BELLINGHAM - Molly Gardiner was on vacation in Hawaii with her husband in early 2013, when she started to get a bad stomach ache. The pain hadn't subsided by the time the couple got back to Bellingham days later, so Gardiner went to see a doctor.
For a time before the trip, Gardiner, 58, suffered from acid reflux, and she was tired a lot. When she returned, her nurse practitioner felt an ultrasound was necessary; the scans showed some abnormal-looking lymph nodes.
She was diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma, with secondary tumors in her esophagus and lymph nodes.
That specific diagnosis carried a weight for Gardiner: Her father was diagnosed with the same type of cancer in 1995 and eventually died from the disease. He was sick for a year while receiving radiation, and had to be on a feeding tube for much of that time, said Peggy Stephens, one of Gardiner's sisters.
"When it's your own family member, you see the pain and agony and all that he went through," Gardiner said. "I didn't want to do that."
Gardiner's family is very close-knit. Her mother, three sisters and brother still live in Whatcom County. Her older sister, Barb Lupo, said when she first heard the diagnosis, she didn't want her sister's fight to be like her father's.
"That was a long year," Lupo said. "Our dad was really sick, and we didn't want her to be. We know what happens with esophageal cancer, and that's a hard diagnosis to figure out a place for."
But their father was sick almost 20 years ago, and treatment has changed, Gardiner said.
"I haven't been sick like that at all, so it's really a blessing," she said.
Doctors at PeaceHealth St. Joseph Cancer Center wanted to start Gardiner's treatment right after she was diagnosed. They installed a port in her chest for chemotherapy to be administered. She was put on a regimen of three consecutive days of chemo, every other week, for seven weeks. She's since been put on a new chemo she gets one day a week.
Getting treated with harsh chemicals for hours on end isn't easy, but Gardiner's family makes sure she's supported.
Gardiner's husband, Woody, can't stand to watch her get chemo, so he drops her off, runs errands and comes back.
"He might not be able to watch the chemo process, but he is the one who takes care of me during my recovery," she said. "For days he watches over me, feeding me, taking over the household chores, and loving me unconditionally, while I am bald, out of sorts, and generally not pleasant to be around for a couple of days."
She's lost her hair but doesn't wear a wig.
"My head's hot, so I don't know if I could stand a wig," she said, laughing. "I went bald during the summer because it's too hot to wear a hat."
Though Woody doesn't like to watch the chemo, Gardiner usually doesn't sit alone during treatment: Every time at least one of her sisters goes with her, or at least pops in to say hi.
"We usually take turns and take a day off," Stephens said. "Sometimes it's just a morning, or half day, depending on what time her chemo is."
The women usually chat or surf the web on Gardiner's iPad while she gets chemo, Stephens said.
"We've had a few exciting family events: a nephew got married, a niece had a baby, and it's been nice to focus on things to look forward to," Gardiner's sister Jody Morgan said.
In addition to support from her family, Gardiner said her faith has played a role in making her feel better about her diagnosis. On the recommendation of a friend who lost her husband to cancer, Gardiner visited a pastor in Lynden.
"I had some questions about death and dying and (the pastor) helped put me at ease," Gardiner said. "God has given me peace with it."
Though Gardiner doesn't feel like she was a bad person before, she said she feels having cancer has made her a better person.
"It gives you a different perspective on life," Gardiner said. "I'm not so quick to anger; I take things as they come now."
Rigid schedules and an almost obsessive compulsion for planning have been replaced by the ability to go with the flow, Gardiner said.
"You've got to be flexible, and do things as they happen," she said. "I'm totally not uptight anymore, I'm so relaxed. It's a good, peaceful feeling."
While she continues treatment, Gardiner is still working as a bookkeeper at Garys' Mens and Womens Wear (owned by her sister, Barb, and brother-in-law, Gary) in Bellingham.
ABOUT THIS SERIES
The American Cancer Society is celebrating 100 years of fighting cancer this year. Locally, PeaceHealth St. Joseph opened it 35,000-square-foot Cancer Center in Bellingham late last year. The Bellingham Herald asked local cancer survivors and volunteers to share their stories this month to highlight the progress that has been made in fighting these diseases.
Stories in this series will be published throughout October.
The closest office of the American Cancer Society is in Everett, at 3120 McDougall Ave., Suite 100. Call 425-741-8949 for more information. Or go online to cancer.org.
Relay for Life, the signature fundraiser for the American Cancer Society, takes place in three locations in Whatcom County from May to July: Western Washington University, Lynden and downtown Bellingham. For more information or to sign up, go to relayforlife.org.
Reach Samantha Wohlfeil at 360-756-2803 or firstname.lastname@example.org.