My Sister and Best Friend: Donna and Gail

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My sister, Gail and I pretty much did everything together. We were sisters and best friends. Even though we were three years apart in age, when friends and family saw one of us they knew the other was not far behind.

Growing up in Massachusetts we shared a bedroom together. After college we moved to New York together and then to Los Angeles. We always joked about being the next Delaney sisters. I was divorced and neither of us had children. We figured we would grow old together. That all changed in October of 2001.

The year started with me taking Gail to the St. John’s Emergency Room in Santa Monica, New Year’s Day. She had eaten her favorite New Year’s good luck meal of black-eyed peas and rice, collard greens and chitlins...good Southern food. By that evening she was extremely ill. I remember her saying, “Well, this isn’t a good sign starting the year out sick in the hospital.” I told her, “Oh, stop that.” Little did we know how prophetic those words would be.

On September 11th this country experienced the worst terrorist attack in its history. We were still reeling from the attack when the following month we got the devastating news Gail had breast cancer. We had no family history of breast cancer. She had just had a mammogram in January, but in October she felt a lump. She went in for a mammogram and an ultrasound. Nothing showed on the mammogram, but the ultrasound showed the difference. The lump she felt was a cyst, but what was next to the cyst is what drew concern from the doctor. He did a needle biopsy, which revealed cancer. Luckily, Gail was freelancing in my office at the time and we were together when she got the news.

We battled her cancer, together. We would do anything for each other, truly, without hesitation. If I was sick she would take care of me and it was my turn to take care of her. She had a very aggressive cancer and we were together for every doctor’s appointment, every chemo session and even our evening walks she didn’t want to do sometimes. After her last radiation session we went shopping and to the Santa Monica Pier for lunch. It was a great day, but it was not to last.

In September 2002, Gail went for her 3-month check-up. Her side had been bothering her, but we didn’t think anything of it and even her oncologist thought it might just be gallstones. Unfortunately, a CAT-Scan revealed the cancer had metastasized to her liver. What made this even more devastating was that our father had died of liver cancer. Once again we battled together. I told her, “This is just another hurdle. It’s not one we were expecting, but we’ll get through it.” Gail was a fighter. We had our good days and our bad days, but we were grateful for each day.

Herceptin was the wonder drug we thought would work and it did for a while, but for Gail, as with other usually successful treatments, she was the exception to the rule. By February 2003 she had developed congestive heart failure as a side effect of the Herceptin. Luckily, by May 2003 her heart function was back to normal and we got the wonderful news from her cardiologist she would be able to do the Revlon Run/Walk in Los Angeles. We were both thrilled and she had renewed energy. That year I wrote on my sign, “I am walking for my sister and best friend, Gail, who is fighting a good fight.” No Herceptin, but her heart function was back and her tumor markers were okay. We were very happy.

However, by September 2003 things began to change and after she was in a car accident, but not seriously injured, it seemed to rock Gail to her core. It was just one more thing and it brought her to her breaking point. Her tumor markers began to sky rocket. November 2003 was the first time she had ever had to be hospitalized, but once again we were together. I slept at the hospital, bathed her and made sure she ate. She made it home for Thanksgiving, but on December 2nd we had to rush her to the hospital and on December 4, 2003, she passed away at St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica. She was only 46 years old.

As soon as I saw they were doing this study I knew I had to sign up. My sister and I did everything right and were faithful in going for our yearly mammograms. Unfortunately, breast cancer seems to be more aggressive in African-American women and we need to find out why. I thank God for blessing me to have Gail as my sister and best friend.

I still miss her everyday, but I know I have to continue to fight the battle and believe we can find ways to prevent breast cancer. I am doing this study in her honor. I know she is looking down on me smiling, and in spirit we are still together.