Fond du Lac. It was October 2014 – just days after Dobyns, who was 58 at the time, had first gone to see him after experiencing shock-like pain in her breast as well as discovering several lumps.
After talking with him on the phone about what surgeon he’d suggest, Dobyns got in her car and called to share the bad news with a friend. Then she cried.
Still, as a testimony to her tenacity and upbeat personality, Dobyns, who works as a real estate agent, went, as usual, to her continuing education class that night. “I wanted to get my mind off of it, rather than pity myself or keep thinking about it,” Dobyns said.
Testing revealed a diagnosis of Stage 2 Invasive Ductal Carcinoma with Mucus Tendencies in her left breast.
The cancer was limited to her breast, with no lymph nodes involved. But, due to the numerous tumors, a full mastectomy was needed. She did not have to undergo any radiation or chemotherapy, which surprised her. “They felt that close monitoring was appropriate, with Anastrozole medication to avoid hormone growth again,”
Dobyns, who had a complete hysterectomy five years prior to her breast cancer, had been using hormone patches on her abdomen for years. It’s one factor she thinks might have contributed to her breast cancer. But, her mother died of breast cancer, so heredity may also have played a role.
On November 6, 2014, Dobyns had a complete mastectomy of her cancerous breast with preparations for a breast implant. At the same time, she underwent a partial mastectomy of the non-cancerous breast so an implant could be placed in that one as well. The goal was to get her breasts to match and look natural.
While that goal was eventually met, it took three years and a total of six surgeries to make it happen. Everything that could go wrong, did.
Complications set the process back, including staph infection just a week after her November mastectomy. By January the process of reconstructing both breasts started to take a downward turn. Oddly misshapen breasts led to extensive liposuction procedures to remove cells from one part of her body and inject them into the tissue around the implants. With one complication after another, eventually the decision was made to start all over by removing the implants and replacing them with new ones.
“All in all, my healing process took three years and a total reconstruction,” Dobyns said. “If I had it to do over, I don’t know if I’d go with implants at all – even though the results finally were good with the second plastic surgeon, who just happened to be a woman whose work was exclusively with breast implants.”
Throughout her cancer journey, Dobyns was surrounded by family and friends. “I had a wonderfully supportive husband. No matter how awful my boobs looked, John always said I was beautiful!”
“Agents from our office were so helpful in taking over my real estate clients until I was back to work. Friends and family sent beautiful cards, which I still read every October. And they brought food so my poor husband didn’t have to live on canned foods!”
Sadly, Dobyns’ husband John passed away just days after she was interviewed for this story. “He became ill just a year after my cancer surgery, but we at least had five more years together,” she said, noting they were married 36 years.
Fundraiser idea takes off
Dobyns wasn’t one to sit around and mope during her recovery period. Just a month after her mastectomy in November, 2014, she started to create a breast cancer fundraising event. A canvas “Necessities Bag” containing items to help those facing a mastectomy was given to Dobyns at her pre-surgery appointment at the clinic. She was thrilled to get it at a very difficult and frightening time in her life. It contained things like soft handmade pillows to ease pain near her surgery site, soft bandages, comfy cotton t-shirts, a memo pad and pen, water bottle, Life Savers candy, an emery board, lip balm, pre-moistened wash clothes, wound ointment, gentle paper tape, and a booklet with helpful hints and answers to guide women through the mastectomy process.
As a way to give back and help others, Dobyns decided she wanted to raise money so every woman in Wisconsin going through a mastectomy could benefit from getting one of those Necessities Bags.
Dobyns didn’t waste any time getting her first fundraiser off the ground. Only a month after her November 2014 mastectomy, she was working to make it happen. She named the fundraiser “Bags for Bags,” offering gently used bags (purses) for sale at very low prices. Just five months later, at her very first annual “Bag for Bags” fundraiser, she had collected a supply of 1,000 gently used purses to offer at the sale. Some donations have included designer brands such as Coach or Louis Vuitton.
All proceeds from Dobyns’ “Bags for Bags” annual fundraisers go to supplying and filling the Necessities Bags that are given free to women who are facing a mastectomy. Volunteers fill the bag, with some even lovingly sewing the soft pillows that become part of the contents. The non-profit is officially called “Necessities Bags Wisconsin” and is headquartered in Omro, Wisconsin. It is run by Omro resident Becky Christianson who is also a breast cancer survivor.
“For our second year in 2016, we added scarves, and renamed the fundraiser “Bags for Bags plus Scarves,” Dobyns explains.
In the five years Dobyns has held the fundraiser, she has raised $45,000 for the Necessities Bag Wisconsin program, helping to provide free bags to anyone going through what she herself experienced.
The annual event takes place every October during Breast Cancer Awareness Month at the First Weber Real Estate office in Fond du Lac where Dobyns works. “We’re on Main Street, and I even decorate the trees along the street by wrapping them in pink bows,” Dobyns said. “The event is a lot of work, but great fun for a wonderful cause. What I enjoy so much is meeting and talking to the women. So many share their breast cancer stories with me and ask about my experience.”
Dobyns says she feels passionate about helping and meeting one-on-one with women going through mastectomies. “My friends started to ask me if I could talk with their family or friend who was diagnosed. It just sort of took off from there.”
“It’s scary to go through this. I found that, even though you think you understand what your doctor said is going to happen, you really don’t. My surgeon gave me the book Be a Survivor – Your Guide to Breast Cancer Treatment. I purchased the updated version and loan it to anyone I meet with who has been diagnosed. Just answering their questions after my experience, seems to help. You have a friend that understands…and that’s so comforting!”
Dobyns said her Bag for Bags plus Scarves event won’t take place this October due to the pandemic. “I am so sad that we aren’t holding the sale this year. But, we are still collecting purses and scarves as we do all year long. I guess we’ll have a HUGE sale next year!”
NOTE: To donate purses, scarves or to give a tax-free monetary donation, contact Karen Jo Dobyns via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or drop off at First Weber Realty, 845 S.Main Street, Fond du Lac. All proceeds from the Bags for Bags plus Scarves fundraiser go to the purchase of canvas Necessities Bags and its contents. The bags are given free to women facing a mastectomy.