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For Karen Hawley, hockey truly fought cancer

by Katie Foglia / Columbus Blue Jackets

For Bellefontaine residents Karen and Dean Hawley, Blue Jackets hockey made the difference in their fight against cancer.

The couple, both 68 years old, has previously lived in Zanesville and Gahanna, but Karen said they've always felt like Columbus is their town.

The two are long-time subscribers of the Columbus Dispatch, and one day in the spring of 2014, Karen happened to read an article about a young and hungry hockey team, so she decided to sit down and watch a game.

"Let's just tune in for 10 minutes or so and see what this is all about," Karen told herself, but once she tuned in, she was locked in.

“I turned on the TV and I sat there just mesmerized,” Karen said. “I just couldn’t believe the speed and the sound of the skates on the ice and watching them play, I was really taken by it.”

Karen then called out to her husband, who is in the other room, and before too long they were both sitting down to watch the same game together. They happened to pick a good one – the Blue Jackets were playing the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round of the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs.

Finding the Blue Jackets came a great time for the Hawleys, and it made a difficut time in Karen's life seem a bit more bearable.

Karen Hawley (Sept. 2015) at Nationwide Arena.

Earlier that month, Karen (like many women do) went in for her yearly mammogram, but she unexpectedly found out that there was ‘something’ that needed to be examined further.

After a second mammogram a month later, she had an ultrasound and biopsy. When the area was pinpointed, she underwent an MRI before her doctor could determine whether the lump was a cancerous mass or not.

In June, Karen had that final test and found out that surgery would be required to remove the lump and some lymph nodes.

During that time, amidst all the worry and uncertainty, hockey was the escape.

“We sat and watched, and it just grabbed us really good,” Karen said. “With all we were going through…I had to wait (until) July for my lumpectomy so, during that time, it was just (Dean) and I dealing with it. We watched very game we could.”

Karen and Dean have three adult children and six grandchildren, among other extended family. Karen's mother passed away from ovarian cancer at a young age, and she didn’t want her kids and family to worry, so at the time, she and Dean kept her diagnosis under wraps.

“I have never forgotten when I first heard the word 'cancer' associated with (my mother), and so I thought I could keep that out of my kids' vocabulary for a while and keep everything just going along as normal,” Karen said. “And that worked for us, because all we talked about was the Blue Jackets.”

Around that time, the Jackets had just finished up their best season in team history. Although Columbus eventually fell to the Penguins in six games, the season was, by all accounts, a step in the right direction. Shortly afterwards, Karen had her surgery, a lumpectomy, in July 2014.

In September, she began a seven-week radiation therapy at OhioHealth Dublin Methodist Hospital. Shortly after she began her treatments, the Blue Jackets embarked on their 2014-15 season.

“I was extremely lucky it was a very small mass and it was caught early,” she said.

During her treatments, Karen said the technicians (many of whom were Blue Jackets fans) would ask her what she was doing that night, and her response would always be "watching the Blue Jackets!"

Karen had therapy session five days a week, and was very fatigued by the time she was finished.

Watching the Blue Jackets and learning the rules of the game, memorizing the players’ names and numbers and absorbing as much general hockey knowledge as they could became a welcomed distraction Karen and Dean.

“It was kind of funny, because neither one of us knew anything about hockey, except that it was ice, skates, a stick and puck so I’d have my (tablet) out and look up terms that they used,” Karen said. “We’d have to listen closely to the announcers.”

In addition to being a distraction from her surgery and radiation therapy, Karen said it was especially fun for her and Dean, who have been married for 48 years, to fall in love with hockey together.

“It kept us really engaged, and it was really fun,” she added. “It was just fun because, you know, lots of young players and lots of activity and they were playing so well and that really helped us through that time period.”

Dean bought his wife a Sergei Bobrovsky t-shirt, which was one name she had to practice pronouncing more than the others. She also now has stickers on her car to show her support for the hometown team.

And while everything was happening with her diagnosis, treatment and recovery, the Hawleys weren’t able to travel to Nationwide Arena to watch the Blue Jackets in person.

“It was a hard year,” Karen said. “It takes a lot of time to recuperate from that and you have all of the emotional issues, too. But I had fantastic doctors and lots of help at home.”

But this year, after almost exactly one year after finishing radiation therapy, the Hawleys attended their first Blue Jackets game on Sept. 24 when the Minnesota Wild came to Columbus for preseason action.

Karen and Dean walked around the Arena District, took photos and soaked up all of the Blue Jackets euphoria they could.

“We just had a great time,” Karen said. “It was thrilling to be there.”

Karen was impacted so greatly by the game and her experiences that she wrote the Blue Jackets a thank you note, her way of letting the team know that it arrived at an important time in her life and helped her through a very difficult time.

“It really was surprising how much it helped,” she said of watching the Jackets. “I just felt like I should to tell them 'thank you' that I found hockey and I found you guys.”

It has now been been over a year since Karen had surgery and completed her radiation. This past spring, she got more good news when her yearly mammogram came back normal, and she’ll go back for addition scans this month to further ensure that everything is as it should be.

“(Hockey) made such a difference in our lives when we needed something to distract us and to be excited about,” Karen said. “It’s uplifting to see so many young players and they’re all working so hard and you feel like you’re part of the team when you watch all of it.”

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