It was a moment Marylil Spady never forgot.
Then 57, Spady was at a crossroads. A few weeks earlier she was diagnosed with breast cancer and she felt she needed some sort of support, more than what she had known for so long.
It was July and she and her husband, Vince, were deep in the heart of the Bush working with Arctic Barnabas Ministries, a float plane-based support group dedicated to supporting other missionaries around the state.
“In that little church in Port Alsworth they all came around in support, they encircled me and prayed for me and I felt such support and encouragement,” said Spady, now a 62-year-old resident of the Longmere Lake area. “That was wonderful.”
The summer of 2006 proved to be a life-changing event for Spady as her diagnosis and subsequent double mastectomy not only changed her physically and mentally, it also refocused her life’s direction and brought her closer to her faith.
“Life has always been an adventure for me and this was an adventure that I never thought I would be going through,” said the Long Beach, Calif. native with a laugh.
But she knew the trial of cancer held purpose.
The result, she felt, was an obligation “encourage others, help strengthen them and to have genuine concern and care for women who are walking on this same journey as me.”
Diagnosis begins a journey
It started with a phone call.
Spady had not remembered to schedule her follow-up mammogram and her local doctor called in concern.
“I thought it was amazing that this very busy doctor called me and said, ‘Marylil, I see you have not gone in for your follow-up,’” she said.
The result was a needed biopsy, a trip to Anchorage and the words nobody wants to hear — breast cancer.
In the next few weeks, Spady had a lumpectomy but pathology revealed not all of the cancer was removed.
The next step would be a bilateral mastectomy. She sought three more doctors’ opinions on the matter.
“I learned very early on that it is important for you to be an advocate for your medical help,” Spady said.
The opinions were all the same.
“This seemed the course that I needed to take,” she said.
She had two months to prepare. It wasn’t an easy decision by any means, she recalled.
“I cried a lot,” she said with a laugh.
But the options were few.
“(It was) life, or get rid of your breasts,” she said. “Putting the full realization to having the double mastectomy, versus dying from it eventually … it was very hard and sad at first, but after that I just pushed forward.”
She had friends who chose a different path, or were in the middle of treatment when they died.
“I was really taken by surprise that I was the first one in my family to ever have cancer,” she said. “My family heredity is heart disease and diabetes.”
Spady made another decision she is thankful she did. Reconstruction isn’t an option that a lot of women are made aware of, she contends.
“Even at my age, I am glad I did,” she said. “All of my doctors confirmed and encouraged me to do this. They said that many women … several years down the line had kind of wished they had done it and it is easier to do it right at the time of your mastectomy.
“It just makes you feel more feminine when you are going through so many discouragements.”
Spady said she wasn’t scared going into the procedure.
“I was very much aware of the reality that I could die from cancer, she said. “I have found that I don’t put my trust in human medical odds.”
She said it is easy for one to feel overwhelmed by all of modern medicine’s statistics about being cancer free and beating the odds.
“My trust is in that I know 100 percent that God is with me through all of my trials,” she said.
A new direction
In all, 12 of Spady’s good friends have been diagnosed with all different forms of cancer. Four passed away and one is currently fighting in the Lower 48, she said.
“We don’t know and we don’t understand why,” she said.
Rather than close the book on her experience and put it all behind her, Spady felt compelled to reach out to others that had gone through a similar experience or are currently fighting.
“Already being involved with Arctic Barnabas for the last nine years, I am an encourager and that’s what I do and that’s what I think is one of my gifts — to encourage and to show mercy,” she said. “I don’t want to say it just came naturally but, it is something that is important to me and then it was refocused to those women with cancer.”
The former school teacher also found a way to mix her encouraging ways with Arctic Barnabas. Those women living in the Bush with cancer are now part of her focus, too.
The pain of cancer is amplified by the financial shock of having to fly to Anchorage or other locations for rural villagers needing long term care.
“Some of them have even had to relocate to Anchorage,” Spady said. “But at least I have been thankful to be out there when they were going through the beginning stages and making decisions.”
Mainly she wants to let them know that “even though they are isolated, they are not isolated from our love and care.”
When asked if her faith was ever tested or strained during the last five years, Spady had a quick answer.
“For me, honestly, no,” she said. “I know and I respect those whose faith is really put to the test. But, I guess my faith is what gave me the strength to keep going and so I don’t see a time where I had a, well, lapse or a doubting. I never doubted that God was carrying me through this.”
Spady was also part of the group that helped set up a cancer support group that continues to meet monthly at the Soldotna Bible Chapel.
“We have just found that it is really important in healing for women who get this news that they have cancer to not stay to themselves but to move out and form relationships,” she said. “When they are hurting and when they are weak it’s important for us to build friendships and to not isolate ourselves.
“It strengthens all of us.”