Soulful survivor: a year after cancer treatment, Karen Folaron soaks up the sun in her new sailing life. Two years after her doctor detected a lump during a mammogram, Karen Folaron is now cancer-free and embracing all that life has to offer.

Sail away

Karen Folaron embraces change and a second chance at life
“Energy is like a river. I have this energy from my past, the things that have upset me in this lifetime – they were just stuck. I worked through that,” Folaron said. “I just kind of had to embrace all of it as a big picture. I helped create it; I can help take it away. I just have to do all this work on myself.”

Former Big Sky local Karen Folaron, who previously went by the last name Sebastian, is “chasing this crazy dream to sail around the world.” She now spends her time on Tavernier Key on the Florida Keys, sailing every chance she gets, and living with her 17-year-old cat named Preshy in a converted van affectionately named Frannie Vannie.

She was initially nervous to leave Big Sky – quickly missing her friends in the mountains and her daughter. But with a little time, she’s learned she made the right choice.

Folaron officially packed up her Big Sky life in November and has been living the van life ever since. She said a few years ago she never would have considered actually making the leap, but a harrowing experience left an indelible mark, and she decided to make the leap from the mountains to the sea.

To sail into the sunset has been a dream for as long as she can remember – ever since was a little kid. She casually mentioned her desire to get a sailboat to Martin Spagat 10 or 15 years ago. Spagat had a strong sailing background, and said he wanted to get a sailboat, too. Three years ago he taught her how to sail on Hebgen Lake.

“I was terrified. Martin was very patient with me. ‘We’re going over!’ Martin: ‘We’re not going over. This is heeling. It’s what sailboats do,’” she said, recounting the learning experience with a laugh.

Once Folaron committed to the move, things just began lining up: connections were made, and opportunities started surfacing after her weeklong live aboard sailing class.

“I’ve met these people; people that I know were meant to be in my world right now. They feel like little angels,” she said. “Now, I feel like I have a family here, too. Think about how quickly that transpired – just three months.”

During the phone interview for this story Folaron discovered a school of fish between the hulls of a catamaran and gleefully described the experience. “I wonder what kind of fish these are! You would be so psyched if you were here right now! There are hundreds of them coming up,” she said as she explained her new life – early mornings filled with sunrises and sails.

She paused as she was describing the yacht club which is now her temporary home.

“That’s hilarious and ironic, Blue Cross Blue Shield is trying to call me right now,” she said with a chuckle.

The insurance company became a big part of her life – and of keeping her alive – a few years ago. It all started when she felt the instinct that something just wasn’t right, deciding to pay a visit to Big Sky-based chiropractor Dr. Andrea Wick.

“She was the first person who told me something was wrong with me,” Folaron said. “This was before I went in for any testing. She said, ‘Karen, I detect disease, you’ve got to get this inflammation down.’” 

Folaron went in for a routine check-up in mid-October 2016 where the doctor detected a small lump, but she found little room in her mind or life for self-concern. Her mother was in the final stages of battle in an eight-year struggle with leukemia at that time.

“My mom passed away on her and my dad’s 59th wedding anniversary,” she said, which was October 26.

After losing her mother Folaron was left reeling and needed movement; a change of scenery; an adventure. She forgot about the lump while on an epic road trip of the west: exploring Long Beach, Catalina Island, Las Vegas and eventually discussing the increasing pain in her armpits and body with a close friend in Napa who had survived breast cancer. She told Folaron to get to the doctor – quickly.

Her first mammogram was on Valentine’s Day 2017. She was told to have someone with her for the results: breast cancer, three masses – all the same kind. Doctors didn’t want to perform surgery because the masses were so large; they were scared of damaging a nerve.

“I never asked what stage or what the odds were. I just knew that it was serious because they said it was an aggressive and invasive form of cancer,” she said. “I told them I wanted to do a homeopathic approach and the doctor was like, ‘Yeah… you don’t have time.’”

She began two different forms of chemotherapy simultaneously. The nurses discussed the stages of chemo and let her know approximately when her hair would start falling out. In preparation, she contacted her hair dresser of over 20 years who cried while cutting her hair short. Folaron later awakened one morning to hair covering her pillow “like a dog had shed all over it.” Her then boyfriend, Spagat, shaved her head.

She continued to go see Dr. Wick for acupuncture. A friend set her up with energy healing. The healer told her she had energy which was stuck and she believes that is what made her sick. Carissa Hill functioned as her acupuncturist; Dr. Wick did chiropractic/applied kinesiology and Josh Overcast helped her with Accunect or healing the emotions to heal the body.

“Energy is like a river. I have this energy from my past, the things that have upset me in this lifetime – they were just stuck. I worked through that,” she said. “I just kind of had to embrace all of it as a big picture. I helped create it; I can help take it away. I just have to do all this work on myself.”

The medical professionals helping Folaron were supportive of her efforts. The told her what she was doing holistically was helping the chemo work.

Folaron developed a sense of purpose even through the tough times – those challenges were there for a reason, just as her mother always said. Even during the darkest days she found something for which to be grateful.

“The crazy thing is I wasn’t even done with my chemo and I knew my cancer was gone. It just had a huge presence. I don’t know how to describe it. It was there. It was part of me,” she said. “I told my doctor it was gone and he said he’d had a handful of women say that to him.”

She requested a scan from her doctor right then, but it didn’t work that way.

“I still had to go through all of this protocol: surgery, radiation,” she said.

Then, she was on the other side of a nightmare – having gone through the gauntlet of treatment and of her own psyche.

“It’s officially been a year since I’ve been out of treatment,” she beamed recently. “Wow – so much has happened in a year!”

What developed from the process of healing both her physical and spiritual self was a driving need to help others.

“You just want to give back somehow. You just want to tell people to be grateful. All that cliché stuff,” she said. “You think, man, I just got a second chance at this one turn we’ve got.”

Encouraged by her daughter, she forced herself to leave her Big Sky comfort zone, spending her first days in the Keys questioning that decision. Her concerns quickly subsided as she found herself embracing the structure of sailing life: of the wind, the waves and life itself.

She has also found good people along her journey. Folaron said she has learned to accept the darkness and the light within herself– the full scope of the human experience without blocks; without limiting herself. Her love of freedom and adventure feeds her spirit. Someday soon, she will have her own sailboat.

“You just feel so insignificant, yet really big at the same time – coming into your own power,” she said of her adventure of survival and life.

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