Over 11 years, Laura Clark-Hansen co-ran a theater company, acted in stage productions, created and toured her own one-woman show, fought cancer three times and wrote – but never published – a book.
She passed away in 2016 from her third round of cancer, and her husband Paul Hansen and sister Karen Chacon decided they would work to make sure others could read Clark-Hansen’s words.
Hansen, born in Oregon, and Chacon published “Please Send Hats” in late 2018.
“A lot of (the book’s message) is enjoy life while you can ... because nobody is promised to live to be 90,” Hansen said. “We had anticipated being retired and spending our golden years together, you know? Taking care of each other and all that stuff.
“That’s when reality intercedes; it didn’t happen that way.”
Clark-Hansen started writing “Please Send Hats” in 2010, five years after she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She had been cleared “no evidence of disease” (NED) after going through chemotherapy.
In 2007 Hansen and Clark-Hansen moved to Brooklyn from the Twin Cities to semi-retire from their careers running Cornerstone Productions LLC. They worked with schools to provide workshops where students would create skits about problems they faced like bullying. They also produced short videos with students on the Positive Behavioral Invernations and Supports system, which is used in Oregon schools.
Many of the schools they worked with were in Wisconsin, so it made sense to move back to start winding down Cornerstone Productions, Hansen said. Five of Clark-Hansen’s eight sisters also live in the Madison area, where they had grown up.
“I think she knew so much about ovarian cancer … I think she knew somewhere down deep that it probably would recur, and when it did, she wanted to be around family,” Hansen said.
In 2013, Clark-Hansen was diagnosed with cancer in her liver. Treatment was harder this time, but by 2015 she was again NED.
“We considered that our golden year,” Hansen said. “We traveled, we visited with old friends, a lot of family time, stuff like that.”
The cancer recurred again in 2016, this time in her lymph nodes. She died that November. Before she did, she made Hansen and Chacon, a Madison school teacher, promise to get “Please Send Hats” published.
Clark-Hansen had tried to publish the book while she was alive but never found a publisher. So, she had turned the book into a one-woman stage show, which she performed at Wisconsin Ovarian Cancer Alliance meetings and hospitals.
Along with the performances, Clark-Hansen participated in the Survivors Teaching Students program, where a group of ovarian cancer survivors would meet with medical students to talk about their own experiences. Ovarian cancer’s symptoms can be difficult to spot and diagnose correctly, Hansen said, so Clark-Hansen would encourage the students to consider the diagnosis.
“If there was any kind of group that she could join (she did),” he said. “She got involved in art therapy and music therapy and all these different things. She was just really a very inquisitive type of person and very social too.”
After editing and organizing the materials Clark-Hansen left behind, Hansen and Chacon found a publishing company.
“We found a publisher in Waukesha with the strange name of Orange Hats Publishing,” Hansen said. “So we were like, ‘Please Send Hats, Orange Hat, yeah.’ And they were very receptive to it.”
“Please Send Hats” came out in September 2018.
The book combines Clark-Hansen’s experiences with cancer with remembrances of growing up in a Catholic family in Madison. Beyond the memoir side of it, Hansen also highlighted his wife’s inclusion of chapters on more tangible advice like cancer’s effect on sexuality and how to spot potential scams in alternative medicine providers.
She also included the lyrics to Peter Mayer’s “God is a River.” Hansen said that the metaphor of life as a river was one of the dominant motifs in the book. The final chapter, which Clark-Hansen wrote in 2016, is titled “The River” and Hansen said he thought it encompassed the main point of the book.
“One day at a time we drift along in this wide river of life, trailing our hands in the water, and enjoying the ride,” Clark-Hansen wrote.