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October 24, 2013
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In their own words: How cancer changed our lives

Ina Elrod says her mind simply went blank when she heard the words “breast cancer.”

“Literally blank,” she said. “I couldn’t cry. I couldn’t do anything. ‘Blank’ is really the best way to describe it.”

Now — more than three years after hearing her doctor utter those words — Elrod has reached out to share her story with hopes of helping others understand what she has learned along the way from her own treatment:

“It’s not necessarily a death sentence,” said Elrod, who teaches swim lessons at Warm Water Fitness in Nevada City. “Attitude … I know now has a lot to do with it.

“I submitted my story because I really wanted to thank everybody. … The outpouring from the community as a whole was so tremendous. Having the community, my clients, my swim parents be as compassionate as they were, it just blew my mind. To be honest about it, I could not have done it without them.”

Tonight, The Union and Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital host the seventh annual Paint The Town Pink. Through the first six years, more than $102,000 has been raised for the Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital Foundation and the advancement of local breast cancer care. Funds raised this year will be directed toward the purchase of whole breast ultrasound equipment. The fun-filled evening of food, wine and entertainment is set for 5-8:30 p.m. at the Nevada County Fairgrounds.

Prior to tonight, Brooke Murphy had not attended Paint The Town Pink, though she has firsthand experience with the cause behind it and the community that so strongly supports it. Murphy’s mother, Ann Boger, died last month after a six-year struggle with breast cancer. Murphy said she was moved to share her mother’s story with the hope of helping to raise awareness of the importance of annual mammograms.

“She was my mom and I adored her,” Murphy said. “She died of breast cancer and her mother did, as well, so that’s something that’s been on my mind nonstop. She did get checked regularly, but there was one year she missed — and that was the year.”

Mary Northwood Engquist was moved to share her story because she wants those diagnosed with breast cancer, as she was in 2009, to know they are not alone.

“It was a horrible feeling,” she said. “I felt all alone.

“I’d hate for other people to feel that way,” she added. “I was shocked. I couldn’t believe it. How would I be able to take care of my husband (also a cancer patient) and do what I needed to do? It’s just the loneliest feeling you can get.”

According to the American Cancer Society, about 1,660,290 new cancer cases are expected to be diagnosed in 2013 — of which an estimated 232,340 new cases of invasive breast cancer will be diagnosed in women. About 580,350 Americans are expected to die of cancer in 2013, almost 1,600 people per day.

Cancer is the second most common cause of death in the U.S., exceeded only by heart disease, accounting for nearly one of every four deaths. The National Cancer Institute estimates approximately 13.7 million Americans with a history of cancer were alive on Jan. 1, 2012. Some of these individuals were cancer-free, while others still had evidence of cancer and may have been undergoing treatment.

Mary, Brooke and Ina are sharing their stories, in their own words, in today’s edition of The Union, hoping to help other members of the western Nevada County community realize that they are not alone in their experience. And we thank them for doing so.

Taking things ‘one day a time’ since ‘rebirth’

“Breast cancer” and “invasive” were the words on my mind as I drove from work to a board meeting on Monday, Sept. 12, 2011.

On my way out the door, I answered the phone and received the message that would forever change my life and my attitude toward it.

The call came from my OB-GYN. He was the only one I did see on a yearly basis. He came right to the point and told me that he was looking at a report of breast cancer and that he would not be able to help me; I had to go see a surgeon. I remember saying “thank you” and hung up the phone.

Granted, I was expecting his call, but I had tried very hard not to think about that possibility. After all, I am a healthy person in good physical shape. I don’t even have a primary care physician. I’ve had my yearly exams and even though I have dense breast tissue, there didn’t seem anything to be concerned about.

Wrong! I got to go on the E-Ticket ride of my life. Fortunately, it was right here in Nevada County, where the doctors were the tracks, the nursing staff the seat belt and the community the guard rail. All I could do was hang on tight and trust in as comfortable a ride as possible.

In early August, I was hit in the breast with a pool toy and that’s when I did feel a lump. I have to thank my student, Bradi, for being such a good shot.

I had waited until September to schedule may annual mammogram. Because of the lump, I had an ultrasound instead and a biopsy, all the same day. Not much time in between to digest all the new information and possible outcome.

The ride started the week following the phone call. Daily appointments with a surgeon, oncologist, radiologist and plastic surgeon.

I learned so much information about breast cancer that my mind was spinning. Thankfully, I wasn’t alone for any of these appointments. I was only able to retain little of what was said. I guess my mind sort of went blank, emotions numb.

Each day, more facts; each day, new questions. Doctors called in the evening and even on the weekend to help me sort it all out.

After having little time to make a decision, I decided to have a mastectomy and reconstruction. Oct. 10, 2013, (was) my second birthday and I feel great.

I really am very lucky to have had this experience here. The doctors and hospital staff, including the billing department, are a great team and looked at all angles and aspects of my individual needs and wishes. They were honest and forthcoming, and I had no qualms about putting my faith in their hands.

Deciding not to let this change my life too much, I needed to go back to work as soon as I was allowed to get back into the water.

I realize now that I was able to do this only because of the tremendous support from my clients, neighbors, students’ parents, friends and Lions (Club members), whom I look upon as having been my guard rails. They did it all. Preparing meals, walking and taking care of my dogs, sitting through chemo, yard work, financial support to help with bills, even modifying a bathroom and bed. I had everything I needed.

