Karen Beebe's smile, as radiant as sunshine, might appear out of context to those who don't know her. The Redondo Beach resident has been undergoing heavy doses of chemotherapy for a recurrence of breast cancer, first diagnosed in 2005, for the past year.
But on the day we visited at the in Manhattan Beach, where Karen has served as gym director for 12 years, she was even more animated than usual due to the presence of her son, Brett, 21, who was preparing to return to Western Michigan University.
A film and media major, Brett, who won an ice hockey scholarship to WMU two years ago, plays center left-wing for the Broncos in a sport that keeps him in Michigan most of the time.
"My coaches were nice enough to let me come home for the summer," said Brett, who suffered a shoulder injury last season that kept him off the ice a good deal.
"They say everything happens for a reason," the WMU junior said. "I think my reason had to do with helping my mom."
The two Beebe children, including Krista, 19, a sophomore at Loyola Marymount, breathe new life into every day for Karen and husband Bill, who recently underwent his sixth back surgery.
"Our kids are fabulous," Karen said, explaining how her daughter chose to live at home to shop, cook, clean and do "all the yuck work" for her ailing parents.
When people ask Karen how she stays so positive, she responds, "Having two young adult children that have never disappointed us ... I feel so blessed."
It doesn't hurt that the 5,000 members of the American Martyrs Catholic Community, including teaching staff and 670 pre-school through eigth-grade students, pray for the woman they call "Queen of the Gym."
The parish gym is where I met Karen and Brett, whose "dream job is to be an anchor on ESPN"—if his professional hockey ambitions don’t pan out.
The two are a pair—the young man with the rippling biceps and healthy tan and his stick-thin mother, whose bald head was covered with a purple bandana that matched her purple track suit. The two share the same sky-blue eyes, Karen's sparkling like the rhinestone lanyard she wears around her neck that holds her gym keys and a whistle.
Maybe "a team" is a more apt way to describe the relationship between Karen, Krista and Brett, who has created something of a cottage industry out of his mom’s disease by selling pink T-shirts that benefit the National Breast Cancer Foundation.
'Long Hair Don't Care'
Emblazoned with "Long Hair Don't Care," a pink ribbon and Karen Beebe's name, Brett's T-shirts sell for $15 and have raised $14,000 to fight the disease. The T-shirts—now in 30 states and 10 countries, Brett said—are worn by people like Houston Texans quarterback Matt Leinart and Olympic gold medalist gymnast Shawn Johnson. (To order, go to Brett's website: www.crowdrise.com/longhairdontcare.)
The phrase "Long Hair Don't Care" is derived from a song by Little Wayne, said Brett, who started the T-shirt campaign last February in Michigan. "I thought it fit our scenario perfectly."
Krista is the "Long Hair Don't Care West Coast Syndicate," since she packages all the California orders, "bags them in pretty pink ribbon bags and delivers them for Brett," Karen said.
Back in April of 2010, Brett had another brainstorm: growing his blondish hair long enough (11 inches) to donate it to Children with Hairloss, a nonprofit wig provider in Michigan.
This past July, Brett and two of his like-minded buddies, Kyle Shepherd of Bel Air and Daniel "Gudger" Gentzler of Hermosa Beach, went to in Hermosa Beach and lopped off their donations.
The reason Brett chose Children with Hairloss as opposed to , he said, is because the Michigan nonprofit does not charge cancer victims for wigs.
Although his mother is his major inspiration when it comes to fighting the disease, Brett was also moved by a 3-year-old Michigan hockey fan who suffers from leukemia and is "bald, but doesn't know the difference," Brett said. "He comes to the locker room after all our games ... He loves us, gives us all hugs."
Five of Brett's Bronco teammates also grew their hair in tribute to the 3-year-old, as well as for Karen, who streams the hockey games into the north Redondo home the Beebes built in 1987.
Although she does own a wig that matches the blonde hair she once had, Karen "hates" to wear it.
"Remember those Furby pets?" she asked, referring to the hamster-like dolls popular in the late '90s. "Whenever I wore the wig, I felt like I had a stuffed animal on my head."
To top it off (pun intended), Krista kept telling her to stop scratching her head in church "because my whole wig moved up and down," Karen added, laughing.
The funny stories bubbled out of her as naturally as a freshly opened can 7-Up. But there were serious moments as well, especially when we discussed certain lessons Karen learned about her disease along the way.
When a suspicious lymph node was discovered under her right arm in 2005, for example, she was made to wait a week for a mammogram—only to learn she had stage 3 breast cancer.
"If I'd know then what I know now, I'd be over there, demanding to get [a mammogram]," she said.
