'Hurt Make You Better'

By Mike Wise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 6, 2009

When the chemotherapy treatments began last summer, and her coffee-brown locks began to bunch around the shower drain, Nancy Cooley drove to her eldest son's home and walked downstairs to the utility room. Chris already had a stool, newspaper on the floor and an electric razor waiting.

"I knew she was worried sick, so I tried to make it as humorous as possible," said Chris, the Pro Bowl tight end of the Washington Redskins. "I tried to goof around a lot. To be honest, a little comedy was the only way I could handle something that stressful."

A week before Chris's wedding in May 2008, Nancy Cooley was told she had a three-inch, aggressive tumor inside her right breast, medically known as an invasive ductile carcinoma. Stage 3 breast cancer.

She was no longer just the independent woman who raised her two sons alone in Logan, Utah, so she could finish college and earn her master's degree in business education. Or merely the mother of a famous NFL player. Nancy was also among those who have breast cancer, thousands of whom will likely take part in the Susan G. Komen Foundation Global Race for the Cure this morning on the Mall, the 5-kilometer event that drew more than 45,000 participants a year ago and raised $4.9 million toward breast-cancer research and awareness.

"When you hear, the first thought is everybody's first thought, 'I've got cancer, am I going to die?' " said Nancy, who turned 50 this year. "And then you go through the treatments and surgeries and appointments. And you start to come out on the other side and realize: 'What if I didn't have insurance? What if my son hadn't called the Redskins' team doctor to get the quickest appointment with the best doctor?' That's where I am now."

Over the past 11 months, Nancy confided about her fight against the disease in a series of conversations and e-mails. Her only request was that a story not be published until she had breast reconstruction surgery, which she successfully underwent April 17.

In that time, a woman who had trouble asking others for help began to rely on a support network that reached far beyond her sons, Chris and his younger brother Tanner, to people Nancy had never met before walking into their medical offices.

Stephanie Akbari, the surgeon who performed Nancy's bilateral mastectomy on Oct. 7, first met Nancy in May 2008 at the Virginia Hospital Center in Arlington, where Akbari is the director of the hospital's Center for Breast Health.

"She was scared, like everybody else," Akbari said. "Here she is, her son's getting married in four or five days, she's got breast cancer and she had just had to be feeling, 'Wait, things aren't supposed to happen this way.' "

Looking back, Nancy's meeting with Akbari just three days after the cancer was initially diagnosed had set her on perhaps the fastest possible track toward being cancer-free. It also made her an aberration in a world where being seen by the most prominent medical specialists can often take weeks and sometimes months.

Nancy never liked being introduced as "Chris Cooley's mother," feeling the label took away some of her own identity. But, for once, she embraced her son's celebrity.

The first phone call Chris, 26, made after his mother told him the news was to Redskins team physician Anthony Casolaro, the vice president of medical staff at Virginia Hospital Center. Casolaro immediately lined up an appointment with Akbari, formerly the chief resident at Harvard Medical School's Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, who had also treated Tanya Snyder, the wife of Redskins owner Daniel M. Snyder.

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company