Super Survivor’s Nightmare Becomes Reality

Kara Pecoraro woke up panicky from a vivid nightmare. In it, she needed to see a doctor, but no one was willing to take her to one. When she awoke that night in mid-February 2016, the New Berlin mom and wife felt a pain in her chest. It was almost a burning sensation. Should she say something about it? Would anyone believe her?

“I almost didn’t call the doctor because I thought I would sound so crazy,” Kara recalled.

However, she did call her doctor’s office the next morning, even though she had no history of breast cancer in her family. She didn’t smoke. She exercised. She wasn’t overweight. No other signs suggested anything was amiss. By the end of the week, however, her nightmare became a premonition of sorts; she had Stage 2 breast cancer.

Kara is one of three women who were randomly chosen as Super Survivors to be honored at this year’s Memorial’s Be Aware Women’s Fair. The eighth annual event will be held from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 21, at the Orr Building on the Illinois State Fairgrounds.

Super Survivors are women whose breast cancer journeys have been an inspiration to others. Their unique stories will be shared with fair-goers when the Super Survivors reveal their makeovers, courtesy of BJ Grand Salon and Spa, and their new outfits.

See the reactions of the three Super Survivors when they were surprised with the news.

Taking Out the ‘Bad Guys’

About a month after her diagnosis, Kara, who is in her early 40s, had a double mastectomy, but her surgeons discovered during the procedure that the cancer had spread to her lymph nodes. She awoke from surgery with Stage 3 cancer instead of Stage 2.

After six weeks of recovery from surgery, she began 16 rounds of chemotherapy, which lasted from April until September. Her father, Jack Merkley, gave her his Vietnam Combatant-Craft Crewman Insignia, which she wore to every treatment. Following chemo, she underwent radiation treatment for another five to six weeks in October and November.

The hardest part of her journey was telling the news to her two boys, Dominic, who is now 13, and Michael, who is 9. Both took the news in stride. Dominic has always been a positive person, Kara said, and “gave me more help than I gave him.” Michael compared her cancer treatment to “like when (action hero) Chuck Norris takes out the bad guys.”

Life’s Hustle and Bustle

Kara is active in the community. She attends St. Mary’s Catholic Church in New Berlin and helps with her sons’ Cub Scouts pack. She serves as the assistant coach for Junior Cyclones Wrestling, a program for elementary age children, which meets at Sacred Heart-Griffin High School.

She recently completed her Master of Arts degree in public history at University of Illinois at Springfield and accepted a part-time position with the West Sangamon Public Library.

Her husband, Joe, is a Springfield firefighter; the couple have been married for 16 years. “My husband was like a rock,” Kara recalled. “I could always count on him. He was always by my side.”

Another source of inspiration was her mother, Marilyn Merkley, who lives in Rochester and nominated her for one of this year’s Super Survivors. She helped take care of her two grandchildren, picking them up from school while Kara was receiving treatments or going to medical appointments. “When your mom’s there, it always makes things better,” Kara said.

And the community support was overwhelming and humbling. Folks in New Berlin signed up to make meals for the family for an entire month. The local elementary school teachers put together a care package for Kara. Her name was on prayer lists across the nation and around the world, including California, Germany and England.

Appreciating the Gifts

Now that she is on the other side of her cancer journey, Kara said she’s more focused on appreciating the little things in life. “All these things are truly gifts,” Kara said. “We all think we’re going to live a long life, see your child’s graduation and be grandparents.”

She encourages other women facing breast cancer to “do everything you can do. And what you can’t control, you just have to let it go.”

Meet our other 2017 Super Survivors