Healing Through Helping: Karen Cook-Parrott

by Richelle Kimble • photography by Two Eagles Marcus

She’s a survivor, volunteer and mentor for many. Her voice’s enthusiasm lightens any heavy heart, and her empathy is nearly tangible. Karen Cook-Parrott’s innate ability to be a healing aura, positive energy and an understanding companion makes her a consummate fit for the hats she wears on a day-to-day basis.

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Living and Giving

Her professional career branches from her esthetician and massage therapy license; she’s an educator for ZO Skin Health, Inc. and assists Trent Tilton Chiropractic as a massage therapist. She also has a massage room in her home where she aids needing family or friends, and sometimes barters with other servicers as a method of helping one another. Personally, she’s celebrating 30 years with her husband, Bruce, next month, and is a mother of two successful and independent children, Sam and Marley.

Cook-Parrott has the do-good gene; she’s part of the unique pool of people who love to serve during their daily obligations and during their spare time. After Gilda’s Club positively impacted her post-cancer experience, she naturally fell into the role as a member, volunteer and mentor at the cancer support community.

“I look at it as my honor to do things [at Gilda’s Club],” she said. “I love it here. I feel like they’ve really saved my life.”

Cancer Doesn’t Discriminate

Cook-Parrott’s cancer story began roughly eight years ago. She discovered Ductal Carcinoma In Situ (DCIS) in one of her breasts, and with both prevention and equal aesthetic reconstruction in mind, she opted for a double mastectomy.

“I was very lucky,” she said, referring to the non-invasive DCIS and immediate treatment option. Cook-Parrott avoided chemotherapy and radiation, and underwent reconstructive surgery right away.

Gilda’s Club entered her life by the encouragement of her husband; after joining a fitness class, she attended a support group despite her quandaries. “I didn’t know if I was ready for that, but I went. And I spilled my guts,” she laughed. “I guess I was ready.”

Although Cook-Parrott was cancer free without further treatment, the weight of a life change like breast cancer remained. When I asked how the grief lingers post-surgery, she immediately delved into the connection women have with their breasts. “My breasts had always been a part of my life,” she said. “It’s like amputation, but people don’t look at it like that. And for a long time, it didn’t look at all like anything that resembled a breast.”

She said it doesn’t feel like breasts, either. As her plastic surgeon described to her, breast reconstruction post-mastectomy isn’t at all like a breast enhancement; an empty cavity is being filled. For Cook-Parrott, she’s reminded of the reconstruction on a daily basis with movements, bodily changes, and looking in the mirror. She can feel the foreign tissue when she uses her muscles, and she sees the tattooed nipple that isn’t hers.

This is how Gilda’s Club first impacted her story; it’s also the reason why she continues to be an active member and volunteer eight years later. As Cook-Parrott states, Gilda’s Club honors whatever stage you’re in—diagnosis, treatment, post-treatment, or survival. “You never know when it’s going to affect you mentally—for the first time or again,” she said.

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Sharing Perseverance

Cook-Parrott feels that the gratification of helping others serves as healing for herself, too. It’s shared empowerment; while she is dedicated to enhancing the well-being of others, she’s encouraged by the smiles that form from her own shared story, or from her offered actions.

“Not only am I helping them, I am helping myself. People always say I’m so selfless, but I’m just somebody who’s giving back,” she said.

Part of her role as a volunteer includes sitting in on new member meetings  as an educator and support person. Her mentor program allows her to impact Gilda’s Club members who need a resource, a helping hand, a friend or a support system.

“I feel like if I can make it easier for even one person who walked through that door, then I’ve done my job that day. I just want them to feel as comfortable coming here as I do,” she said.

Her first-hand mentorship experience brings light to the fact that every cancer story is individual to the fighter. “You never know how chemo is going to affect you, and every treatment is different,” she said. “Don’t ever try to measure what is going on with you with someone else, even if you have the same diagnosis. Your story is going to be different. Everybody’s story is different.”

Regardless of the story, everyone needs support. Gilda’s Club is a free, non-profit community resource (with 44 clubs across North America) that is committed to offering emotional healthcare to anyone affected by cancer. Cook-Parrott is only one of the incredibly dedicated, talented and heartwarming individuals that are impassioned by aiding and supporting others. For more information about Gilda’s Club Grand Rapids, visit GildasClubGR.org.

In the words of Cook-Parrott, “Cancer isn’t a group you want to belong to, but if you’re going to have to be in any cancer group, Gilda’s Club is the place to be.”


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