If not for the help, support, advice and compassion shown to me by all these people, I’m not sure I would have handled all of it as well as I did. The general outpouring of well-wishers still amazes me to this day.

In closing, I should mention that my husband had spinal surgery in December of that same year and spent three weeks in a rehab hospital before coming home and needing lots of therapy and help with everyday living skills. Having to be strong for him was another huge factor; I could not allow myself to fall apart.

Thank you, one and all, from the bottom of my heart. You never know what’s coming your way. It’s one day at a time.

— Ina Elrod, Nevada City

Marveling at mother’s strength, community’s support

This last month I said goodbye to my mom for the last time on this earth as she passed from a body ravaged by cancer to a place free from the pain and suffering she endured over the last six years.

A few thoughts cross my mind again and again as I reflect on her battle with breast cancer and the knowledge that somebody today is receiving a cancer diagnosis, others are in the midst of intense treatment, and yet others are rejoicing in a clear scan!

First, I can’t help but marvel at my mom’s calm and steady strength as she fought for her life.

Through all her treatments and surgeries, she continued with her passion, teaching students. Every day she would show up at work, excited to teach a buzzing classroom of fifth-graders and to collaborate with fellow teachers, leaving at the end of her day to face a round of chemo or receive a blood transfusion.

Though often feeling weak or nauseated, she would arrive at home in time to eat a late dinner and sit down to look over student work and plan for the next day.

She taught her last day in the classroom this June and had every hope of welcoming another class of students in the fall. And she sure would have, if she had had her way. But the Lord had other plans, and she passed away in September, just as her first grandchild entered kindergarten.

Many inquired about her choice, wondering why she would continue teaching as her life was coming to a close. And what they had a hard time understanding was that she was doing exactly what she would want to do if she knew she only had a few days left, instilling a love for learning in children, just as she loved learning. Though her body was fighting and failing to keep up, her passion and hope were clear to the end. The legacy that she leaves behind is filled with determination, kindness and love.

Second, our community, Nevada County, is one of a kind. The hospital, the outreach programs, the events and most importantly the people are more supportive than I had ever imagined! The time, effort and manpower that is required to put on events such as Paint The Town Pink and the Barbara Schmidt Millar Triathlon are incredible. Thank you to the people of Nevada County for coming together and supporting each other in trials and celebrations. It means so much to all those fighting the battle against cancer and those standing by their side. To have people who care and whose caring is shown through both words and actions is irreplaceable. You are amazing!

And thirdly, ladies, get checked! I know that I will!

— Brooke Murphy, Grass Valley

‘These were hard times’

Cancer affected my husband and my life with a double whammy.

It all started in 2004, when my husband at the time was 81 years old. He was diagnosed with stage 3 lung cancer. It was a month later that he found out he also had colon cancer. Though we were told that the two were not connected, I was 19 years younger than him and knew I was strong enough to take care of him through his chemo and radiation.

With the chemo, he slept most of the time and never was really nauseated. We made weekly trips to the hospital for his radiation, also. I was giving him his baths, feeding him and taking care of an open wound that he had on the back of his neck. I was still working at the time and had my own clothing store. I decided when he was diagnosed to close the store, for my only concern was taking care of this wonderful man.

He made it five years out and was told that he was cancer-free. Life was getting better and then he found out that he had COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease). If anyone knows anything about this, it is a horrible death. You smother in your own breath. This went on for a few years, and he was on oxygen and all kinds of drugs to help him with the breathing. I never felt so alone as I did when he was so sick.

Four months before he died, I was diagnosed with breast cancer.

I always got my mammograms every year, and for some reason, I had a fear that something was not right with me this time. It was so bad that when they were selling bracelets for breast cancer awareness in front of the stores, I could not make myself buy one. Call it a deep feeling that would not go away. Call it my dog, who tried to tell me something was not right by the way she put her long nose on my breast every time I was holding her. I had read somewhere that dogs knew and could tell when you have cancer. I would not acknowledge her and pushed the thought aside. I cannot have breast cancer.

I finally went in for my yearly mammogram, and was about six months late because of the fear that I felt — never in the last 10 years did I feel this way. My worst fears came true. You never want to hear these words but the technician said to me, “You have breast cancer.”

I was totally numb at that point. I was lucky to have one of my daughters with me. I came home and told my husband that I would be gone for a day or so because I had cancer, and they were doing a mastectomy. He was so in shock, he could not talk. Very few words were ever spoken again.

How do I take care of a sick husband with the last stages of COPD, go into the hospital and have my surgery? Come home and be a caregiver for him? Why, now I was 67 years old and he was 86. I had God on my side, who helped carry me through.

There was no time for the extra reconstruction surgery, so I decided to wait on it and get home soon. I was able to get a friend to spend the night with him. It was hard for him to accept me for losing a breast. He could not talk about it to me. I had no support besides my kids, if I needed anything. I also had one best friend named Delta, who could always say the right words to me.

These were hard times. Some of my friends were afraid of me, maybe because they thought I was contagious, and they just disappeared from my life.

I was diagnosed in 2009, the same year my husband died.

In 2010 I had my reconstruction surgery, and in 2011 I met a wonderful man and remarried.

I now am going on five years and I am cancer-free. Thank you God!

— Mary Engquist, Grass Valley

“My worse fears came true. You never want to hear these words but the technician said to me, ‘You have breast cancer.’”
— Mary Engquist


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The Union Updated Oct 25, 2013 02:00PM Published Oct 28, 2013 07:01PM Copyright 2013 The Union. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.