When Catherine Peake was told that she had breast cancer, the magnitude
of the diagnosis not only hit her hard, but it also left her husband Mike
swirling in a tide of unfamiliar emotions. As principal of South Caldwell
High School, Mike manages the daily responsibility of 1,600 students.
But this situation presented a slew of unexpected and initially overwhelming
issues. At the time, these Charleston, SC transplants were typical thirty-somethings
gearing up for a new school year and juggling parenthood with their 3
year-old son, Micah and daughter, Carrington was just 3 months when Catherine
noticed a lump had popped up on her breast.
Within that week, Catherine learned that the cancer had already spread
to her lymph nodes, liver, lung and shoulder bone. She was referred to
Duke Medical Center where she stayed for 6 weeks. There she had a radical
mastectomy, surgical removal of 28 lymph nodes, radiation and chemotherapy.
She missed her babies desperately and leaned heavily on Mike and her deep
faith in God. After prayerful consideration, Mike and Catherine decided
on a bold, united approach. Living away from their extended families,
they realized that they needed to ask for and accept help from members
of their new community.
Seventeen months after starting treatments, Catherine was told that cancer
had reappeared in her shoulder and that there is no cure for her diagnosis,
Stage IV, metastatic, inflammatory breast cancer. Doctors estimated that
she may live just two more years.
That was in 2011, and now, 7 years later, Catherine has been participating
in a clinical trial at Carolinas Oncology under the leadership of Hickory
Oncologist, Dr. Richard Orlowski who calls her a “miracle patient”!
She has remained stable with no recurrence of cancer ever since. She will
stay on the drug being studied in this clinical trial for the rest of
her life unless her cancer grows or a cancer cure is found. An eternal
optimist, she is an avid promoter of early screening and has been a champion
for many other newly-diagnosed cancer patients trying to navigate their
options and mix of feelings.
“I’d say that we are both fiercely independent people,”
said Mike. “But, Catherine’s experience with cancer brought
us closer and we acknowledged the need to set aside our pride and ask
for help…because we needed it! We are so thankful for the support
we got from the community that’s now our second family. They pulled
us through with all sorts of nice gestures like cooking meals, babysitting,
driving Catherine to treatments, and sending us information about cancer
Catherine and Mike’s courageous openness also generated an outpouring
of support from the high school staff and students. Pupils in the school’s
2010 graduating class collected money in increments of tens (i.e., 10
one dollar bills, rolls of dimes and 10 twenty dollar bills). As these
kids walked across the stage on graduation day, they slipped their contributions
to Mike as he presented them with their diplomas. On Valentine’s
Day, they found their entire house had been covered with pink and red
hearts with encouraging messages such as “from our hearts to yours”.
Even rival schools participated in fundraisers at basketball games to
help with Catherine’s medical bills.
The Peakes are touched by how this sense of community has blossomed as
others have faced serious illness, death or financial devastation. “Our
community mobilizes quickly to unite and surround those in need with support,”
said Catherine. “Since helping us, we have seen them hold fundraisers
to assist other families in need as they did when a local family lost
its home following a fire and when a young student received a grim diagnosis
Representing just one of many strong pillars in the Caldwell County community,
the Peakes feel validated about their decision to share their story and
encourage others to not shy away from asking for and receiving help when
they need it. If you know a man whose partner has breast cancer are also
available from the following organizations:
The Komen Foundation
What’s Happening to the Woman I love?; Breast Cancer Awareness and Support
When the Woman you Love has Breast Cancer; and
Men Against Breast Cancer.