If anyone is a great example of how to live life in spite of cancer, it’s Laura Baker. She’s been through three separate bouts – breast, ovarian, breast – and yet, she wakes up every day looking for another adventure, another way to squeeze something magic from every moment.
She goes on morning bike rides along the beach. She paddleboards and goes sailing with friends. She snorkels and is so thrilled with her finds when the tides are just right that she posts about it on Facebook.
“Everyone get out there! Shells are EVERYWHERE!”
You might not even realize that cancer has been a part of her story, except that she is so forthcoming with details. She thinks it’s important to share what she’s been through. Baker said that hearing the stories of other survivors helped her through her journey.
“Just seeing somebody alive helps,” she said. “You know – just like – there they are. They made it. That helped a lot, especially the first time, because it’s very frightening.”
Her first time was just over 20 years ago. She was 30 years old and had just had her second child.
“And I had been breastfeeding and so my breasts had gone from the hard cantaloupe to marshmallow fluff,” Baker explained. “And I felt something.”
She knew something wasn’t right, so she called the doctor. Back then, she says, it was faster and easier to get the tests she needed. She went right in, had an ultrasound, then a biopsy the next day. But she wasn’t worried because she didn’t have a family history that she knew of. When the biopsy came back positive for cancer, she was shocked. Then it turned out she had breast cancer in both breasts.
The doctors recommended chemotherapy first since treatment was complicated because of breastfeeding. But it worked, and the tumors shrank significantly enough they told her she could choose between a lumpectomy or a double mastectomy.
“I was only 30 years old,” Baker said. “I thought double mastectomy was kind of terrifying.”
So she chose lumpectomy, and was assured her chances were excellent.
Genetic testing for the BRCA gene mutation was available at the time, but between a lack of family history (that she was aware of) and the fact that insurance could still deny coverage based on preexisting conditions, she was advised not to have the test.
“And I don’t have any trouble,” Baker recounted. “From 2000 on. And I always have my little MRIs and CT scans and mammograms…and I remember being really scared.”
She worried the cancer would come back, but her results were always good. Then her doctor said she didn’t need to come back.
“I get fired from the oncologist because I’ve timed out of the system,” she explained.
Nearly 16 years went by with no problems, and Baker thought she was in the clear.
“And then my sister gets ovarian cancer,” she said. It was 2016.
Baker’s sister then had the genetic testing and found out she did have the cancer marker. This caused them to start asking questions of family members.
Before then, “people just didn’t talk about it,” Baker explained. After finding out multiple female relatives had had breast and ovarian cancer in the past, Baker said she remembered the family talking about “lady problems,” but no one actually ever talked about cancer.
Baker’s cousin did the genetic testing and also tested positive, so Baker tested, too. And she had the marker as well. That led to the decision to have a preventative hysterectomy.
Always pragmatic, Baker scheduled the surgery around her tennis schedule. Then came the day of the surgery.
“I wake up and they’re like, ‘So it turns out you’re riddled with cancer, and we had to sew you back up.’”
She’s told she threw a tissue box at the doctor.
She had to wait two more weeks to get an oncologist and the right surgeon to handle the new diagnosis.
“At that point, they took out everything they could,” Baker said.
This is when the power of friendships took over. Her band of friends rallied around her and did everything from hosting a Charlie’s Angels wig modeling party when her hair fell out to cooking meals and providing transportation to appointments.
“I had a little chart, and I filled it up with 18 different people,” Baker said of that round of chemotherapy.
A different friend drove and sat with her for each appointment, which she said could actually be fairly pleasant due to the energy she got from steroid shots beforehand. She had to remind her friends that she wasn’t that joyful when the steroids wore off.
Baker made it through her second cancer diagnosis and treatment, and she returned to living life to its fullest. She and her husband became empty nesters and moved out to the beach. They sold their business, they retired and they learned to play pickleball.
And then came diagnosis number three in the spring of 2022.
“I see a dark spot,” said the doctor after a mammogram. This time it was weeks of waiting and anxiety to finally get the bad news that breast cancer had returned. She had a double mastectomy this time, with a tricky reconstruction due to previous radiation.
Her doctor recommended The Center for Restorative Breast Surgery in New Orleans, the only specialty hospital of its kind, which turned out to be a posh place to be treated. They served her eggs benedict, and one nurse even gave her hair a blowout. Even so, it was a tough surgery, but she has recovered and is back to doing the things she loves.
In fact, when you talk to her friends, you can see that she’s an inspiration in more ways than one.
Baker taught friend Teresa Helms “to never let anything steal your joy.” She is warm and joyful, always smiling and laughing about the crazy turns life can take.
“Laura has taught me to not be afraid to say yes to new experiences,” said Wei Ueberschaer, another longtime friend.
Independent. Positive. Adventurous. Resilient. Intelligent. Joyful. The same words come up over and over when you talk to Baker’s friends, a testament to her impact.
That passion extends to strangers who are also battling cancer. Baker has volunteered for the American Cancer Society’s Reach for Recovery program.
“I’d call patients and just listen. A male doctor can’t really tell you exactly how things are going to feel after breast surgery. I can,” she said.
Baker has excellent advice for newly diagnosed breast cancer patients: When people offer help, take it. Having a network of support is important, and Baker is proof of that.
The other words of wisdom she offers are for every woman out there:
“Everyone needs to go get their mammogram when it’s time. People say, ‘I don’t have time for that.’ Well guess what you really don’t have time for? Chemotherapy! If you catch it early, it’s so much easier.”
Baker should know. She’s here to tell us about it.
CALM IN THE STORM
One friend’s tale of adventure with Laura Baker
A story I have told many times that to me shows a perfect example of Laura’s unflappable spirit is one day a few years ago when we went out together on our boat on a beautiful summer day to go snapper fishing with our husbands and sons.
As often happens in the summertime, storms exploded everywhere while we were about 30 miles offshore. The waves grew to five to six feet; we were in blinding rain and dangerous lightning.
Laura and I went below to the cabin with the boys and Lane and Bill stayed up at the helm trying to navigate through the storms back to the pass. We put a movie on the TV for the boys to distract them. I was literally on my knees praying – I was absolutely terrified.
To this day, it was the worst storm I’ve ever been in on the water. And we were out there for hours in it; no matter how much they tried, Lane and Bill could not find a break in the storms – we were zig zagging all over the Gulf.
And just when I thought this is it, we are all going to die out here on this boat, I look over at Laura and she’s...asleep. Peaceful, calm and relaxed enough to take a nap after a long hot day on the water. She wasn’t worried at all.
In that moment, I realized she REALLY doesn’t sweat the small stuff. Or even the big stuff.
That was a big learning moment for me – to realize the things I have control of and the things I don’t. As Jesus says in scripture, “Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?” This is Laura’s mantra. I know she has had moments of sorrow and pain and probably fear, but they are fleeting. She chooses to be joyful in the face of crisis.
— Lori Lynchard