Fran Tofflemire retired in 2008 and moved to Alaska.
Almost immediately, she started exploring the Last Frontier. She’s been halibut fishing out of Homer, on a sightseeing cruise out of Seward and flightseeing over Skilak Lake.
“I just wish I had moved to Alaska when I was young enough to enjoy all the wonderful things,” she said.
Fran, now 68, lived most of her life in Oregon. She spent her adult life, and much of her youth, in Salem. But her new home suits her well.
“It’s more peaceful, more beautiful, more God’s country,” Fran said.
Fran’s bedroom at her daughter’s Soldotna home offers glimpses of her Oregon life. Landscapes and flower paintings, done by her sister, decorate the walls. A shelf in her bedroom holds the trophies she won at Oregon pool tournaments. That’s one thing she misses, she said.
“I’m not winning anymore,” she said.
But she stays busy, largely with Hospice of the Central Peninsula and Kenai Bible Church.
“My last breaths (will) be on the go,” Fran said.
Her outings are bookended by trips to Anchorage, almost every week, to see an oncologist at Alaska Regional Hospital, where she’s receiving treatment for Stage 4 cancer. When she was first diagnosed in March 2008, doctors predicted that she would have one to three years to live.
“My time was up last March for the first one- to three-year part of it,” Fran said. “March will be four, so I’m still pushing.”
Fran’s survival isn’t unprecedented. She received a Stage 4 diagnosis once before.
“1996, I wasn’t feeling good and they finally discovered that I had cancer,” she said.
During that first diagnosis, Fran went through six months of chemotherapy, and was part of an experimental treatment at Oregon Health Sciences University in Portland, Ore.
“At that time, without the experimental treatment, I didn’t have long,” Fran said.
Her treatment included several rounds of chemotherapy, a bone marrow treatment, and an effort to give her blood cells intravenously.
Because of the treatment, her system couldn’t be compromised with any germs. When she was released, she had to sterilize everything, get new bedding and generally protect herself from all the world’s germs. Eventually, she beat the cancer, although the bone marrow transplant turned out to be unsuccessful.
This experience has been different, in part because her treatment plan was different: she hasn’t done a bone marrow transplant, and she’s been undergoing treatment regularly for several years now.
Her support system has also changed.
“This time, there is a big difference,” Fran said. “I have hospice help.”
Fran moved to Alaska at the urging of her daughter, Gail Balzer, who wanted to help take care of her. Fran found more than just a devoted daughter in Alaska. Her support system includes her family, her faith community and her friends at hospice.
Fran was hesitant to get involved with hospice. In Oregon, hospice is for people that are nearly dead, for their last six months, she said.
“I’m not ready to die,” Toffelmire said she thought when her daughter first talked to her about hospice. “When I’m ready to die, I’ll go visit them.”
Eventually her daughter convinced her to give the organization a chance. Fran was matched with Karen Berriochoa, a first-time volunteer for the local nonprofit organization.
“As much as I fought against hospice, it’s been a blessing,” she said.
Karen said that locally, hospice provides different services for every client, depending on their needs. There is a lending closet with medical equipment, a library of information, and opportunities for patient to get help and companionship as needed, and for families to receive support. Karen said she also helps with a teen support group, and the organization is involved in Camp Mend-A-Heart for children who have lost a loved one.
Karen and Fran first met at Fran’s home. Since then they’ve traipsed the Peninsula together.
“I love my volunteer,” Fran said.
They eat, drive, walk, talk — even get their nails done.
“I just enjoy Karen,” Fran said. “We can sit and just do nothing and it’s enjoyable.”
Like Fran, Karen is new to hospice.
“Yeah, we’re kind of teaching each other the ropes, aren’t we Fran?” she said last fall while they talked about their experiences so far.
Karen got involved with hospice after seeing how much a difference it made when her brother was diagnosed with Lou Gherig’s diease.
“I was just amazed,” she said.
He passed away two years ago, eight months after his diagnosis.
“It really touched me,” she said. “… I wanted to give back.”
Fran is the only hospice client Karen works with.
“She’s my friend,” Karen said. “She’s my partner. We really have a bond.”
