Long fight against cancer draws two sisters closer
The year was 1996, the day after ice storm hit. Libby McGrory Hodges had a lot on her mind while she finished up clients at the hair salon where she worked. At 31, she had just become the mother of an adopted son who was 2 months old at the time. And before going home, she had a doctor’s appointment to check out a lump in her breast.
“I remember driving up to Sacred Heart, seeing the ice on the trees and the branches breaking off. It was surreal,” said Libby. “I thought it was just a cyst in my breast. It never occurred to me that it could be malignant.”
Because of the ice storm, her family lost power for some time. On Sunday night, when the phone started working again, she got a call from the doctor’s office.
“It’s a moment that’s etched in your mind,” she said. “I was in the kitchen on the phone, tears rolling down my face and my husband was pacing the hallway because he could tell I was upset.”
The doctor was telling her she had stage 2 breast cancer and needed surgery right away.
By Thanksgiving, barely two weeks later, she had a mastectomy and began a battle against a cancer she’s just recently beat for the fourth time. The last time her cancer returned it was at stage 4 and had spread to her lungs and bones. Her last round of chemotherapy ended in February.
“Yes, it’s too much sometimes, but it’s the path we have been given,” she said. “You can let yourself feel overwhelmed for a bit, but you can’t stay there. You have to move on.”
Libby has just returned from “Tour de Pink,” a 200-mile fundraising bike ride that started in Thousand Oaks, Calif., put on by the Young Survival Coalition. She said she was never much of an athlete, but she rode 1,000 miles this summer in preparation for the race.
And she wasn’t alone: Her sister Lisa McGrory, who lives in Bozeman, came along. Lisa was diagnosed with breast cancer 10 years ago when she was 39. Two and a half years ago, Lisa had a double mastectomy and reconstructive surgery.
“My chances of a recurrence are very, very slim because I’m at stage 0, compared to her being at stage 4 now,” said Lisa. “Once it becomes invasive and starts spreading, it’s a whole different can of worms.”
During the time when their cancer treatments and diagnoses overlapped, the two sisters pulled even closer together for support. They did family appointments with doctors and surgeons.
“Lisa swings into research mode when she’s facing something like this,” said Libby. “Me? I clean my house a lot. I told people they were welcome to come over but they had to follow me around as I cleaned.”
When Libby was finished with her first round of chemotherapy, and while she was on hormone therapy, she found out she was pregnant. Being pregnant while on hormone therapy may cause all kinds of medical issues.
“I never questioned the pregnancy – not for one moment,” she said.
Shortly after her son was born, Libby found a lump in the scar tissue on her chest.
The cancer had returned.
This time doctors and oncologists rolled out the full treatment plan: radiation, chemotherapy and hormone therapy.
“I was working through most of the treatment. We had bills that needed to be paid and we couldn’t afford to have me stay home,” said Libby, who worked as a hair dresser. Then she laughed. “My friends later told me that their hair really suffered from me doing it while I was in treatment.”
With two young children at home and her second round of cancer treatment behind her, Libby was doing well until 2006 when she noticed her chest was hurting. She thought it was because she fell while skiing, but it wasn’t: The cancer was back.
“My husband’s mom died right around that same time,” she said, pausing. “Yes, it was a very crappy time.”
Once again she faced the onslaught of radiation, chemo and hormone therapy. And once again she made it out on the other side.
She’s a petite, energetic woman with the solid handshake and direct gaze of someone who’s used to facing the world head-on. She tells her story with the occasional reflective pause – “my sister is much better at remembering the dates and the years,” she said with a laugh – yet matter-of-factly and without many tears.
“I do cry sometimes – it’s usually in the car for a few minutes here and there, but then it’s over,” said Libby.
During her most recent round of chemotherapy, she took some time off.
“I’m lucky that we could afford that,” she said, “and this time I also started thinking of some life goals that I’d like to accomplish.”
It was a parent at her son’s school that mentioned Tour de Pink. Libby immediately called Lisa, who needed a little persuasion.
“I was skeptical because she had just finished chemo and that can take a toll on a body,” said Lisa, pausing. “I was worried she had bit off more than she could chew, but I said yes because Libby talks me into everything.” Family friend Ramona Dibiasi, who’s an accomplished road cyclist, was on board from the get-go.
During one joint training ride in Bozeman this summer, Lisa realized she had nothing to worry about.
“I couldn’t keep up with her. She’s tenacious. She kicked my butt over and over again,” Lisa said, laughing. “But we rode the whole race together – we were pretty evenly paced by then.”
The sisters trained on bikes donated by Giant Bicycles, and their team, the Spoke Spinners, had an initial fundraising goal of $2,500. They raised almost $15,000.
“People were just so great and supportive and generous,” said Libby. “It’s a tough time for a lot of people right now. Sometimes the small donations of five bucks touched me more than the really big donations.”
Tour de Pink also gave Lisa and Libby an opportunity to address the women at the event.
“It was very powerful to be there and to talk to all the survivors,” said Libby. “Aside from my family and what they have accomplished, riding this race is one of the things I’m the proudest of in my entire life.”
They both like the Young Survival Coalition’s message of hope and the mentoring the organization offers young women diagnosed with breast cancer.
“Cancer treatment has come so far,” said Libby. “It’s not like stage 4 cancer is a death sentence like it used to be. Now doctors treat it more like a chronic illness, and you can still have a good quality of life.”