FAIRBANKS, Alaska — Becky Zaverl is one of those rare people who can make you feel you’ve known her your entire life, even though you just met her. With direct blue eyes and an ever-ready smile, Zaverl is so warm, vibrant and upbeat it would be easy to assume she’s never experienced misfortune.
The truth is that Zaverl is simply in love with life, in the way only a three-time cancer survivor can be.
Zaverl is the driving force behind the Fairbanks Making Strides Against Breast Cancer 5K family walk, a fundraising event. A kindergarten teacher and mother of three active little girls, Zaverl took time out of her busy schedule to tell the News-Miner her story.
Zaverl, formerly Becky Roberts, was born and raised in Fairbanks. She was only 12 years old when an “annoying cough” prompted a trip to the pediatrician for an X-ray. The night before the appointment Zaverl noticed a lump above her collar bone but assumed it was a pulled muscle. Neither she nor her family were prepared for what the X-ray revealed.
“I had a mass in my chest the size of two of my fists put together,” Zaverl said.
It was 1988 and medical care in Fairbanks was not as advanced as it is now, so Zaverl was sent to Children’s Hospital in Seattle. A biopsy of her lymph nodes revealed the awful truth — she had stage two Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.
Since treatment would require a lengthy stay in Seattle, the Roberts’ — Becky, her parents, and her younger brother Max — stayed with a relative in Capitol Hill while older brother Chad stayed in Fairbanks with friends.
At the time the protocol for treating the disease involved “mass doses of radiation therapy,” according to Zaverl. Doctors warned the Roberts’ that the radiation therapy would probably cause future health problems but there was no other viable option for saving their daughter’s life.
Doctors radiated Zaverl from her nose to her chest over the course of six weeks, a process which caused her to lose the hair on the bottom half of her head and to develop weeping burns in her armpits. Since doctors wouldn’t radiate her until the burns healed — which took a week each time — Zaverl began hiding them.
“They said I had to have 25 treatments before I could go home. The burns was oozing out and I couldn’t lift my arms and finally the doctor had to see it. I said, ‘This doesn’t hurt as much as you telling me I can’t go home,’” Zaverl said.
After the upper-body treatments were finished Zaverl was sent home to rest. She returned a month later and doctors removed her spleen and took measures to shield her ovaries. Zaverl then underwent a second grueling round of radiation to her abdomen, which caused constant and debilitating nausea.
“Every smell made me nauseous. I’d barf in the car, in the hallway going home,” Zaverl said. “I remember one of the worst days was Halloween. I’m upstairs in my bed, just sick as a dog, and I’m hearing the doorbell ringing. ‘Ding-dong, ding-dong, trick or treat, trick or treat!’ I just cried.”
Zaverl said at the time she really didn’t understand how serious her illness was.
“At 12 years old I really didn’t think I was going to die — I really thought it was just a nuisance. I was kind of mad at everything,” Zaverl said.
Treatments finally ended and the family returned home to Fairbanks right before Thanksgiving. She flew to Seattle twice for checkups and then got on with her life. She went to Lathrop High School and started dating Adam Zaverl, the man she would end up marrying. After high school she attended college at Washington State University, and returned to Fairbanks after earning a teaching degree.
It was about this time that Zaverl started having trouble breathing. A chest X-ray revealed her left lung had collapsed because the radiation treatments had thinned the lining. Chest tubes were installed and the lung reinflated, but it collapsed again. A CAT scan showed spots on the lung so a second scan was ordered. Zaverl feared she had lung cancer and was relieved to find out it was “only” a pulmonary embolism.
“That can kill you, but I didn’t know that at the time!” Zaverl said, laughing.
The embolism eventually dissipated after a year of blood thinners. She married Adam, her high school sweetheart, and they had a baby girl. A year later Zaverl was diagnosed with thyroid cancer.
“Thyroid cancer takes a long time to grow, so it’s a great cancer to have,” Zaverl said.
Zaverl underwent two surgeries to remove both thyroids and was started on a lifetime regimen of thyroid medication. She became pregnant again with a boy, who was stillborn, and almost two years after that she delivered two healthy twin girls.
The twins were in diapers and Zaverl had just finished chairing the 2010 Relay for Life when a mammogram revealed she had cancer in her left breast.
Zaverl’s doctor told her the cancer was in its very earliest stage but a biopsy had revealed it was “a 10 for aggressiveness.” He suggested a lumpectomy followed by radiation treatments.
“I said, ‘What?!’ You’re telling me this was caused by radiation, but you have to give me radiation to cure it?” Zaverl said.
Zaverl didn’t want to live with the possibility the cancer could return so she made the decision to undergo a double mastectomy.
“I know a lot of women feel differently about this, but I said, ‘just take them. I don’t have time to worry. I’ve got little kids, I’ve got things to do,’” Zaverl said.
Zaverl opted not to have reconstructive surgery, and said that, while she felt like a 12-year-old boy when she first saw her body after the mastectomy, she eventually felt liberated.
“All of a sudden, after about a month or so, I felt like a badass. Maybe it was because I was flat chested and wearing these wife beater tank tops,” Zaverl said.
The feeling eventually wore off and Zaverl began to miss “feeling like a woman.” She dislike the way her clothing hung on her but she also disliked wearing a “hot, heavy” prosthetic bra. After “a lot of soul-searching” she made the decision to have reconstructive surgery.
Zaverl is happy with the results and is now healthy and cancer free. She is very active in local cancer charities and is “pumped” about the upcoming Making Strides Against Breast Cancer walk. She and her family have Sunday night dinners at her mom’s house every week and like to spend time together at their cabin on the Salcha River. Zaverl said she’s dedicated to “leaving this world a better place” and feels extremely lucky to have her family and to be surrounded by friends and family that support her.
Most of all, Zaverl said, she doesn’t take anything for granted.
“One thing this has taught me is that I’ll never know how long it’ll last. I’m fortunate to have every day,” Zaverl said.