Wednesday, September 3, 1997
Breast cancer makes trio 'sisters'

BY CLIFF RADEL
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Trio
From left, Melinda Gilbert, Nancye O'Neal and Cristy Murray.
(Gary Landers photo)
| ZOOM |
They've felt the bone-chilling cold that no fire can warm.

It comes from hearing the words:

You have breast cancer.

They've also felt the restorative warmth of love and the companionship of kindred spirits, survivors in a brutal battle.

Melinda Gilbert met Nancye O'Neal and Cristy Murray by chance at a breast cancer support group.

Through tears, they talked about their surgeries. They shared their fears and prayed for a future.

Fate brought them together. Hope got them talking. Now, for nearly two years, love and the will to live have taken them out to lunch every Thursday. We met at the Mariemont Inn as part of Lunch with Cliff. That's where the midday meal is my treat in exchange for hearing what's on people's minds.

"We've become sisters," Nancye says, reaching across the table and touching the hands of her lunch partners.

Melinda sees them as "the Three Musketeers. We're all for one and one for all."

Cristy stays silent. Then she softly says that she knows what they are. Looking from Melinda to Nancye, she utters one word:

"Survivors."

They want to be more. They're gathering stories for Hanging on to Letting Go, a book on women beating breast cancer. They want to assemble a quilt with panels illustrating their shared experience. "The quilt would be something to wrap yourself in after you go cold from hearing the news you have cancer," says Melinda.

"That news sends you to the couch. It bowls you over," Nancye adds. "You feel like you're never going to get up.

"We were on that couch together," Cristy says. "But I felt alone until I came to this lunch group. When you have cancer, you have it by yourself. You can't share it with your husband.

"This group," she says, "is the only place I felt acceptance." It's a group of friends with very different personalities. Nancye is tall, red-headed and irreverent. She's never lost her Harlan County, Ky., accent. When cancer ate up her savings, the former health-care consultant was forced to go on welfare. A 54-year-old divorced mother, she lives with her teen-age son in Sycamore Township. Nancye plays two roles in the lunch group. She's in charge of business matters and group hugs.

Melinda, a thin, reserved mother of three grown sons, is a retired Spanish teacher. Widowed, she lives alone in East Walnut Hills. By her quiet bearing more than her age - 58 - she is the group's voice of reason and mothering influence.

Cristy lives with her husband and young son in Roselawn. The petite, 42-year-old psychiatric nurse is the detail-oriented one in the group. She says she's not a hugger. But when Nancye wraps her arms around her, she hugs back.

Nancye, Melinda and Cristy could just meet for lunch and a quick hug. But these three women must do something more - write the book, make the quilt.

"It's part of our recovery," Nancye says. "It's part of our fight with cancer."

They refuse to give up the fight. And they can't go back.

"I've changed," says Melinda. "Things are not important to me. People are."

As Melinda speaks, Nancye takes off a beautiful gold ring. It's made from pieces of hard-luck jewelry, a ring that lost its setting, an earring that lost its twin.

"This ring has scars like me," Nancye says.

"I've changed. I've lost something, the belief that I was going to live forever, the belief that I could resolve everything in my life before I died."

The struggle and the friends she's met along the way have changed the way Nancye sees life.

"There's more beauty in the world, after cancer, than before."

Cliff Radel's column appears in The Enquirer Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Call 768-8379 or fax at 768-8340.

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