Desaree Gearhart knew the moment she felt a lump in her right breast that it was cancer.
Her husband, KSBY morning television anchor Richard Gearhart, didn’t believe it. His Internet research on the topic led him to believe, “When you’re that young and you feel a lump, it’s never cancer.”
Just one week later, tests revealed the worst: Desaree, 41, had a rapidly growing tumor indicative of triple negative breast cancer, an aggressive form of the disease that does not respond to most treatments.
Because Desaree is as prone to tears as she is to laughter, it was Richard who told their sons.“Nobody tells you that — how to handle it,” he said in a recent interview. “How do I tell my kids that their mom has cancer?”
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But when 14-year-old Hayden heard the news, he bluntly consoled his younger brother, Jack, with a statement that would lift them all: “Just because you have cancer doesn’t mean you’re gonna die.”
The initial diagnosis was made in May. Seven months, one failed clinical trial and one surgery later, Desaree’s tumor appears to be gone, but an aggressive regimen of chemotherapy and radiation is attacking her body.
A newly installed blackboard in their kitchen lists family tasks that Desaree used to remember before chemo fogged her memory.
When she is too exhausted to leave the couch, Richard and the boys join Desaree for dinner in the living room.
On a “good” day, the family takes a ride in their horse-drawn carriage around their Santa Margarita property. Or she might attend one her son’s numerous sports events, or even teach a short lesson to her students at Vineyard Elementary School, where she has been a beloved teacher.
Principal Laura Brooks, who has known Desaree for nearly 20 years, said, “her absence amongst the staff is very apparent. We all miss her. She is one of those great people who always has a realistic outlook on life. Even on a gloomy day, Desaree can make light of it and find humor in the murkier moments.”
The Gearharts cannot count the number of colleagues and friends who have reached out to them by cooking meals, providing rides for their children and filling their freezer with food. Teachers at Vineyard Elementary have donated nearly 100 hours of sick leave.
Even Hayden “doesn’t act like a 14-year-old,” Richard said. “You don’t have to ask him to do laundry” or to help with other tasks such as cleaning or feeding the family’s three horses.
“The longer it goes, the easier it gets,” added Richard, who is also a part-time Cal Poly lecturer.
Richard has added grocery shopping and countless other tasks to his days, which begin at 2 a.m.But eight more weeks of treatment, and the possibility of remission, remain.
During a recent chemotherapy session, when asked what she looks forward to most, Desaree melted into tears. Even more than returning to work, she said, “I want to get to a place where I’m not looking back over my shoulder, wondering, ‘When is it going to catch me?’ ”
But through it all, Desaree never complains, her doctors say. She even calls cancer “doable.”
“I have more good days than bad days,” she said with a smile.