Although she had wanted a double mastectomy, the surgeon recommended against it due to her active lifestyle and the hardship of recovery.
Only the right breast was removed, along with 23 lymph nodes, the last five clear, meaning the cancer had not spread to the lungs, brain or liver.
Karen Discovers Breastlink
The surgeon reassured her that "the chance of [cancer] coming back in your left breast is as good as your getting hit by a Mack truck," Karen said.
Although the surgeon did a "fabulous" job, she now wishes she had spent more time looking for an oncologist "because that’s who saves your life."
Her initial oncologist had a "horrible" bedside manner, said Karen, who was driving clear to Santa Monica for checkups.
"My mother died in the midst of it all, my best friend," Karen added. "It was a long, hard year."
By 2006, sick of the drive, she decided to get her checkups at Breastlink Manhattan Beach Medical Group, Inc. in Hawthorne, a fortuitous change, since her new oncologist, Dr. James Waisman, proved the polar opposite of her first oncologist.
"Ask any of his patients," Karen said. "He makes you think you are the only one."
But after four years of living cancer-free, it was Waisman who detected Karen's newest problem last June: the breast cancer had metastasized in her liver.
"There's no surgery involved," Karen said. "It's not liver cancer. My liver is functioning perfectly. It's still [called] breast cancer though, and I'll have it for the rest of my life."
By last Christmas, chemo and radiation had shrunk the tumor to practically nothing, but by February it had "exploded" in size again.
Karen hated calling Brett in Michigan to tell him the bad new, but she had no choice. "Brett had told us very emphatically, 'Don't lie to me. Don't tell me everything's fine. I'm not a kid. I want to know what's going on,'" she explained.
"They have to zap me with the Red Devil again," she told him, referring to the red, jelly-like chemo that is pumped into her bloodstream via an IV.
One positive note came in the form of a different brand of chemo, Doxil, a German-made product that made her feel "the best I have in a year." But the U.S. ran out of drug, so Karen is back on the Red Devil until more Doxil arrives.
Permanent side effects from chemo are neuropathy (numbness of the hands and feet) and blisters and peeling, which inhibit her walking and keep her from "the little intricate sewing I used to do," she said.
"I wouldn't trade it for the old days, when you were so nauseous," she said, adding that headachy, flu-like symptoms have replaced the nausea.
Through all this, Karen's spirits have remained as buoyant as ever.
She has always been extraordinarily positive, said Brett, who extolled his mother's upbeat attitude in facing advanced breast cancer and laughed about the way she used to "find a way to embarrass me in front of my friends by singing any song on the radio and jumping around" while carpooling kids to school.
'All the kids love her'
"She's always smiling, always laughing," he said. "When the Christmas play is here at school, she dresses up like an elf. Every Halloween, she's a witch. All the kids love her."
Lou Ann Selsky, the athletic director at the gym, said it took her "a long time to realize Karen wanted to be [at work]," even on some of her worst days.
"She loves to be here when the kids get out of school at 3 p.m.," Selsky said. "It's her favorite time of the day."
"These kids, the prayers, the love that comes out of this place—I go home just filled to the top," Karen told me earlier.
Legendary for her crazy hats and sunny smile, Karen is also known for organizing church fairs to perfection and making that special effort, like opening the gym for the men who play basketball every Tuesday at 6 a.m.
The basketball players, including Monsignor John Barry and Lou Ann’s husband, Steve Selsky (who calls Karen "one tough babe"), paid tribute to her one morning by surprising her in the gym, all wearing bandanas, and gifting her with an iPad.
The Beebe and Selsky children have been friends since kindergarten, about the time both women started as volunteers at the parish, Karen asked by Monsignor Barry to manage the gym when it was built 12 years ago. As employees of the church and school, they enjoy benefits, including Karen's health insurance.
But it is the children that hold a special place in Karen's heart, a powerful emotion that is returned in tangible ways, such as the huge pink "We Love Mrs. Beebe" sign in the lobby of the gym.
"They did a Pink Day for me the last Friday of school," Karen said. "The whole first grade surprised me. They all wore Brett's 'Karen Beebe' T-shirts and were holding probably 100 pink balloons and singing. It was the most inspiring thing."
Karen later spoke at the final assembly. "I tried to get out the message that the 'Karen Beebe' shirts are not for me," she said. "I've got breast cancer now, and it's metastasized and going to live in me forever."
She wanted them to know that proceeds from the shirts go toward mammograms for those unable to afford them, cancer research and a cure.
"It's for Brett's sister and the first graders, for all these young women growing up that I hope to God never have to go through this," she said.