In January, my daughter Claire and I spoke at Sowers Middle School for Author's Day. Before the first speech, a woman (whose 11-year-old daughter attends Sowers) approached me in the hall with a suggestion for this column: "Why don't you write about cancer?"
We chatted for a few minutes, and she told me that two years ago, she'd been diagnosed with breast cancer, that she read this column and thought I might like to tell her story. We talked a bit more and, in her eyes, I saw someone who truly wanted to share her experience. So here we are.
At a Starbucks near Magnolia Street and Adams Avenue, we met recently, and Machelle Murray recounted for me how, two years ago this St. Patrick's Day, while taking a shower, she noticed a bruise on her right breast. She also felt a hard lump beneath. Not thinking too much of it, thinking perhaps she had simply bumped into something, she let her doctor know what she discovered.
His concern surprised her, so she agreed to have it checked out. What surprised her more was the almost immediate concern she detected from the radiologist who took her X-ray. After a sickening whirlwind of ultrasounds and mammograms, she was given the dreaded diagnosis: cancer, and an aggressive one at that. Just days later, she was operated on, and then she endured many brutal rounds of chemotherapy and radiation.
Murray, who grew up in Huntington Beach and attended Eader Elementary and Edison High, spoke of her struggle matter-of-factly and with a certain toughness. But she is in pain and frustrated and could use a little advice.
See, through a series of unfortunate timings and decisions by her employers at the medical office she once ran, right now Murray has no health insurance, so she can't see her doctors as she needs to. She told me she can't get on permanent disability, her disability payments have run out, she can't get employment because she is disabled, and that currently, she has no clue what her options are.
She is feeling sick and has an itching sensation on her side that one doctor explained might be symptomatic of a recurrence of the cancer, which frustrates her even more.
Murray told me she knows there are other women out there with cancer who are going through similar hardship issues. She wanted to create some awareness in the event that any readers of this column might be able to provide some advice on how to tackle the system — or lack of system when one falls on hard times.
She is extremely thankful for the good work being done by Breast Cancer Angels, an organization that steps in to help women while they go through treatment. She received gas cards, money for food and other helpful aid from them, but since her treatment is officially done for the time being, she is no longer eligible for that assistance. But through the process, she has met other women who seem to be in need of advice too as they navigate through the maze of problems created by a bad diagnosis, a bad economy and other unexpected challenges.
On a side note, Murray told me how she and many neighbors are suspicious of what role the Ascon Landfill Site in the Huntington Beach neighborhood near Magnolia Street and Hamilton Avenue may have played in what they say is a high incidence of cancer in the area. As Independent columnists Vic Leipzig and Lou Murray wrote in 2004, "Something may be seriously amiss in southeast Huntington Beach…four children from that area died between February 2000 and June 2003 of a deadly brain cancer called brainstem glioma…an exceedingly rare cancer."
While work has been done in part to clean up the area, Machelle Murray feels it may all be a little too late and that the damage has been done. On this subject, I plan on preparing a separate column in the near future to look at the realities of just how such a toxic site might affect the health of locals — others have told me their concerns too about a place that, according to the California Environmental Protection Agency, "operated as a landfill from 1938 through 1984.
Much of the waste disposed at the site in its early years came from oil drilling operations, including waste drilling muds, waste water brines, and other drilling wastes." The site adds that "from 1957 to 1971, chromic acid, sulfuric acid, aluminum slag, fuel oils, styrene (a form of plastic), and other wastes were also disposed on the site. These liquid and semi-liquid wastes were deposited into open lagoons and pits."
But for now, I'd like to keep the focus on the plight of Machelle Murray. I'm expert in none of the areas she is talking about, but I'm guessing some of you might be.
She is living below the poverty level right now and is desperate for work and advice as it applies to obtaining health-care insurance after having been treated for breast cancer.
I do not know her well but, after a couple of hours over coffee, I will vouch for Machelle Murray. She is a bright, funny and determined woman who, as a single parent, is trying to do things right so that she can take care not just of her daughter, but herself. She is also very scared that right now, the world has few options for her. This is where communities can make a difference. If you think you might have advice to share, or anything else for that matter, please write me and I will put you in touch with her.
CHRIS EPTING is the author of 18 books, including the new "Hello, It's Me: Dispatches from a Pop Culture Junkie." You can write him at firstname.lastname@example.org.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun