In 2005 the Boyer and Koetter clans were making the nearly seven hour trek from San Antonio to Norman after a trip to SeaWorld when they collided with other cars in a multi-vehicle pile up just outside of Dallas. Several people involved sustained critical injuries, three people were even air transported to nearby hospitals. Although their car was totaled, the Boyers and the Koetters only suffered from whiplash and eventually made it home in one piece.
That was in June.
In the following weeks Karen Boyer, loving mom of two and wife to Rob Boyer for nine years, started to notice different health issues that drove her to the doctor more and more frequently. It started with extreme soreness and anxiety but doctors soon found that her calcium levels were abnormally high and eventually scheduled her for some biopsies on lymph nodes. Denise Rable, a close friend from McFarlin United Methodist, was a breast surgeon at Norman Regional Hospital and would be one of her surgeons, much to Boyer’s relief.
The night before the surgery Boyer noticed a lump in her breast and started to panic. By the time she woke up from the biopsy it was her friend that gave her the news.
In July she had breast cancer.
Shortly after, news of Karen Boyer’s shocking diagnosis reached her McFarlin Sunday school class that Rable, among others, belonged to. They all put themselves in her shoes.
She was only 38.
It was at their traditional girls’ bunko night that they saw Karen Boyer since hearing the news and circled up in prayer. Boyer would get a double mastectomy the next week and start a year and a half of treatment not long after.
Karen Boyer is no stranger to hardship. When her son Blake was born in 1997 everything seemed fine, until her parents started noticing that he was missing milestones like sitting up and babbling. When he was three or four months old they took him to the pediatrician to check out a bulge that had developed on his head.
They discovered that fissures in his skull that all babies are born with to allow for the brain to grow were fused prematurely, resulting in the brain pressing up against his skull.
At eight months old he was scheduled to have reconstructive skull surgery at The Children’s Hospital in Oklahoma City, a seven to eight hour surgery that landed him a week stay while he recovered.
Six weeks later he started hitting those milestones and by four years old he was talking, but the incident would cause Blake to have developmental and behavioral issues for the rest of his life. Now, at 20, he has the mentality of a five to six year old and Karen and Rob are faced with the difficult question: what does he do from here?
“We’re at the point where we’re going to have to make some tough decisions with assisted living and other options, so we’ll see what we can do about that,” Karen Boyer said.
Blake was baptized and confirmed at McFarlin and has grown up well-known and accepted by the church community. From their Sunday school class in particular Karen Boyer has received much understanding.
Although his growing up has been emotionally and physically challenging, and people still don’t always accept Blake for who he is, they’ve always had the support of their church community and friends along the way.
“We’ve always encouraged him to be involved in the youth group and go through confirmation, which has always been a challenge, but we try to put him in the typical world as much as he can handle,” Karen Boyer said.
Those that live in the Norman area are familiar with the tornadoes that have wrought extensive damage to Moore, with some of the most notable being the May of 1999 and May of 2013 tornadoes.
The Boyers lost the home they had built in the southwest Oklahoma City area in the May of 1999 tornado when Blake was only 17 months old.
It destroyed their whole neighborhood and left them with basically nothing, according to Karen Boyer.
They managed to find a few personal belongings here and there in the rubble, but for the most part everything was gone.
“There’s nothing truly important that can’t be replaced, you miss the sentimental things, though,” Karen Boyer said. “It encouraged us to grow up really fast because we had to deal with things that are challenging to figure out at any age.”
So, with a baby and whatever they could find in hand they moved to Norman and rented a townhouse while their new house was under construction. Despite not having family in the immediate area, both Karen and Rob Boyer’s families came together to help.
They even started receiving letters, cards and checks from strangers across the country.
Karen Boyer suspected that they were sent from friends of friends and friends of her family. They weren’t the only ones affected by this disaster, but she thinks that having a young child made others sympathize with them even more.
Members of McFarlin and their Sunday school class gave them a plethora of clothes and supplies for Blake and countless meals.
“It just blew us away, all the love and support,” she said.
When Karen Boyer’s hair started to fall out, Koetter made an appointment with her hairdresser who worked out of her home so that Boyer could have some privacy. The three of them prayed and after they had finished Koetter announced that she would cut off her hair as well.
Boyer was grateful, but chastised her playfully.
“I’m going to be wearing a wig, so there’s really no point in cutting all your hair off,” she said.
Through such an isolating time as fighting cancer can be, Koetter wanted to offer solidarity.
“My total motivation in offering to shave my head was to make her not feel so alone,” Koetter said. “[She] knew that people were keeping [her] in their thoughts in prayer, but that nobody was consumed with [her] diagnosis 24/7 like [she] was.”
Whether Boyer knew it or not, her friends from her Sunday school class prayed and worried about her almost constantly.
“When you care about somebody, what happens to them has a big effect on you,” Lynne McGuire, another friend from the class said.
McGuire, along with Koetter and others from the class would often sit with Boyer during their lunch breaks when she went through eight rounds of chemo. Rob Boyer was also a steadfast presence during these difficult treatments and took the reins with supporting their family that had since grown.
Cooked meals were always a standing offer for the Boyers and one night the bunko girls presented her a basket of goodies they had assembled.
She did her best to make it to those game nights, for those were the women that helped her get through this.
And she did.
2017 marks her 13th year cancer-free.
But she didn’t beat cancer with just earthly help, Boyer accredits her resilience in life to her faith. The bible verse in particular that gave her most strength in that time was Jeremiah 29:11, Koetter notes.
“‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.'”
The McFarlin adult Sunday school class celebrated its 24th year together this year and out of those 24 years the Boyers have been involved 22. The class has seen people come and go, but mostly stay; fostering friendships for over two decades that wouldn’t have been possible without their shared faith bringing them together.
“Being married, raising a family, working, all those things are hard, but when you’re able to lean on and depend on people with your same basic values, it helps,” McGuire said. “And we have fun, too.”
From annual Halloween and Christmas parties to their monthly Wednesday bunko nights, to kids growing up, hospitalizations, cancer and now aging parents, the group takes the good and the bad together.
Walking through life with faith has allowed Karen Boyer to see the growth in her friends, especially when they came together during her treatments.
“I saw so much change in them because they were giving so much of themselves,” she said. “I saw that God was really working in them…and that they were growing so much.”
McGuire accredits their growth to Boyer’s example of unyielding faith.
“When you’re fortunate enough to have a friend who relies on their faith and lives it out, you see it make a difference in the way they handle trials,” she said. “It has an impact on you on a personal level.”
Boyer hasn’t been spared any trials since being declared cancer-free and has faced the unexpected loss of her father and developed autoimmune illnesses like lupus in recent years as a result of the harsh chemo treatments she endured.
“You do what you have to do,” Boyer said.
So, she asks for more prayers and handles things as they come, trusting in God and celebrating the good with those she loves. She also has bunko to look forward to on those special Wednesday’s once a month.
After interviewing McGuire she remembered with delight: “We have bunko tonight! I look forward to seeing Karen.”