October is…

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Each one of us knows someone affected by it. We know brave survivors, previvors that have found they are at risk and unfortunately, many of us have known women that have not been that fortunate. There is no way around it, all women must get their mammograms. That is the best way for us to stay healthy and to diagnose cancer at an early stage. The National Breast Cancer Foundation estimates that 200,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer each year and 40,000 die from breast cancer each year. Many of you know that I am working on a book with my friend Gill about her experience with breast cancer. Gill is helping a recently diagnosed friend right now and when we spoke this afternoon she asked me if I would write a post reminding people to get a mammogram. There is no better way to do that than to relate some of the horror Gill experienced 4 1/2 years ago when she underwent a double mastectomy, chemotherapy and a hysterectomy. Read the excerpt from the book, feel thankful and get a mammogram.

The phone rang at 7:00. A safe time. Professionals had gone home hours earlier. Shaun and the boys were in the house. Too early for middle of the night emergencies. So she answered it quickly and easily.

“Allo,” she said in her singsong voice.

“Hello. Mrs. Thaxter. This is Dr. —- . I have the results of your biopsy. It is a positive medullary carcinoma.”


“No, Mrs. Thaxter, I said the results were positive. You have breast cancer.”

“Right, sure, very well.” Her voice only slightly less singsongy and probably the difference would only be noticeable to those that were very close to her.

The moment Gill hung up the phone her world started spinning a little faster. She had just said ok, fine, well, sure, of course. But that was so far from the truth – her new truth. Gill sat in bed shivering that night. Her new reality attempting to change her life. She fought against it. Shaun brought her hot chocolate and covered her in blankets. Covering the lump that was rearing its head. The chills kept coming as did the inevitability of her new title “Cancer Patient.” They sat and held each other. Each wanting to comfort the other but knowing there was really no way to find comfort in the middle of the night hours after being told you had cancer.

Gill’s only choice was to start to swim in the water of the life that she loved so much.

So, after a sleepless night filled with tears partially because they were not confident they had the right surgeon, Shaun got up at the crack of dawn and found what he was told was the best breast surgeon in Richmond. He went to the doctor’s office and sat at the front door waiting for someone to arrive. The receptionist came about an hour later and was surprised to have someone there. After Shaun convinced her that there wasn’t any reason to be scared and explained Gill’s desperate situation she looked at the appointment book and they had a cancellation later in the morning. Shaun drove home and picked up Gill, rushed to the other doctor’s office and picked up her medical files. In England you don’t switch doctors. You trust the one you are assigned to in the beginning. Leaving the original doctor left Gill with a lot of guilt but this was her life and her health and she was playing by American rules now – thankfully. When Gill and Shaun met the new doctor they knew instantly that he was the right one. He talked easily and knowledgeably and made both Gill and Shaun feel comfortable. They scheduled her lumpectomy to be in 10 days. There was nothing to be done in the meantime.

Except think.

Their only choice was to continue with the plans they had made months ago, to go on holiday. Keep the boys moving, don’t disrupt the schedule. It would be easier to contemplate death on a mountain far away from the regular routine of packing lunches, bus stops and volunteering. So away they went.

But nowadays with the advent of cell phones you can always be reached. On Wednesday while on holiday, Gill received a message from her doctor. He had spent some time reviewing her mammogram slides and thought he saw another tumor on the other breast.

“That’s it,” she thought. “Another tumor, my last holiday with the boys.” She figured she was riddled with cancer.

Gill kept swimming. The skiing continued. They did leave for the airport a day early to ensure they would arrive on time for their return flight. But as it turned out that was not enough, a snowstorm struck and closed the airport. All outbound flights were canceled for the day. Gill’s second biopsy on the new lump on what she thought was her healthy breast was set for Monday morning. The lumpectomy had been pushed back once in order to do the biopsy. In Shaun’s mind the only option was getting home immediately. Every day they were still stuck at the airport pushed the surgery back and every day the surgery was pushed back allowed the cancer to grow in Gill’s body. Her mum was arriving from Northern Ireland on Sunday night and they were still hundreds of miles away from the airport her mum was to arrive into and the surgeon’s office that would read the cards that Gill had been dealt.

It was Shaun’s turn to take charge. He checked the family into a hotel and shuttled between the business center in the hotel lobby and the airport speaking to every employee in the airport explaining the dilemma and looking for the first available flight. All of his anxiety and fear finally had a purpose. He had one task to accomplish, one thing that he might be able to control out all of the uncertain tasks that were ahead of him. He went to sleep that night in the hotel knowing he had not secured a flight but knowing he would have to try his hardest tomorrow. At three a.m. he was awoken by a blaring fire alarm. He and Gill grabbed the boys, Hugo’s bunny and Giles’ blanket and thought who cares about the flippin’ tumor in Gill’s breast the damn building is about to burn down. But alas it was a false alarm.

Shaun returned to the airport several hours after he was awakened by the fire alarm. As he pleaded his case he was referred to the manager of the airline. Within minutes the Thaxters were dashing through the airport having been placed on a flight. The family that was bumped from their seats probably had their own reasons to get home. But in all probability they were not as desperate as the Thaxters and they would likely be happy to know what they did for this family. They will never know how grateful this one family from England was to them.

Copyright Julie Farley 2009


8 comments on “October is…

  1. Tina Donahue Hatch on said:

    Reading this left me with chills… I had just met Gill at this time and although her radiance continued to shine through all of the anxiety, fear and brevity of her cancer, I knew she must have felt this fear you’ve described. Even my former mother in law, who had been diagnosed years ago with the same (HER2 positive) type if cancer and underwent a double mastectomy seemed alarmed that Gill was only 39 at the time- very young and the cancer aggressive. Yet, she has made it through these years, and continues to be a bright light in so many lives! Cheers to Gill and her family! I am so happy to hear that you are writing a book together.

  2. mary lee alfano on said:

    You know that we all have our stories…but you wrote Gill’s so beautifully, it brought tears to my eyes. I am proud to call you my friend.

  3. Julie,
    This was beautifully written! I can’t imagine the fear Gill felt when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. I am glad she had such a tremendous support system and was able to be treated quickly so she could become a breast cancer survivor. It’s fantastic to see such an outpouring of love.
    Kudos to you for the mammogram reminder during breast cancer awareness month. I love seeing all of the men who support breast cancer research in the month of October…the football players, coaches and staff all wearing pink during their games. The husbands, fathers, sons and brothers of breast cancer survivors don their pink garb in the name of more funding to eradicate breast cancer. It’s awesome to see the power of all of us pushing harder and harder to find a cure.
    I try to schedule my mammograms during October, it’s my little way of keeping connected to those who have braved this battle. My most recent mammogram was just last week and while I felt like everything was fine I still got a little knot of fear in my stomach as I waited for the doctor to come into her office and tell me what she saw or didn’t see. I think the relief on my face was evident when she said everything looked good and healthy.
    Thank you for this beautiful post!

    • So glad your mammogram was all clear Jenni! We all need reminders don’t we? I kind of think people put it in the back of their mind out of fear even though they are inundated with reminders during October.

  4. Bridget on said:

    Thank you Julie. I look forward to reading the book.

  5. Laura@Catharsis on said:

    Wow. What a story. Thank you for reminding women of the importance of getting those mammograms. I am only 31, but I have two friends and know of another my age who have suffered from breast cancer and double mastectomy. Such a scary disease, one that threatens each of us. Again, thank you for the reminder.

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