Health July 29, 2008

Cancer is a Definition, not a Declaration

When Carol Harlig was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1991, she plastered the cream-colored cabinets in her kitchen with hundreds of get-well cards that she had received.

Every time she walked into her kitchen and saw the cards, she was reminded of the love and prayers people were sending on her behalf. “I felt so blessed to live in this community,” she recalls. “I got phone calls and cards from people I barely knew. They volunteered to read to me, help me with my medication, fly me for a second opinion if I thought I needed one. I even got meals with step-by-step instructions down to ‘Remove the plastic wrap.’

“I would have never had this kind of support had I lived in a big city.”

Talk to most any breast cancer survivor in the Wood River Valley and you’ll find her echoing Harlig’s sentiments.

Sun Valley is not a place to die but rather a place to survive and even thrive.

Much of it is wrapped up in the sense of community right down to friends and acquaintances doing something as simple as collecting money so a woman going through a tough time can have a massage or someone come in and clean her house.

“This community rolls into action when someone is hurting,” says Harlig. “We go and give money to people we don’t even know because they’re going through a rough time. And that’s particularly true for those of us who have been through a rough time ourselves. After you heal, you want to give back.”

A smaller community offers more opportunity for camaraderie, whether it be in a support group or in such activities as the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life.

And Sun Valley is especially fortunate to have Expedition Inspiration, an organization founded by breast cancer survivor Laura Evans to raise funds for breast cancer research while helping women regain their self-esteem after their fight with cancer.

Suzanne Mulenos chose to get beyond her cancer by helping with Expedition Inspiration’s annual symposium, which brings together breast cancer researchers. She has volunteered at the office and co-chaired the annual moonlight snowshoe hike to raise research funds. And she helped start a breast cancer support group.

“The greatest gift I can give the next generation is not to have to worry about breast cancer,” she says.

Sue McCollum has taken a similar tack by designing a hand-blown glass globe covered with cobalt blue dots. The dots represent the blue dots doctors tattooed on her chest to mark where they wanted to direct radiation. And they came to represent a lifeline for McCollum.

Now McCollum donates the proceeds of the ornaments toward breast cancer research so it can be cured in her lifetime.

“I want to encourage people not just to be victims or survivors but to be proactive—to say we can do something,” she says. “We have exciting possibilities that it can come true in our lifetime. I say. ‘Why not now!’”

Ronile Robinson, meanwhile, looks at those same blue dot ornaments and sees them as a way to help women gain closure about their treatment.

“When I finished my treatment there was no closure. It was just done and off you go. I give these ornaments as a way to say, ‘It’s over.’”

There’s another component to healing here. And that’s Sun Valley’s outdoor environment, which survivors say offers a balm for the soul.

The green of the pine trees is a healing color, points out Sue McCollum, noting that some hospitals are even turning to green, rather than the traditional white.

“Just living in this beautiful, clean, pristine place helps you want to heal,” echoes Wendy Jaquet. “I tell myself all the time that I need to create time for myself and that I need to take advantage of the place in which we live and get outdoors and take a walk. I tell myself that I’m a survivor and that I need to continue to be a survivor.”

McCollum recalls how she always climbed a mountain on her birthday. On her first birthday following her diagnosis, her sons took her by the hand and led her up Proctor Hill.

“I was so weak I didn’t think I could make it, but they led me up, one on either side. It was such a special moment to me. Last year I made it up Baldy—what a big deal that was!”

The environment offers plenty of opportunity for quiet meditation and visualization, as well.

Harlig listened to her meditation tapes every day, repeating the mantra Richard Odom ended her yoga class with: “My body is strong. My mind is at peace.”
And she laughed every chance she got.

“I lost all my hair, my eyebrows, my eyelashes, even my arm hair. So I’d pencil on eyeliner. Then I’d get an itch, scratch my forehead and realize ‘I just rubbed off my eyebrow!’” she recalls.

“You don’t stop life because you get cancer. This is a speed bump in life. And you’ve got to go over it, around it. You’ve got to keep on with life.”

This article appears in the Winter 2008 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.