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'Bucket-list' goal for woman with months to live: To raise $25,000 to fight cancer

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Stephanie Girard might appear to live a charmed life. Tall, well-spoken, with athletic good looks, she has spent her career as an art director and set designer for the movie industry. She has a wide circle of family and friends, ...

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Stephanie Girard might appear to live a charmed life. Tall, well-spoken, with athletic good looks, she has spent her career as an art director and set designer for the movie industry. She has a wide circle of family and friends, a husband who adores her and a home in Celebration, one of the loveliest 'burbs in central Florida.

She is also dying.

In December, Girard's doctor gave the 49-year-old just months to live -- this, after a brutal five-year battle against colon cancer in which she has spent more time undergoing chemotherapy than not.

"Ever since I was little, she has always helped me see that ... life is for enjoying, not wallowing," says Stephanie's stepson, 25-year-old Scott Girard Jr., a lieutenant in the Florida National Guard now serving in Kuwait. Just days after Stephanie got the grim news, he had to ship out and is not scheduled to return for a year. "While most people in her shoes might wallow away in a depressed state, she has made the most of the time she has."

Given her prognosis, Girard chose to undergo still more treatment in hopes of postponing the inevitable. But there was another, more pivotal decision to make: What would she do with the precious time she had left?

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Selfless goal

Instead of pursuing exotic travel or luxury, Girard chose something that might save people she has never met from her same fate. Ultimately, her "bucket list" came to contain a single mandate:

Raise $25,000 for the American Cancer Society by May.

"Honest to goodness, I just pulled that number out of thin air," she says. "I thought it sounded so ridiculously big. And I thought, 'Man, if I get to $10,000, I'll be happy.'"

But the outpouring not only passed the 10-grand mark within the first month, largely from $50 and $100 donations; it also came in ways she didn't expect. The woman who never wanted to be in the spotlight started talking openly about her disease in a manner that captivated listeners. She gave a few speeches, clutching her notes to keep from panicking, set up a donation page on the Web and e-mailed dozens of friends and acquaintances, asking them to share her story with others.

To hundreds, maybe thousands, who heard of her, Girard has become a lesson -- not in how to die with grace but, rather, how to live.

"When I first heard her talk, I was blown away," says Dulcy Murchison, who has done the American Cancer Society's Relay for Life fundraiser in Celebration for the last two years. "She just exudes this openness and positive attitude so you don't feel sorry for her. You just think, 'What can I do to help?'"

At last year's Relay for Life -- the overnight event in which teams of volunteers take turns running and walking laps for pledge money to the cancer society -- Girard was Celebration's top fundraiser at $14,000. It was nearly 10 times what the biggest contributors usually bring in and nearly 100 times the more typical amount.

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To raise $25,000, says Rebekah Swyers, an ACS community representative, would be "very, very rare."

Girard's unlikely journey began five years ago this week, when she was 44. Then, as now, she appeared to be the picture of health.

Picture of health

She had never smoked or been overweight, she ate a healthy, vegetable-laden diet, and for at least three generations no one in her family had had cancer. She even had those immune-strengthening qualities mind-body experts emphasize: a positive outlook, a loving network of friends and family and a strong faith.

"In every other way," she says, "I was as healthy as a horse."

So at first she wrote off her intestinal upset and irregularity to the travel and odd hours she put in on the job, which sometimes took her out of town for months on end. But when she finally went to a doctor, he found a billiard-ball-size tumor in her colon. She was six years too young for the requisite colon-cancer screening doctors recommend for people 50 and older.

She underwent surgery and six months of chemotherapy, but before she'd even reached the one-year mark, the cancer had spread to her uterus and both ovaries. At that point, she had only a 5 percent chance of living the next few years.

Despite repeated rounds of different chemotherapies, radiation, surgery and a host of suggestions from well-intentioned friends, her cancer has never retreated. She has spent more than two-thirds of the past five years undergoing treatment and suffered every conceivable side effect -- from boils to skyrocketing blood pressure to nerve pain -- except for losing her hair.

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Yet early on, she figured out it was easier to share her experience than to try to hide it. Ultimately, she hoped, it might help someone else.

"The primary reason I'm standing before you today," she said at an American Cancer Society Relay for Life fundraiser last year, "is because of the many caregivers who have stepped into my life. There is my husband, Scott, who's been there to hold my hand on the good days and the bad; my parents, who I'm sure would kiss it all away if only they could; my sister who's always available when I need to vent; wonderful friends who often take care of my dog like he was their own; girlfriends who've insisted on taking me out for a good time and a glass of wine (or three); neighbors who've provided meals and run errands. ... I'm sometimes overwhelmed at the kindness I've been shown."

Even as she spoke, the cancer was invading more organs.

In December, three days before Christmas, an oncologist delivered the news bluntly: The disease was now in her lungs. If she did nothing, she would have three months to live, and after the first six weeks she would need hospice care.

"It kind of sucked the oxygen out of the room," her husband, Scott Sr., said.

Her only hope was one final chemo cocktail they had yet to try. It wouldn't cure her, the doctor warned, but it might give her more time.

At first, she and Scott, her husband of 16 years, held each other and cried. Then they told Scott Jr.

"I needed her to know that, whatever she decided, I was behind her 100 percent," her stepson says.

Ultimately, she decided six weeks simply wasn't enough time to do all that needed to be done, not the least of which was this outlandish $25,000 fundraising goal, due by Celebration's next Relay for Life, May 14 and 15.

As of two weeks ago, she'd raised $21,000, simply by e-mail, word of mouth and her Facebook page. As of March 15, she was at $22,400.

Good days, bad days

She still has more good days than bad, she still loves sharing a good bottle of red wine, still treasures every walk with her happy, goofy Labradoodle, Jack, still works here and there on small design projects for friends.

"We celebrate the good days and recognize the bad days for what they are," Scott Sr. says.

That, it seems, is the essence of her philosophy, one that many of us know but few manage to put into action. It is, her admirers say, what draws people to her.

"I am an absolute proponent of a positive attitude," she told a crowd of volunteers at a speech in January. "It may not cure cancer, but it sure makes it a whole lot easier to live with. Having said that, I also think it's ok to say, 'cancer sucks,' because it does. We have to be cheerleaders for survivors and tell people about triumphs and progress, but we shouldn't be shy about telling people the ugly truth about cancer as well. Otherwise, Relay for Life will become just another cause that, in this economy, a lot of people may feel they can't afford to support."

She paused and looked around the room.

"Of course, if I'm somehow still around to do this again next year," she added, "I suspect some folks are going to run the other way when they see me coming. But I guess that would be a nice problem to have."

Related Topics: HEALTH
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