Hospice is not the only thing that Fran says keeps her going.
“There’s a God there, and he keeps you going,” Fran said. “I really believe I look as healthy as I do because of him.”
She attends Kenai Bible Church with her daughter and granddaughter. She attends church regularly, and goes to dinner and theater performances with friends she met through Kenai Bible Church. Once a week, someone from the church comes over to spend the evening with her while her daughter goes to Bible study.
Cancer forced Fran into an early retirement. When she received her diagnosis, she was an accountant for the state of Oregon. That was March 2008. She quit her job six months later, and moved to the central Kenai Peninsula in October of that year.
She worked with funding for drug, alcohol and mental health services. Despite working in accounting, she also got to interact with the population that needed her services. While she doesn’t miss the day to day of working, Fran said she misses helping people through her work.
Fran’s treatment requires regular trips to Anchorage, and visits to Central Peninsula Hospital. She relies on her daughter and her church friends to drive her to Anchorage for every visit.
“It’d be wonderful if we had full cancer services (here),” Fran said. “… I figure that’ll probably happen when I don’t need it.”
When Fran goes to Anchorage for treatment, she tries to schedule her appointments so that it’s just a day trip. Sometimes an overnight stay is required, though, to fit everything in. And even a one-day trip is taxing.
“Some days after I come back from chemo it takes a day or two to recover,” she said.
Despite her frequent recovery days, Fran said she is getting her fill of Alaska.
Like many Alaskans, Fran identifies with the land.
“I’m an outdoorsy person,” she said, walking on a wooded trail in Homer last October. That afternoon she made it from the Islands and Oceans Visitors Center down to Bishops Beach for a glimpse of Kachemak Bay.
She used to go fishing and crabbing in Oregon, with her brothers. Now she’s been halibut fishing in Homer twice. She reeled in some fish, but said she wouldn’t have wanted to bring anything heavier in. Before she went, her doctor told her he was sure she’d be able to bring in whatever she caught.
“Not that he was saying I was stubborn, just a little hard headed,” she said. “I think that’s what keeps a person going.”
Her favorite things about her new home state, she said, are “the beauty and all the wonderful sports a person can do.”
Her wishes — trips gifted to her in part because of her cancer — have taken her to see as much of the state’s beauty as possible.
“I’ve been very blessed with my wishes,” Fran said.
Among those wishes was her flightseeing trip.
“I wanted to see Alaska from an airplane,” she said.
From the air, she saw seals, Skilak Lake, and even bears.
“It was very wonderful for that couple just to offer to take me,” she said.
Another wish took her on a boat out of Seward to see the glaciers.
“We just flipped around and saw the whales,” she said.
She has her limits, though. She doesn’t ride snowmachines. Her grandson is a “maniac” on those machines, she said. She hasn’t tried skiing, because it could be dangerous, too. And she treads carefully when it’s icy out.
Her outings with Karen aren’t always focused in Alaska’s beauty. They also do girly things, like shopping — she picked out a birthday gift for her male companion, Syd Fleishauer, on that trip to Homer — and going to the salon.
Fran started getting manicures after a secret sister at church gave her gift certificates for a variety of services at Taylor’d Image salon in Kenai.
“I’m always cooking up plans,” Fran said.
Sometimes, Karen plans their outings. In the fall, she said she wanted to record Fran’s life story, maybe make a memory book too.
“We’re actually going to record her voice telling her story,” Karen explained.
“I loaned her my recorder that I couldn’t get to work and she got it to work,” Fran said.
The two are full of plans for spring.
“I’m just the type that I’m going to keep going as long as I can,” Fran said.
As she nears four years, the cancer is spreading.
“I think all in all I’m doing pretty good,” she said last week. “They found something in my lungs and liver.”
Last Friday, she was waiting for more test results about exactly what that something is. In the meantime, she had a dinner date with friends from church.
There’s plenty left to do in Alaska, she said. Fran and Karen are planning a day trip to Seward. She’d also like to take the train to Denali, and catch another halibut.
“The wild lady’s coming,” she said.
Molly Dischner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.