Mother and daughter pursue a new life after breast cancer

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Mary Faux and her daughter, Laura Faux Donnelly, are breast cancer survivors who have 30 years of “survivorship” between them. During October’s observance of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, the two are even more vocal than usual about the importance of mammograms as an early detection tool for all women. (Photo by DAVID GUNTER)

SANDPOINT — Mary Faux is wearing pink today. Yes, it looks absolutely lovely on her, but that’s not the reason she leans toward this side of the color palette.

For Mary, pink is a power color, a shout-out to everyone she meets that breast cancer can be beat. She ought to know — both Mary and her daughter, Laura Faux Donnelly, battled breast cancer and won. The two women become especially vocal during the observance of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month every October.

“We have 30 years of survivorship between us,” said Laura, whose fight took place five years ago.

Laura was able to schedule all of her treatments in Sandpoint as she continued to work in the diagnostic imaging department at Bonner General Hospital. When her workday wrapped up, she walked down the hall for chemotherapy.

Staying close to home for treatment would not have been possible without the aid of Community Cancer Services, she pointed out. That organization was formed after one of the founders, Heather Gibson, fought her own eight-year battle with cancer before passing away in 2006. What Gibson found was that other cancer patients in Bonner and Boundary County were being routed as far away as Seattle for critical services.

Fueled by funding from the community and energy from friend and co-founder, local nurse practitioner Cynthia Dalsing, Gibson and CCS began to fulfill a mission of providing education, information and direct support to people with cancer and their families.  

“Heather Gibson had a vision for having cancer treatment in Sandpoint,” Laura said. “I’m so thankful she had that vision.”

After every single one of treatments, Laura’s parents stayed in the room, prayed the Rosary with her, chatted about the day and waited beside her until she fell asleep.

She had been in another room at a different time when her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. Standing there with three other sisters, she listened as the doctor told them that, statistically, one of them would have breast cancer later in their own lives. Laura, in her 20s at the time, recalls looking around at her siblings and thinking, “It won’t be me. I won’t get cancer.”

“When I got my diagnosis, it was such a surreal moment,” she said, describing the doctor’s appointment where she learned the bad news. “It was like I was floating above the whole scene thinking, ‘That’s not me. That can’t be me. It’s not supposed to be like this.’”

In many ways, Laura was lucky. Her cancer happened at a time when the world was wearing pink in October and awareness and support for breast cancer patients was gaining momentum. For Mary, breast cancer was a lonely battleground strewn with more questions than answers.

“Twenty-five years ago, I honestly thought that all people who got breast cancer died,” she said. “There’s a support system there now. There wasn’t one 25 years ago.”

Laura learned just how potent such a system could be when her family rallied around her once her treatments had begun. Her hair was coming out in patches and clumps, so she decided to shave her head and embrace the inevitable baldness that can be a side effect of chemo. Almost immediately, baldness became a Faux family hallmark.

It started with Laura’s daughter, Lea, who shaved her head during her freshman year at the University of Idaho. She was followed by sisters and parents and grandchildren, all of whom lined up to lose their hair.

“There were five of us who went to the beauty shop to have our heads shaved,” said Mary. “We had four generations of us who had it done.

“I had my head shaved twice,” she added. “I thought, ‘As long as Laura’s bald, I might as well be, too.’”

The gesture was more than an intra-family show of support. Mary used it as a way to shock people into a heightened state of awareness, a sword, of sorts, to brandish in the face of breast cancer.

A perennial beauty known for her expansive collection of hats, Mary used that reputation to get the attention of students in her bridge workshops or Weight Watchers classes. Around her bald head, she wore a scarf. On top of the scarf she placed one of her colorful hats. In front of the groups, she would whisk them off with a flourish and announce: “My daughter has breast cancer — I did this for her.”

In turn, Laura holds up her mother as the inspirational figure who saw her through the battle with breast cancer.

“What spurs me on is the strength that my mom gave to me, along with all the women whose strength I leaned on,” she said. “When people say to me, ‘You’re such an inspiration,’ I tell them I was just doing what I had to do and that now, I’m here to answer their questions and be that shoulder for them.

“Breast cancer is a club you don’t want to get into,” she went on, “but once you’re there, you are in it with open arms.”

Mother and daughter now take part in every local event that raises money for cancer research, including Relay for Life, Celebrate Life and Race for the Cure. Laura’s brother, Russell, annually runs the Prouty Race from Dartmouth College through New Hampshire and Vermont — a two-day, 200-mile ultra-marathon in the fight against cancer. Her sister, Priscilla, works with cancer patients in Bend, Ore.

Breast cancer made both women step aggressively into the role of advocate for early screening — a message they deliver year-round and with even more fervor in October.

“Twelve years ago, there was Breast Cancer Awareness Day,” said Laura. “Now, it’s Pink October. If that can get one more woman — or man, because a small percentage of men get breast cancer, too — to get screened, then it’s for a good cause.

“See your doctor and get your mammogram, because early detection is key,” she continued. “Then go out and celebrate that you took care of yourself.”

Beyond regular screening, the women stressed the importance of diet and exercise for cancer survivors. For the past 25 years, Mary has put those words into action and daily can be seen walking briskly along the bike path in all kinds of weather.

“I’ve been accused of wearing out the road,” she joked.

“I think the most important thing for people to know is that there is life after cancer,” Mary said.

“A better life,” he daughter agreed. “You’ve got a whole, new appreciation for life and you approach every day with gratitude. When I think about all the things I would have missed, like seeing my daughter graduate from college or having grandchildren, I have a grateful heart.”

In more intimate moments, these two survivors continue to find strength from the husbands who stood by them at every step, from diagnosis to treatment and on to surviving breast cancer.

“Sean was my Rock,” said Laura. “No matter what was happening, he always told me, ‘Everything is going to be OK.’”

“And that was Howard’s mantra, too,” Mary said about her husband.

Sitting together and looking back at the disease that redefined their lives, Mary and Laura find no negative connotations in the word, “survivor.” To the contrary, they see it as a badge of courage.

“Survivor, warrior,” Laura said. “I wear those words proudly.”

For more information about National Breast Cancer Awareness Month and the importance of breast cancer screening, visit: www.nbcam.org

To learn more about support and services available locally through Community Cancer Services, as well as how to donate to or volunteer with the organization, visit: www.communitycancerservices.org

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