After years of failed fertility treatments, Joanie Warner and Bob Mahler felt a great exhilaration in finally declaring, enough. “We are done! We are totally done! When we look back on it, Bob and I say, that was all just a way of stalling, all just a way of making it so we could get Abby. I’ll never forget the picture of this little tiny baby who was ours over there in Korea. It was just meant to be.”
Abby has been a wonderful presence in Joanie’s life for the past 17 years.
Another presence entered Joanie’s life just two years after getting Abby, in the form of a lump in her breast. The cancer it represented has been a part of her ever since that discovery. After years of chemotherapy, periods of remission and the anxiety of re-appearances, Joanie would love to declare “we are done!” once again. But while she’s made choices about how she deals with the cancer, she doesn’t have the choice to leave it behind.
Though she has no memory of when her mother discovered the lump, Abby also has no memory of a time when her mother was cancer free. The disease has shaped the relationship between these two women who talk with me openly about its impact, Joanie in her introspective yet straightforward way and Abby in the way of a high school senior heading out on a life path to help change the world.
“I found the lump myself. I was 38 and had gone for a mammogram because I had a cyst the year before. I remember the nurse saying, ‘you were just here last year, are you sure you want to see the self exam video?’ And a little voice inside me said, ‘you need to watch this and you need to pay attention.’ This time, unlike the last, I paid attention, and two weeks later I found a lump. I had a mastectomy and they put in one of those implanted ports and I went on a heavy dose of chemotherapy for about eight months.
“Abby was amazing. I would have the needle put in on Monday morning and they would send me home with this little attached bottle which would push the chemo in over 24 hours. With Bob, Abby would be wild and crazy running around the park, and with me she would just get quiet and cuddle as if she intuitively knew that mommy really didn’t have a lot of energy and just wanted to throw up.
“She was with me the day that my hair fell out. I went into the bathroom and shut the door and I was crying and Abby toddled up and opened up the door and came in, and she ran her hand through my hair and it came out by handfuls. I called a friend who cut my hair really, really short. Abby would rub her hand on my head. Then Bob shaved his head and she would rub both of ours.”
Abby’s first realization about the seriousness of her mom’s disease came later. “When I was 11 it had come back and it was pretty bad this time. I remember I was sitting right here at the dining room table and my dad was gone. My mom came downstairs and she was crying and I didn’t understand why. She hugged me and told me that maybe things might not be ok this time. I think that was the first time I realized the kind of disease it was and that it really could take your life. Growing up it was something I was around so much it wasn’t out of the ordinary. Thursday night was chemo night when we would all go to the chemo center and eat Thai food and watch movies and hang out together. I wouldn’t really think about my mom getting drugs, it was just family time.”
When Abby was in 8th grade, she discovered the exciting alternative music scene in Seattle. Going to clubs, checking out new bands, forging friendships with like-minded peers grew beyond a teenage fad to become a clear career path she hopes to explore in college. So when she got to high school and learned about the requirement of a Senior Project, she locked in on an idea that would combine two pillars in her life: a desire to book and promote music and a passion to help eradicate breast cancer. She started planning her senior project when she was just a sophomore.
This Thursday, February 25, her years of planning and past few months of work -- “it was just like, completely grueling” -- will culminate in a benefit concert for The Keep A Breast Foundation. Check out their website at http://www.keep-a-breast.org/ where they tout, “Through cutting edge art events and awareness programs Keep A Breast has evolved into the leading youth focused global breast cancer organization.” We’re talking Susan G. Komen for the under-25 crowd, accompanied by electric guitar and a touch of body piercing.
poster for Abby’s benefit concert
Abby could have taken the path many other seniors choose – Senior Project Lite – something that didn’t require much time or effort (like learning to salsa dance, or practicing henna tattoos). But the seriousness of breast cancer, not just in her life but in the lives of many of her friends and their families, spurred her to do more. So during lunch time and after school, she activated the email, MySpace and Facebook networks to secure a venue and line up five separate acts.
“I finally got it all figured out just two weeks ago. Now it’s just promotion and getting the word out about the show. Donating to KAB could be such a positive thing and make such a difference. If I get $2500 it would be solid – the money will go straight to the organization.
“I want to work in the music industry doing promotion and booking. And I just want to prove to myself that I can do this, that all the hard work is going to pay off. This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done and the fact that it’s actually happening is just the most amazing thing ever.”
You can help Abby reach her goals, to pack the house and raise the dough, by attending the benefit or, if you worry that your ear plug supply is low, making an on-line contribution at the website she set up: www.firstgiving.com/abbymahler
Joanie has nothing but admiration for Abby’s perseverance, though her idea of a musical celebration takes a much different path. Joanie grew up in the small town of Ashville, North Carolina, and she has brought the tradition of Hoe-Down with her to Seattle.
“My mother was the kind of effervescent, out there person -- everyone was her friend. I can’t tell you the number of times we would go to Denny’s and before you knew it the people in the booth next to ours were coming to Thanksgiving dinner. So I grew up with a great sense of community. We had some friends who lived way up in the hills who would have a square dance two or three times a year, always with the fiddles and the guy who played the saw – really old fashioned, old timey stuff. I spent a lot of my childhood hanging out with people who played music on the front porch, who didn’t have any teeth and made moonshine in their back still. Some of my favorite times were way up in the hills listening to music.”
Whatever your taste in music, you can offer your support to Abby and Joanie and help say, “We are done! We are totally done!” to breast cancer in our lifetimes. www.firstgiving.com/abbymahler
Joanie and Abby’s (not so) secrets for how they do it:
- For Abby it comes down to family support. “We rely so much on each other for love, positive energy and advice. Both of my parents are there ready to listen and to help.”
- Doing her Project, Abby has been driven by the sense of accomplishment and pride she anticipates feeling this Saturday. “Being able to do something I love – it’s so satisfying to know I’m capable of doing it.”
- Joanie’s survival has been similarly anchored in family. “Having family members who intuitively know how to step in and help. Bob has been amazing. When I’ve been sick, he’s done everything.”
- Joanie is grateful for her job at Seattle Children’s Hospital where she works as a Nurse Practitioner. “It helps to have a routine, to have a reason to get up and out of bed even when you feel lousy.”
- Her medical training has given her the faith to “attack this as heavily as possible from the physical side” while at the same time working on the spiritual side. An acupuncturist cured a searing pain; she’s done lots of meditation, guided imagery and spiritual retreats. “Part of my growth was to learn to forgive myself for getting this. I felt very guilty as if I let my body down.”
- And together, Joanie’s disease has meant that she and Abby have learned how to talk to each other. “I’ve been blessed by having a daughter who is wise beyond her years. I think that Abby is a very open and honest person and she has given me the gift of being able to talk about uncomfortable things. I wouldn’t describe this as a fairy tale – there are always struggles – but we always talk about it. We trust each other.”
What books have Abby and Joanie read recently?
- Joanie’s reading The Glass Room by Simon Mawer. Amazon review: “It moves through six decades of European history, much of it unspeakably tragic, using the glass house as a window on the hopes and fears of its various inhabitants and the conflicts that rip Europe apart.” (see link to Amazon on this page)
- Abby just re-read the Twilight series and is starting an Agatha Christie novel for school.
Whom do they want me to interview next?
- Jennifer Argraves lived across the street from Joanie and Abby before moving to eastern Washington with her family to develop a sustainable farm, the Crown “S” Ranch, where they use no hormones, steroids, pesticides, genetically-modified feeds, or unhealthy grains.
By Janet Pelz