Karen Dubawsky has worked in food service since she was 16.
She puts in as many hours as the Taco Bell at Buffalo State College will allow. When the restaurant closes during the summer and during the Christmas break, she takes a bus to the Taco Bell at the Boulevard Mall to keep her bills paid.
She also does catering for Taco Bell whenever the opportunity arises. Anything to avoid going on unemployment.
But this hand-to-mouth livelihood is about to be rudely interrupted for the 47-year-old Buffalo woman. She was diagnosed with cancer Nov. 15 and will begin radiation and chemotherapy Monday.
"There ain't going to be a Christmas," the feisty West Sider said, "because I can't work all the hours I want to. I don't want to wear myself down while I'm going through all this."
Dubawsky has been referred to Greater Emmanuel Temple food pantry at 151 Richmond Ave. for assistance at this difficult time in her life. The pantry is one of many food distribution sites that will receive donations during the holiday season, thanks to the collaboration between The Buffalo News Neediest Fund and the Western New York Holiday Partnership.
At this time of year, the need is great in Western New York, and the drive's goal is to provide more than 12,000 families with the food for a holiday dinner.
Dubawsky has been shedding many tears for herself and her 15-year-old son, Chris Maitin Jr., but she hasn't lost her sense of humor.
Realizing that the treatments at Roswell Park Cancer Institute may rob her of her dark curls, she smiles and muses: "I'd like to go on a shopping spree. I hardly ever get to do that, especially now."
Her son would like to get a Nintendo Wii game for Christmas, but she can't afford one.
Dubawsky's physicians discovered the colon cancer early and have an optimistic prognosis. But full recovery can come only after many months of treatment, followed by surgery, followed by more treatments at the hospital and a long convalescence at home.
"I'll be in a clinical trial -- a new way of using chemotherapy before surgery," Dubawsky said. "Four hundred people are taking these injections. This should double the chance of the tumor shrinking."
Her medical insurance will cover all this, she said, but she worries about how she will she support herself and her son if she's out of work.
"I have no skills for a sit-down job," she said. "I can serve food and I can cashier. I've been in food service since I was 16. And I work catering -- and like it a lot -- but you have to be available on short notice."
Her cousin, Laurie Adamczyk of North Tonawanda, is her closest confidante.
"She's tough," Adamczyk said. "She wants to live. And she wants to help others -- she knows [the trial is] research. I think it will make her a more well-rounded person."
Although Dubawsky is a graduate of Windermere Elementary School, Amherst Central High School and Buffalo State College, she hasn't reached her potential, Adamczyk added.
"If she can beat cancer," Adamczyk said, "she can get the confidence to be a leader in her field." Back at Dubawsky's apartment, Adamczyk gave her cousin a long look and said, "I think you have a good fight ahead of you."
"Yeah," she replied. "I got a fight. I got a fight. But I'm curable. Then I'll be cancer-free the rest of my life."