Today’s FACES post about a former, beloved Birmingham resident comes from StyleBlueprint Louisville Editor Heidi Potter. Thank you, Heidi, and thank you Lara for sharing your powerful story today!
Imagine you are pregnant, 30 years old and going to the doctor for a routine checkup. That’s when Lara MacGregor discovered she had breast cancer and had to start treatment immediately. She parlayed her experience into Hope Scarves, an organization that provides scarves to fellow cancer patients, a gift that is both practical and hopeful. Here is her story of hope and perseverance.
You were diagnosed with breast cancer at age 30 and at seven months pregnant. Tell us about that experience.
I went for my regular seven month check up with my OB. Almost as an afterthought I mentioned some tenderness in my breast, which I assumed was just pregnancy-related. Luckily my OB, Dr. Charlie Sharp, was suspicious and sent me for a biopsy. Two days later I had cancer. Life was wonderful, and then everything turned upside down. I had a lumpectomy, which revealed that my cancer was Stage 2 because it had spread to my lymph nodes. This surgery wasn’t successful in removing all the cancer so I immediately started chemo. I remember watching the dangerous chemo drugs enter my veins as I felt our unborn child kick. I couldn’t stop crying.
We moved back into our renovated home on Christmas Eve. On New Year’s Eve our two-year old, Wills, helped my husband shave my head. I was quite a sight: pregnant and bald. Bennett was born at full term and healthy in February. Nine days later I went back for nine more rounds of chemo. I had a double mastectomy and started reconstruction when Bennett was three months old. Looking back, I see that Bennett saved my life. I was 30 and healthy and wouldn’t have had a routine mammogram for another ten years. That’s so scary to think about.
Tell us about your personal experience with Hope Scarves.
Shortly after I was diagnosed, Kelley, a friend of friend, sent me a box of scarves and a note saying, “you can do this.” The scarves were both practical and inspiring. Knowing she had beat cancer helped me believe I could do it, too. I wore the scarves for a year and acquired quite a collection of my own. I never wore a wig. I just felt more comfortable in a scarf.
When I was done wearing the scarves Kelley told me to pass the scarves on, so I took them with me to a conference for young breast cancer survivors. There, I met Roberta from Pittsburgh, who had just lost her hair. I gave her several of the scarves that both Kelley and I had worn and shared the story. When Roberta was done with treatment, she sent the scarves back to me. I had since moved to Louisville, Kentucky, and one of the first friends I met was just starting treatment. I took the scarves to Brooke’s house and we laughed through tears as I showed her how to tie a scarf. I told her about my experience and about Kelley and Roberta. When I left that night, I knew I had to do something to capture these beautiful stories and help encourage women facing cancer.
When did you decide to parlay your experience into a nonprofit organization?
Cancer changed my life. Hope Scarves is my way of passing along the encouragement that was shared with me and has helped turn a scary time in my life into something positive. Hope Scarves became an official nonprofit in February 2012. We collect scarves from women who have had cancer, along with their story. Each scarf is professionally cleaned by Highland Cleaners at no cost and then is sent along with the story to someone facing cancer. Scarves can be personally requested by someone in treatment or sent as a gift to a loved one on our website: www.hopescarves.org.
Hope Scarves has taken off in the past year. What has your reach been like?
We have sent 132 scarves to 26 states. The oldest recipient is 82 and the youngest 10 years old.
Tell us about your connections to Birmingham.
Birmingham will always be our “sweet home.” My husband and I moved there in 2004 as young professionals. I had an amazing job as Vice President of Development for McWane Science Center. We made precious, lifelong friends and renovated a charming little cottage in Homewood that I think will be the favorite house of my life. Both of our children were born there. It is also the community that supported us throughout my cancer treatment. Our family is from Michigan, so Birmingham embraced us in a way I will never forget. Our friends, neighbors, church and school family took care of us that entire year. It is a really special place I will treasure forever.
How do you balance your job and your personal life?
That has been the hardest part of starting Hope Scarves. It is so personal that I spend a lot of time and energy on it every day. However, as it’s grown, I have had to approach it as a job. I try to set a schedule each week for when I am in the office without distractions and when I am a mom focused on my kids. Of course these lines blur. But, I try not to be distracted when I am with our family. I love the flexibility of working from home.
What is the biggest life lesson you have ever learned?
Mind over matter. When I was going through cancer I realized my physical well being was directly affected by my attitude. On days I focused on hope, I felt better. If I let fear dominate my thoughts, I felt so much worse. I try to remember this every day – I make a conscious decision to focus on the positive.
Who is your mentor?
Tim Ritchie. He was President of McWane Science Center in Birmingham Alabama when I worked there. He is actually from Louisville. He believed in me and gave me the confidence to do a job I thought was bigger than my abilities. He used to tell me “be brilliant,” and I believed I could be.
What is best advice you have received in business?
If you have a good mission, people will support you. Stay focused on your mission.
If you were not in your current job, what would you secretly love to do?
I’d be a singer songwriter. I can’t sing and I have a guitar in my closet that I can’t seem to get the hang of either.
What is something people would be surprised to know about you?
I had a pet ball python named Celia… She belonged to a boyfriend who went to med school and left her with me. Somehow after we broke up I got her. I never really liked it.
Where is your favorite place to go for lunch or dinner?
Where do you like to shop?
I love little locally owned shops such as Dandelion and Blink. Although I can also get lost in Anthropologie for hours. I love going back to Birmingham and visiting some of my favs like Shoefly, Soca, Track Shak and At Home.
What is a treat or a luxury you allow yourself?
Shopping at Lululemon. I love their clothes and philosophy. Once you go down that path you simply can’t go back.
What is your weakness?
What was your favorite thing to do in Birmingham?
Running around Homewood and down Jemison Trail with friends. I also loved taking our kids to the McWane Science Center. It is such a creative, fun place to learn and laugh together.
What is your favorite thing to do in Louisville?
Trail running in Cherokee Park.
Three things you cannot live without (besides God, family and friends):
- Summers where I grew up in Michigan
- Weekly date night with my husband Jay. He named our date night BREAD, it stands for Bike and Run Eat And Drink. We run or bike and then grab dinner and a beer on Bardstown Road.
What are you reading right now?
Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh, a touching story about a young woman growing up in the foster care system.
What are three of your favorite things right now (can be anything).
1. Our Ignite Louisville team from Leadership Louisville – this is a group of young professionals volunteering their time to help Hope Scarves. It has been such a positive experience.
2. My Friends – I have made so many dear friends in Louisville. I am continually thankful for the support and encouragement I receive from friends here. I am also thankful for the many friendships in Michigan and Alabama that remain strong despite the miles between us.
3. My parents – they just left after staying with our kids for 10 days while we were in Costa Rica. I don’t know who has more fun, my kids or the grandparents. I love their eagerness to spend time with our boys.
Loved meeting Lara and we were so inspired by what she is doing with Hope Scarves. She is touching so many people’s lives in a positive way. For more information on Hope Scarves, click here.
Adele Reding is our FACES of Louisville photographer and her work is “The Best of the Best.” To learn more about Adele, click here.