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Oregon City cancer survivor hopes to help others

by: PHOTO COURTESY: DEB HART - Pine Hollow Retreat, a vacation home along the Pine Hollow Reservoir east of Mount Hood, offers monthly weekend stays through October where women can share their survival stories. Nothing is worse for a parent than to experience the death a child, but Deb Hart’s breast-cancer diagnosis compounded her grief about her lost son.

Oregon City’s Kasey D. Collins, Hart’s only son, had achieved his lifelong dream at age 22 by becoming America’s youngest licensed tugboat captain. On Aug. 2, 2006, near Anchorage, Alaska, co-workers found his body aboard his ship. After two autopsies, his death certificate came back reading “inconclusive” as to why his heart had stopped beating.

“Kasey was quite the outdoorsman, always hunting and fishing,” Hart said. “He taught me that life can be very short, so you should live every day as if it is your last.”

by: 2003 PHOTO COURTESY: DEB HART - Deb Hart's breast-cancer diagnosis compounded her grief over her lost son, Kasey D. Collins, who had achieved his lifelong dream at age 22 by becoming America's youngest licensed tugboat captain. Collins died on Aug. 2, 2006, near Anchorage, Alaska.Seven months after the unexplained tragedy, she received her cancer diagnosis, followed quickly by a double mastectomy and 26 rounds of chemotherapy. Through it all, doctors would tell her, “You’ve got to have hope, and you’ve got to fight.” But she remembers spending more than two years under her covers, more because of her shame and grief than because she was bedridden with pain and illness.

After discovering that many other women experience “double tragedies” associated with their breast-cancer diagnoses, Hart, now 58, decided to open up a vacation home along the Pine Hollow Reservoir east of Mount Hood for women to share their survival stories. Pine Hollow Retreat offers monthly weekend stays through October. Hart has applied for federal nonprofit status to help cover the $149 charge, with scholarships for low-income survivors. Three weeks ago, she hosted a crafting retreat called Moms Who Get It for eight women who had lost a child to share memories.

A Pink In the Gorge walk is set Oct. 13 and a Living in Up event on June 2 will fund scholarships. From July 12 through July 14, Hart is expecting her largest group at Pine Hollow with 15 women from the Portland Young Survivors group coordinated by Cary Goldburg .

“Breast cancer is very expensive, and people often lose their jobs and their husbands bolt, so they can’t afford to go away for the weekend,” Hart said.

Continued healing

Visitors to Pine Hollow Retreat range from those who “just” had a lumpectomy to cases viewed terminal by doctors. Before going to the retreat, Nadja McConville was worried that she would just see people crying the whole time, but it turned out to be fun and healing for her. So that everything in the house has a story, its five bedrooms and 2,800 square feet are decorated almost entirely from items bought from Goodwill.

“Within a short time, since it’s such an intimate setting, everyone was put at ease,” McConville said. “They were people you could talk to, but it wasn’t like a support group where everyone’s depressed.”

A resident of Portland, McConville, 47, works in Oregon City for the Oregon Department of Human Services as an administrator of Medicare benefits to seniors in Clackamas County. She was diagnosed with breast cancer at 45, the same age that her mother was when diagnosed. McConville was 21 years old when her mother died from the cancer.

Soon after her own diagnosis, McConville had to have her first surgery and begin eight months of chemotherapy. As a side effect of the chemo, she developed a bone necrosis that required shoulder surgery a few months ago.

“You have nurses to take care of you, but then all of a sudden there’s no one, and they tell you to go out and try to have a good life,” she said. “Going to Pine Hollow Retreat was great to get away from the family and clinic and to arrive at a place where you can relax and talk with people if you want to. You realize that there’s a whole lot to live for. Even when you finish treatment and were wondering how you’re going to move on.”

Choosing to go on

Hart also has ongoing struggles surviving breast cancer. After doctors had to replace a bad set of her prosthetic breast implants on Nov. 14, kidney failure required that she get four-hour dialysis treatments three times a week until February.

During dialysis, she was laid off from a contract position as a property manager for 22 apartments in downtown Portland, but she still volunteers for the Providence Willamette Falls Hospice. However, she considers herself lucky to have a supportive husband, Steve, who works for Patriot Fire Protection Inc. in Vancouver and gets to use Pine Hollow for hunting and fishing trips.

They renovated the house in 2011, had six retreats in ‘12 and plan to expand its use each year. Its location near the Columbia Gorge also allows them to easily visit their 31-year-old daughter Molly on the way.

“I took my sadness and my grief and turned it into a healing experience for other women,” she said. “They get into the house and shed a whole layer, and when they leave, they have their windows rolled down, and they’re asking when they can come back.”




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