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For Better Through Worse

Love is great medicine when you’re fighting for your life

Debbie Gurley and Mike ­Kinnahan’s love has only grown in the 16 years since she was diagnosed with Stage IV metastatic breast cancer.

“Love is about when things look like they cannot get any worse and you still manage,” says Debbie Gurley of Edgewater. For 17 years, Gurley and Mike Kinnahan have managed bad and worse with love leavened by hope and laughter.
    First relationships after divorce rarely work, they learned the night they met at a support group for the newly divorced. They defied those odds. Gurley and her daughter Elizabeth moved into Kinnahan’s house after a year of dating. The plan was to stay until she found a lot where Kinnahan, owner of Annapolis Builder, would build her home.
    Carrying out that plan took a leap of faith.
    For within months, a mammogram revealed massive tumors in Gurley’s breasts; she underwent a bilateral mastectomy in February.
    When she could finally take a bath after surgery, she and Kinnahan fashioned a necklace of ribbon to hold four drainage bags out of the water.
    “As I was sitting in the tub, Mike was washing my back.” Gurley recalls in a voice where Tennessee is still present. “No more breasts. My hair was awful. I’m sitting there with these bags thinking, this has to be true love because nobody else would do this.”
    Gurley offered Kinnahan a way out.
    Leaving “never would have occurred to me,” he says. “It would be dishonorable.”
    Bad grew worse as the couple learned the cancer had spread to Gurley’s bones. One physician predicted Gurley had 18 months to live. But another told her to consider clinical trials.
    Gurley researched trials at Johns Hopkins, Walter Reed Hospital, National Institutes of Health and Georgetown. She qualified for every one. But would she do it?
    “Don’t put yourself through this,” doctors at one hospital advised.
    “Having the diagnosis I did, Stage IV metastatic breast cancer, is liberating,” Gurley says. “It leaves you to make the choice easily.”
    “You struggled with the choice,” Kinnahan reminds her.
    “I had a soul searching for about 24 hours,” Gurley admits. “Then it became pretty clear. I had a 13-year-old. What was I going to do about that?”
    One trial involved experimentally high doses of chemotherapy, stem cell transplants and gene therapy.
    “So many papers, and the word death was on every one about five times. It was intimidating,” she recalls.
    After stem cells had been harvested from an artery, Gurley noticed a lump. It disappeared, but severe chest pains sent her to the emergency room. It took Kinnahan’s insistence to get action. Doctors discovered a huge embolism in her left lung.
    The trial continued after the clot was dissolved.
    When Gurley lost her hair, she did without wigs and scarves. “If I’m going through this, why would I make myself more uncomfortable?” she says of her decision. Her baldness made some people uncomfortable, but in others it roused a kinship. “A side benefit was I heard the most interesting stories from strangers,” she says.
    “She was a good looking bald woman,” Kinnahan adds.
    A teenager in the mix added perspective.
    Mother and daughter had already talked through the hard facts.
    “If the cancer’s in your bones, they can’t remove that,” Elizabeth said.
    “No, they can’t,” her mother acknowledged. “But we’re going to try something else. The doctors say I might die, but I don’t know what’s going to happen. I know what I’m going to try to do.”
    But there were more worries to work through.
    Coming upon Elizabeth in tears, Kinnahan called her mother to soothe her. “Everything will work out,” Gurley assured her daughter.
    “No, Mom, you don’t understand,” Elizabeth said. “Jimmy doesn’t like me.”
    “Elizabeth,” replied Gurley, “I’m so glad that I have you here to remind me that this is not all about me.”
    Over the hard years, Kinnahan added possibility to the mix.
    “I was ready to throw in the towel,” Gurley said, “but Mike was looking out for my best interest. What if they’re wrong and you survive? he asked.”
    Because of him, they built the Selby Bay home they now live in.
    They have packed a lot of living into their years. After one stretch of chemotherapy, they skied in Austria, with two research nurses tagging along. They have cruised and visited Elizabeth, now 29, in Oregon. They love Halloween and biking. He windsurfs; she is a paddle boarder. Next is a trip to ski in Breckenridge, Colorado.
    Gurley’s Valentine’s Day advice: “Don’t leave anything on the table. Make your plans.”

Learn more about metastatic breast cancer at www.metavivor.org.