Cancer survivors show life is beautiful – on the runway or off

Kent residents passing by the Downtown Seattle Macy’s this month might see a couple of familiar faces in the store windows. Jill O’Toole and Anne Hirner, both of Kent, are among the 16 breast cancer survivors Macy’s picked as models for its 12th annual Breast Cancer Survivor Fashion Show. Life-sized photos of the women – attired in Macy’s couture with all the trimmings – are in the store’s window display at the corner of Fourth Avenue and Stewart Street.

  • BY Wire Service
  • Saturday, October 18, 2008 1:00am
  • News
Jill O’Toole

Jill O’Toole

Kent residents passing by the Downtown Seattle Macy’s this month might see a couple of familiar faces in the store windows.

Jill O’Toole and Anne Hirner, both of Kent, are among the 16 breast cancer survivors Macy’s picked as models for its 12th annual Breast Cancer Survivor Fashion Show. Life-sized photos of the women – attired in Macy’s couture with all the trimmings – are in the store’s window display at the corner of Fourth Avenue and Stewart Street.

And Oct. 18, the two appeared at the store in person, along with 14 other survivors from western Washington, to model fashions and share their cancer survivorship stories during the sold-out fashion show.

And they have quite the stories to tell.

• Jill O’Toole

Meet Jill. She’s 46, works as a real estate associate, and enjoys golfing with her husband, Dolan O’Toole. She’s also a four-year breast cancer survivor.

She was first diagnosed with cancer in 2004. It was the Monday after Thanksgiving. “I’ll never forget that day,” she said, at an interview Oct. 13. “One minute you’re trying to decide what you’re going to order on your pizza, and the next you’re being told you have aggressive cancer.”

The diagnosis came as a complete shock, because a biopsy on a small lump in her breast had come back negative a month earlier. Jill had elected to have the lump removed anyway, just in case. And now, it turned out, the lump did indeed contain cancer.

“I’m living proof that if the needle doesn’t go to the right location ... you might not have a correct diagnosis,” she said.

She went through months of chemotherapy. Because her cancer was “estrogen-positive” (meaning it fed on estrogen), she also had her ovaries removed, sending her into premature menopause. Then came radiation, and a variety of hormone-suppressing drugs, which she continues to take to this day.

“I stopped wearing wigs on my 20th wedding anniversary in August (of 2005),” Jill said.

This past year, Jill’s cancer showed up again in two enlarged lymph nodes — one under her armpit, and one in the chest. She went through another series of radiation treatments, which ended July 21. Now life is back to ... nearly normal. “You can never be the person you were before (cancer). You just have to find your new normal,” said Jill.

Cancer has taught Jill a number of lessons. “You learn so much about yourself ... that you’re stronger than you thought you were, and that you have a lot more to give.”

It also allowed her to see the strength of her husband’s character, as he has stood by her through some very difficult years. “He’s a much better person than I ever thought he was when I married him,” she said.

One of the most powerful lessons came from Jill’s two nieces, who were 5 and 7 when they first saw her without a wig in 2005. Her hair had begun to grow back, but it was still, she said, “extremely short.” Her nieces asked why she had cut it, and she explained about the cancer treatments. Then one of the girls said, “That’s okay, Aunt Jill. It doesn’t matter what your hair looks like. You’re still Aunt Jill.”

• Anne Hirner

Anne Hirner, 58, has traveled a rough road in the 16 years since she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

She found the lump herself, at age 42, after her yearly mammogram failed to pick anything up. She had a mastectomy, followed by six months of chemotherapy, and five years of the hormone-suppressing drug tamoxifen.

Since then, she’s remained cancer-free. “I go faithfully to my oncologist once a year, and I do my annual mammograms,” she said.

When first diagnosed with cancer, Anne started attending the Special Women Breast Cancer Support Group, which meets twice a month in the Breast Center at Valley Medical Center. The group proved to be a huge encouragement for her.

“When I was first diagnosed, it was so good to walk in there and see the survivors from 10 years and 20 years,” Anne said, adding that “You learn more from people who have gone through (breast cancer) than you can from the medical professionals.”

Eventually, Anne started helping to facilitate the support group meetings, something she continued to do until two years ago when Cancer Lifeline took over running the group. Anne still attends the meetings, and recommends them to anyone going through breast cancer.

But Anne had more to suffer through than just breast cancer. Four years ago, her husband, Chris, died of a heart attack. His death came just two years after the couple’s son, Jeff, had died of a brain aneurism at age 27.

“It was hard,” she said of the triple blow of cancer and deaths. Then she shrugged, and smiled. “You just have to move on.”

Which is exactly what Anne is doing. She recently started dating, which forced her to face the question: “Can another man accept me with only one breast?”

Yes. Her boyfriend, Bob, “is a great, caring guy,” she said, and accepted her just as she is.

“And it’s fun,” she added.

Also this year, Anne got her first tattoo, just above the mastectomy scar, so she’d have something colorful to look at instead of the scar.

The tattoo is of a Native American woman’s head, with hair flowing behind her and a multicolored headdress in the shape of a butterfly wing.

“I think of it as kind of a warrior woman bursting into a butterfly,” Anne said of the tattoo. She’s showed it off to all her coworkers at Worldwide Distributors in Kent, as well as to the mammogram team at Valley Medical Center. The tattoo, she said, is a symbol of her own growth, and the purple (cancer survivors’ color) interwoven in the other colors reminds her that cancer isn’t the end of the road.

• As one woman to another

When asked what advice they’d give to other women, both Jill and Anne stressed the importance of doing breast self-exams to catch the cancer early.

“Early diagnosis is key,” said Jill. She noted that the lump she found herself in October of 2004 hadn’t shown up on a mammogram in January.

Anne, too, mentioned the fact that she’d found her own lump, and urged other women to “be aware of your body... Do self-exams and mammograms.”

The other point both Anne and Jill stressed was you can still get breast cancer even if you have no family history of the disease. Both of them were the first in their families to have breast cancer.

“It’s easy to live oblivious, thinking that you’re exempt, and nobody’s exempt,” said Jill.

Find help

Special Women Breast Cancer Support Group

When: 7-8:30 p.m. the first and third Thursdays of the month.

Where: Valley Medical Center’s Breast Center Conference Room, 400 S. 43rd St., Renton.

Info: 206-832-1297.

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