When Nancy Willey, of Becket, Mass., discovered a lump in her left breast in late 2007, she knew immediately what it was. After all, it wasn’t her first go-round with cancer: She’d had a lumpectomy four years before, when she was 47. “So when I discovered a lump again on the same side, I started what I called the ‘amazing race,'” says Nancy, now 54. “I knew there were so many things I had to do to prepare for the journey because this time, it meant a mastectomy.”
She didn’t know, though, that she would become the center of strength for two family members who would soon join her on that journey: her oldest daughter, Justine, then 32, who was diagnosed with a rare form of sarcoma a mere month later, and niece Jessica Ochs, who at age 27 was diagnosed with stage 4 ovarian cancer several months after that.
In preparation for surgery, chemo and the subsequent healing, Nancy transformed her dining room into a healing sanctuary. She got rid of the furniture and set up a serene, positive space where she could focus on the task at hand: recovery.
As she healed, Nancy continued practicing yoga, walking, gardening and kayaking. “I also prayed every day, and gave thanks for what we do have,” she says. Music helped her stay positive on difficult days; she even started guitar lessons post-surgery. “I’d listen to a lot of New Age music,” says Nancy, a social worker who assists disabled adults and children. “I knew I was getting better when I felt like hearing some good old rock and roll!”
The fourth of eight children, Nancy credits her mother, who had battled breast cancer twice, for teaching her resilience. “To see how she handled her own illnesses while doing all of the things a mother of eight has to do—I think I have that kind of spirit as well,” Nancy says. “I act, not react. I come alive.”
Nancy took the same pro-active attitude toward Justine’s and Jessica’s recoveries. “It was very difficult to not be able to be there for Justine,” who lives in New York City, Nancy says. “We talked on the phone, and my husband David and I would give her positive affirmations.”
“My mom has always been the one who’s positive and creative and has always found the fun in any situation,” says Justine, now 34. “Her approach and optimism really anchored me through the entire cancer journey.”
All three women are now cancer-free. According to Jessica, now 29, of Dalton, Mass., there’s no mystery as to why. “I believe Aunt Nancy beat the cancer through her sheer passion for life,” says Jessica, who nominated Nancy for the Spry Inspiration Awards. “She’s like my compass—she showed me the way through my sickness.”