March 2, 1995 in Features

Circle Of Love Group Helps Women Help Each Other Cope With The Challenges Of Cancer

By The Spokesman-Review

Nancy Nelson sounded tired on the telephone. She had arrived home from the hospital only hours earlier.

But her voice brightened as she remembered a visit from a friend a year ago.

Upon learning of Nelson’s biopsy results, the friend told her, “I just want you to know you’re entering into a wonderful sisterhood.”

After more than a year of fighting breast cancer, Nelson has discovered her friend was right.

“It is an incredible group of women who challenge and claw their way through this disease,” Nelson says, her voice strong and clear.

On Sunday the Peace and Justice Action League of Spokane will honor women who have lived with, died from and survived serious disease. Called “Women Celebrate Women: Helping Each Other Heal,” the event will be from 2-6 p.m. at the Unitarian Church, 4340 W. Fort George Wright Drive.

Nelson, the former director of the league, helped dream up this event. But in a telephone interview earlier this week, she was uncertain whether she’d be well enough to attend.

Nelson is embarking on a new, high-dose chemotherapy regimen. Part of that program will include a peripheral blood stem cell reinfusion. She is undergoing megadoses of chemotherapy, which will suppress her bone marrow so that she won’t produce white blood cells, and make infection a serious threat. Her blood stem cells will be harvested, treated, frozen and then reinjected later to prevent infection.

Part of her treatment will occur next month at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle.

“I feel amazingly fortunate I’m one of the people able to have this procedure,” says Nelson. “They weren’t doing them a year ago.”

With a weakened immune system, Nelson must avoid infections and crowds. But she’s hoping to wear a mask and attend at least part of Sunday’s event.

It will feature personal stories from breast cancer survivors such as Kim Murillo and Jan Doherty, and talks on healing alternatives from Dr. Joan Craig, medical director of the Sacred Heart Cancer and Research Center, Dr. Linda Hole, a family practice physician and acupuncturist, and Daya Goldschlag, a massage therapist.

Spokane entertainers Lee Lee Everette and Kathy Colton will perform, and participants will create a healing spiral quilt, designing circular quilt pieces to honor women who have dealt with serious disease.

“We live in a state of denial most of the time,” says Sacred Heart’s Craig. “I think some of the most effective women are those who have survived all of this.”

Murillo, a mental health worker, stared down death five years ago when she was diagnosed with cancer at age 37 and emerged transformed and stronger.

“I decided I really wanted to hang on to life,” Murillo said. “I wanted to stay on the planet for my children.”

She survived mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiation through the help of a woman oncologist, a woman minister, a woman therapist and a large group of women friends.

Death, she discovered, is inevitable, but she learned she won’t have to go through it alone. Living life as fully and honestly as possible became her focus.

And when the cancer disappeared, she took charge of her life. She ended a relationship that wasn’t working, she took up running, lost 40 pounds, made plans to pursue a master’s degree and even changed her hair.

“I don’t think you have choices to live or to die,” says Murillo. “It comes down to how you’re going to live with the life you’ve got.”

According to Craig, 350 to 400 women each year are diagnosed with breast cancer in Spokane. These women confront the disease in highly individual ways, but, Craig says, all encounter an opportunity for growth.

After wrestling with their own mortality, they often come to similar conclusions. Says Doherty, 45, “We all have now and we don’t treasure now nearly enough.”

Doherty, a public education officer for the Spokane Fire Department, finds that it is not her own cancer that has been most painful, it has been grieving the deaths of friends to this disease.

“It’s so profoundly sad to see what people have gone through and are still facing,” Doherty says. “They should still be there for their children, for their husbands, for their mothers and fathers.”

Doherty finds being a member of a breast cancer survivors’ support group has given her a place to talk about life and death realities without scaring her family.

Murillo finds that when women gather, they exchange wisdom about the benefits of scarves and turbans versus wigs. They compare notes about the white chemotherapy lines in their fingernails. They talk about their grief at losing the sensation, so familiar to breast-feeding mothers, that recurred whenever they heard a baby crying.

“My friends really listened to me,” says Murillo. “They said how courageous I was and how important I was to them. Those things really made me appreciate life more.”

Murillo believes her friends and her therapist helped save her life. Unexpressed feelings might have only fed the cancer, she says.

Now, at 41, she says, “I know my life is so much richer. When I get into difficult times, I think, ‘I have survived cancer. I can survive anything.”’

For more information about “Women Celebrate Women: Helping Each Other Heal,” call PJALS at 838-7870.

MEMO: This is a sidebar which appeared with story: Celebration “Women Celebrate Women: Helping Each Other Heal” will be held Sunday from 2-6 p.m. at the Unitarian Church, 4340 W. Fort George Wright Drive. Call 838-7870 for more information.

This is a sidebar which appeared with story: Celebration “Women Celebrate Women: Helping Each Other Heal” will be held Sunday from 2-6 p.m. at the Unitarian Church, 4340 W. Fort George Wright Drive. Call 838-7870 for more information.

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