Morgantown philanthropist remembers and reflects

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Thirty years ago, Betty Puskar received some frightening news on Halloween – she had stage II breast cancer.

Betty was always active and health conscious. The words “breast cancer” were foreign to her in 1985. “I jogged six miles a day. I can really tell you I never even thought of being sick or having cancer. Let alone breast cancer,” she said.

Betty was laughing with her daughter and getting dressed one day when her arm brushed up against something strange. “I felt a lump, and I thought, ‘Wow, that wasn’t there yesterday. Oh, it’s nothing.’”

She called her then-husband, Mike, at work, and he suggested she see a couple of their friends who were doctors. “When I looked in the mirror, I didn’t have to guess. There was a large lump,” she said.

“I saw three doctors, and each one of them told me that I was having some real problems. We went to a Halloween party that evening because it was still like something that wasn’t happening. We didn’t tell anyone.”

After the party, Betty and Mike broke the news to friends and family. The direness of the situation began to sink in. “I thought to myself, ‘This has got to be something serious for everyone to be so concerned,’” Betty said.

In the mid-1980s, there was no cancer center in West Virginia. A doctor told Betty, “There’s no place for you to go, so what are you going to do?”

Luckily, the Puskars had the resources to get her the care she needed – Mike owned the leading generic drug company, Morgantown-based Mylan Pharmaceuticals. “Mike said, ‘We’re going to the best. I have a plane, and we are going to fly you out to Houston to MD Anderson.’”

After performing tests, doctors told Betty that she was in serious trouble. They gave her a prognosis of one to three years to live. “I told my doctor I’m not going to die, and I want you to make my appointment for 30 years from now – that is this month,” Betty said.

On her frequent flights back and forth from Morgantown to Houston, it helped Betty feel better to dress up when she went to MD Anderson Cancer Center. “When I would go in for chemo, I always wanted to look nice. I didn’t have any hair or fingernails. I’d always have a beautiful hat and a wig. One of the doctors said, ‘You know Mrs. Puskar, we always try to be a little bit late for you.’ And I said, ‘Why?’ He said, ‘We want people to see what you can look like and have cancer.’”

She made friends at MD Anderson that helped her through the ordeal. “I always wanted to talk to people instead of just sit around,” she said. “I saw a lady crying, and I walked over to her and said, ‘Isn’t it beautiful out today?’ ‘Yes, it is’, she said.’” Betty asked if she had cancer and learned that they both had breast cancer, and they were also going through divorce at the same time. As they sat on a bench talking, she asked Betty if she’d ever seen cancer. “She exposed herself, and it was awful. She and I became really good friends, but she died three months later.”

Eventually, Betty became too sick to fly, and she was bedridden for four months. MD Anderson would fly her chemotherapy to Morgantown, and if she had a problem, they were available by phone. She found comfort in the support of her daughter, family, and friends.

Betty was so thankful that she could go to MD Anderson Cancer Center, but she was also well aware that most women with breast cancer in West Virginia did not have that luxury. “When I was really sick, I knew that I was going to do something – build a breast cancer center – because there were so many women that had no help, and they were dying. In 1985, breast cancer was really on the back burner,” she said.

Dreams of building a breast cancer center kept her going through especially distressing times. “The way that I coped with everything – I built the cancer center in my mind,” Betty said. “When I felt down and depressed, I would add another room. I was surprised at myself, but I never was a weak person. So I thought, ‘Now, I know what I want to do and what I am going to do.’”

She found moments of laughter when she could to help her through the chemotherapy, the mastectomy, and the divorce. “When friends sent me cards, I told them to put money in it. So they did. They started putting nickels and dimes in cards, and eventually I had a huge jar of change from all of the cards I got,” she laughed.

As Betty began to recover and she found herself in remission, she was asked to serve on a board to help build the WVU Mary Babb Randolph Cancer Center. “It was an honor to serve on the board because we didn’t even have a cancer center,” she said.

When the Cancer Center opened in 1990, Betty introduced her plans about giving a donation to create the Betty Puskar Breast Care Center.

“There are times when I still shake my head in disbelief,” Betty said. “It has my name on it, but there were so many people that helped me. You would be amazed at how many women and men wanted to help. If neighbors wanted to give me 10 pennies, that was fine.”

Recently, Betty was at the Breast Care Center for her mammogram, and tears came to her eyes. “What a beautiful place we have now with excellent doctors. It’s such an honor,” she said. After her mammogram, three women were waiting just to hug her. “I’ll always be active with breast cancer as long as I live. We have wonderful women and mothers that we don’t need to lose.”

Photo caption: WVU President E. Gordon Gee, J.D., Ed.D., recognized Betty Puskar and other breast cancer survivors at the WVU Football game presented by WVU Medicine on Saturday, Oct. 10.

For more information: Amy Johns, Director of Public Affairs and Creative Services, 304-293-7087
dc: 10-22-15