'Keep making me laugh, so I don't cry.'

By Ellen McCarthy
Sunday, November 15, 2009; E10

Hope Galley and William Kurpiel weren't quite a couple in June 2006, when she developed leg pains in the middle of a 16-mile run.

Still, she called him in the days that followed, after doctors told her it was a blood clot, not a cramp.

Galley and Kurpiel had dated on and off for years. The two had first met in 1999 as colleagues at Cisco Systems, and two years into a teasing, sports-talking friendship, they began to date. Both were type-A sales executives and driven endurance athletes -- Galley, then 35, was training for her 12th marathon when the clot was found. They were devoted to the careers that drew them together, even as those jobs habitually pushed them apart. He joined an intense start-up company. She had to be overseas. One of them would call it off.

"We'd break up for two months at a time, then we'd get back together. Then we'd break up for two months," Galley says. "That was pretty much our cycle for five years."

Their relationship was at a high point in December 2005, when Kurpiel proposed in grand fashion at the Willard Hotel. But the engagement didn't stick -- "we just couldn't figure it out," she explains -- and a few months later the ring was returned.

As doctors investigated the source of the clot and treated an accompanying infection, the romance was rekindled. Both continued to work, Galley sometimes taking an intravenous pole with her to the office so she wouldn't have to miss meetings while taking her prescribed medications.

The root of the problem baffled Galley's doctors until late August 2006, when one of them called her at home, where she was spending the evening alone. "You have cancer," he told her. "Can you come in tomorrow?"

Doctors couldn't say why, but a skin cancer cell had grown into a 13-centimeter tumor that was wrapped around Galley's femoral vein at her pelvis. Immediately Galley, ebullient and headstrong, decided she'd take a Lance Armstrong path to recovery. "Oh, I'm going to get through this and I'll raise money and I'll be an advocate and maybe this is why this happened," she recalls thinking. "I immediately thought I was going to be one of those people who changed the world."

Then sitting across from a doctor with Kurpiel and her parents, Galley asked how far the cancer had advanced. "It's stage four," she was told. "And I remember thinking to myself, 'Well, thank God it's not stage five,' " she says. "But there is no stage five. That just tells you how naive I was about cancer. Stage five is like death."

Galley was told to get her affairs in order. The doctor turned to her parents and said, "We'll try to take as good care of her as we can for as long as we can."

Radiation was scheduled, but Galley stalked out of one hospital room after looking the doctor in the eye, concluding he didn't know what he was doing, and telling Kurpiel and her parents, "I'm not going to die here today."

She knew something had to be done, but after meeting with various specialists, refused to sign on to their treatment plans because, she says, "No one was telling me, 'You're going to live.' "

An intensive research effort led Galley to send her charts to a doctor at John Hopkins University she thought could help. Follow-up calls went unreturned after she was told the office was overbooked and couldn't squeeze her in. Galley was despondent by the time a Cisco executive e-mailed, asking if her prognosis was really as bad as the folks at the office were saying. Galley replied that it was, and maybe worse.

That afternoon Cisco's chief executive officer made some calls, Galley says, and by the end of day she was asked when she could come in.

"It becomes a matter of who knows who," Kurpiel says. "And fortunately for her, our company had enough connections to get her an appointment."

That week she met Robert Giuntoli, a gynecologic oncologist who walked into the room, hopped up on the exam table and told Galley he'd looked at her films and he could get the tumor. "He was so cocky and confident," she says, "I just knew he was too arrogant to let me die on the operating table."

The night before her surgery, though, Galley was overwhelmed with fear. Sitting at the bar of Old Ebbitt Grill, she asked Kurpiel, "How about if I die?"

Kurpiel, now 51, is a tall cowboy of a man who speaks very little, but tears up as Galley tells their story. "We're both softies," she says. "He's a quiet softy and I'm a loud softy."

Kurpiel responded that evening by pulling out the engagement ring he'd given Galley nine months before. "I know you'll do good for us," he told her. "I know you won't let us down."

"You never know how people are going to react in crisis," says Galley, 38. "But he turned out to be the man I'd always hoped he was."

Giuntoli and another surgeon, Ritu Salani, successfully removed the tumor. Damage to her sciatic nerve left Galley with no use of her left leg except the quad muscle, and they had to operate again the following spring when a cancer cell was found to have contaminated her scar.

But last November, with Kurpiel's strong encouragement, Galley did her "comeback tour," eventually completing the New York City Marathon with a handcycle. After she'd been cancer-free for two years -- and they'd been together steadily for three -- the couple planned a wedding.

On Nov. 7, they were married under a giant ash tree at Marriott Ranch in Hume, Va. "Keep making me laugh," he told her during the ceremony, "so I don't cry."

Kurpiel had written a speech, but was too emotional to give it. They both broke down once, though, at the sunset reception, when Galley took the microphone, thanked their 80 friends and family members for coming, and then addressed physicians Giuntoli and Salani.

"Thank you for helping us," she said.

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