Peggy Murphy, whose tireless fight against advanced breast cancer through traditional means and an experimental vaccine trial at Johns Hopkins was chronicled in a Baltimore Sun series last fall, died yesterday. She was 58.
Murphy never gave up hope that something would cure her, or at least slow down the cancer's march. Doctors over the past year told her the cancer had spread to her hip, to her spine, to her adrenal glands and, in January, to her lungs.
As the cancer failed to stand down, she feared that it would spread to her brain and cause her to forget the things that meant the most to her or leave her unable to communicate, or to her lungs, so scared was she that she wouldn't be able to breathe.
The oncologist who treated Murphy at St. Vincent Hospital in New York, where she died after nearly a month in intensive care, said "he never saw a patient who had as much courage and strength as she did to go on," said Alan Craig, Murphy's longtime companion. After reviewing Murphy's medical records, "he couldn't believe all the things she had gone through to fight this thing," Craig recalled.
Murphy spent many hours sharing tales of her life in and out of the hospital, and her five years with the disease, for a six-part series that ran in The Sun in October called "The Trial of Their Lives." The series chronicled the experiences and emotions of Murphy and three other women with advanced breast cancer who agreed to be part of a trial of an experimental breast cancer vaccine, as well as those of the doctor who developed it, Hopkins oncologist Dr. Leisha Emens.
"She contributed her time to therapies that are new and promising but by no means proven," Emens said yesterday. "That's what it's going to take to make progress in diseases that right now we can't cure.
"She truly was a pioneer. She's still with us all in spirit and we can all take that forward and draw strength from her strength."
Life wasn't always easy for Murphy even when she had her health. Born on Long Island, the middle of five children, she didn't finish college and never had much money as an adult. An early marriage ended in divorce, but left her with her two children, with whom she was very close. She worked a lot of waitressing jobs and only in recent years obtained health insurance, by landing a job as a postal clerk. She considered herself lucky that she had insurance when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in February 2004.
The vaccine didn't work for Murphy. She often wondered why.
At times, she understood that the sacrifices she was making - the endless rides back and forth to Hopkins from her home in Lancaster County, Pa., for vaccine, for blood draws, for infusions of chemotherapy - were in the name of furthering science. Maybe this will help our daughters, she would say.
At other times, she was frustrated. She wanted so much to live, to see her young grandchildren grow up, and the disease wouldn't get out of the way.
Last summer she was in a lot of pain, the kind that landed her in the emergency room more than once a week at its peak. In those moments, she sometimes questioned her overwhelming need to fight for her life.
"Sometimes I wonder, why am I staying alive? What's the big deal?" she said one afternoon in Baltimore after receiving radiation for her hip pain. "But I'm so ungrounded spiritually that I don't know where I'm going. ...
"Then all of a sudden, I'll go outside, I'll sit in the yard with my son's dog, watching him chase a butterfly and then I think, 'This is what it's all about.'"
After the Hopkins trial ended, Murphy sought out other treatments. She tried chemotherapy, one drug and then another. Last fall, she enrolled in a trial for a drug called Rexin-G. She had her last dose of that medication in the days before she was hospitalized for the last time. Recently, she was giving herself injections in her stomach to prevent blood clots after an embolism nearly killed her.
"When she set her mind to something, she did it," said Lona Murphy, Peggy Murphy's mother. "Her heart was in trying to try different treatments for cancer. Maybe this trial may or may not help me, [Peggy said], but maybe it will help someone else. At least I'll be doing something."
Last year, Murphy inspired Lillie Shockney, director of the Avon Foundation Breast Center at Johns Hopkins, to create a retreat for women with metastatic breast cancer. You have all these groups for breast cancer survivors to help them get on with their lives emotionally, Murphy said. What about women who aren't going to be cured, who need a way to bond and share and learn and support one another?
The first retreat last spring was a one-day event and Murphy attended. But the women wanted more. In June, there will be an overnight retreat and after that, one for women and their spouses.
"Peggy has left her mark in this world, a legacy she has inspired," Shockney said. "Most people go through life leaving no mark. Hers is here to stay."
Along with Craig and her mother, Murphy is survived by her father, Arthur Murphy, of New Hyde Park, N.Y.; a son, Daniel Ramirez, of Lancaster, Pa.; a daughter, Tracy Ramirez, of Millersville, Pa.; a sister, Kathleen Murphy, of Boca Raton, Fla.; three brothers, Arthur Murphy Jr., of Dallas, Brian Murphy of Merrick, N.Y., and Kevin Murphy of Gaithersburg; as well as her two grandchildren, Jonathan Lopez, 8, and Janaya Lopez, 7, who lived with Murphy in Millersville.
Funeral services have not been set but will take place on Long Island.
Her ashes will be scattered in the ocean.
Read "The Trial of Their Lives" series at baltimoresun.com/vaccine