Erin and Brian Murray’s current family photo is a scene right out of a Norman Rockwell painting: Happy family, happy life.
It is light years away from March 11, 2011 when life took a nightmarish turn: Erin, 29 and 6 months pregnant, was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer.
“I didn’t want to talk to anyone, or go to Gilda’s, or be in a support group, because no one understood ME. People at the cancer center were not my age. People stared at me when I was nine months pregnant and bald. I got questions about breastfeeding, and sleepless nights were from my nausea, not my infant.”
But then she connected with the Young Survivors of West Michigan — a group of young women with breast cancer who come together to encourage and support each other. The group formed in 2012 and has met at both Lacks Cancer Center and Gilda’s Club Grand Rapids.
“It changed my life,” Erin said.
While Erin and the other women were meeting at Gilda’s, Brian and the other spouses started going out for burgers and beers. The children went to Noogieland, the special kids’ place in the clubhouse.
Rough going for everyone.
Erin “endured a year of chemo, a double mastectomy, 33 radiation treatments and multiple reconstructive surgeries,” Brian told the 2017 crowd at Gilda’s Night of Gratitude.
“She even had to plan the birth of our son at a perfect interval between chemo treatments, so she had enough strength to make it through labor,” said Brian, now chairman of Gilda’s board.
“I, my friends, would put her up against the toughest of Marines any day.”
A burger, a beer and a bond
Being with others in the same sea, if not the same boat, was a huge help.
“For me, it was being in the fraternity nobody wants to be in,” Brian said.
“We were all trying to process what was happening. All of our stories were similar — all being young, having kids and dealing with it. When we would go through stuff, we would reach out to each other… you don’t want to burden your spouse.”
Sometimes the men didn’t even talk about the heavy stuff: It was enough to have someplace to go and hang out with others who really understood.
“It was life-changing to meet those guys,” Brian said. “Things could have gotten a lot darker a lot faster for me if I hadn’t.”
Paying it forward
Today, Erin is considered cured, and she and Brian feel the need to help those struggling now.
“One of the scariest parts was when we “graduated” from Young Survivors,” Brian recalled. “It was almost like jumping off a cliff.”
They knew they wanted to give back, so Brian joined the board of Gilda’s Club Grand Rapids.
Erin’s focus is on helping grieving children and teens heal.
“I know how easily we could have been on the other side,” Erin said. “Brian could have been the grieving spouse, but we did not end up there.”
What helped them that might help others?
“Seeing either a counselor or a therapist as a couple if very important. We learned a lot about how to be there for one another,” Erin said.
“Don’t be too stubborn, too proud or too embarrassed,” said Brian, who had always thought he could get through anything on his own.
“Just reach out.”
He is an unabashed Go-To-Guida’s guy:
“People think going to Gilda’s will be super-depressing — then you end up laughing and going out for a beer.
“I tell people, ‘Just go once. If you don’t like it, don’t go back’ — That doesn’t happen.”
“After you’ve done it, you’ll wonder why you waited.
Life through the prism of Cancer
Cancer “definitely puts things into perspective,” Brian said. “You have to remind yourself ‘why am I worrying about this (whatever)? Nobody has cancer.’ ”
Joy comes for Erin in “our family, planning Christmas, being able to celebrate small milestones and watching our sons play basketball, football, soccer and baseball and seeing them enjoy it.
“This guy brings me all the joy in the world,” Eric said, smiling at Brian.
For Brian, it’s time with Erin and his family, savoring a new bond with nature and simple pleasures.
Hope is an elusive butterfly he doesn’t pursue.
“I’m very careful. It’s almost as if I hope, I will set myself up.”
He focuses on life now.
“I don’t take much for granted.”
“You have to remind yourself, ‘Why am I worrying about this (whatever)? Nobody has cancer.’ ” — Brian Murray